Here I am, talking about food again. I’ve talked before about how we learn to make whatever it is we eat.
In this piece, I’d like to talk about what we choose to eat, which especially interesting at Thanksgiving.
Have you ever had a discussion with a group of people about what foods were most common in their growing-up life? It’s a pretty interesting topic. Family menus tend to be reflective of personal taste and family tradition, to be sure, but cultural and geographic influence shares this space also. As in Southern fried chicken, New England clam chowder, San Francisco sourdough bread, beignets in New Orleans or sopapillas in New Mexico.
Then there’s the grits vs. fried potatoes discussion, and the same with the subject of whether to make iced tea with or without sugar. But with that in mind, you realize that if some folks’ family menus seem pretty strange to you, then have to also realize the converse is, of course, true.
And no time is more about families’ food preferences than Thanksgiving.
And when you trot out remembrances of those family favorites, do others outside your family express surprise, dismay, or even roll their eyes, or look at you like you were crazy? Yep, me too!
I mean, doesn’t everyone put bacon cream gravy on their sauerkraut or tuna cream gravy on their waffles? Don’t you have “wiped-up” cheese sandwiches for lunch, or maybe corn-meal mush with Kayro syrup and milk for dinner? Or how doesn’t everyone put butter and brown sugar on their rice or tapioca?
No? These all made common appearances on my childhood menu, and I would be happy to partake of any one of them as an adult. But with a little perspective, courtesy of a long adulthood, I realize that these items are not common to anyone else’s menu that I’ve ever found.
To be sure, looking back I can ascertain that wartime rationing probably influenced some of those menu choices, such as tuna gravy on waffles or corn meal mush. But some of these choices were simply the result of custom or accident.
You may be wondering about a couple of things in that food list, like what I, as a child, dubbed a “wiped-up-cheese sandwich.” Let me explain.
One day, when I was about 2nd grade, my mother discovered she had run out of bread, and she only had the heel left. She proceeded to make an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. All was well and good until she started to pick up the sandwich out of the pan with a spatula. It left the implement and landed face down on the hot pan. I don’t know what piece of genius induced her to leave it in the pan until a nice crunchy crust formed on the cheese, but that’s what she did. She proceeded to scrape it up with the spatula and flip it cheese-side- up on my plate. I declared that the “wiped up” cheese sandwich was the best ever, and it then and there took its rightful place as my favorite lunch treat.
All I can say is that my mother must have been a brave experimenter. I can remember as a child of 4 or 5 having artichokes. Who in the heck would know about artichokes outside the Salinas Valley in 1940? The same thing goes for avocados. While not a frequent visitor to our table, avocados did show up from time to time.
And as a child, being a product of a homesteading family in the Cherokee Strip, my mother treasured dandelion greens. She said that was the first green thing they got to eat in the spring. As a result, she liked to add them to our salads. It’s considered pretty common now, but in 1940 my dad would say he didn’t need weeds in his salad.
The next time you’re out with a group of friends, ask them what some of their customary family foods were as they were growing up, way back before we became the carry-out nation. And specifically, ask about holiday meals.
Then that brings us to holiday food customs. In my family, for example, no Thanksgiving would be complete without creamed peas and new potatoes. That is about my favorite part of the holiday table to this day.
Right after WWII, when marshmallows became available again, my mother decided to go with the latest recipe for sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows. I hated that. Give me the plain old sweet potato, please. Even now I sometimes have a microwaved sweet potato (with just a ‘teensy’ bit of butter in it), for my dinner.
Then there were all those marvelous Jello salad recipes. You know, the orange Jello with grated carrots and pineapple in it and a dollop of mayo on top. YUCK! Jello was meant to be a sweet dessert, NOT a salad, for goodness sake.
And the dressing? Had to have pecans in it and tons of sage. Other than that, our holiday table was pretty traditional.
Oh, lest I forget the most important of traditions. At the end of the meal, much to my mother’s dismay, my dad and brothers would play the water goblets. You know, run your fingers around the rim until they ’sing.’ This was a cause for much consternation on my mother’s part, especially if we had guests . . . and we almost always had guests.
I’ll bet your family has some – uh – “unique” Thanksgiving traditions, some that might make the rest of us roll our eyes – or we may even want to try it.
Come on, let’s hear them.
This Encore article was originally published November 25, 2015.