Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Life in Review - Ten Family Food Memories

I've been thinking all week about doing one of those year in review posts that are so popular, but whether it's a sign of age or just plain boredom, I couldn't recall anything about my life this past year worth reviewing. I mean, sure stuff happened, but none of it was noteworthy.

 During a year bookended by stretches of unemployment, I can sum up the highlights in a single sentence: I quietly published two books (quietly because no one really noticed), finished a single semester of college in my aborted attempt to return to a scholastic life, completed a few web design jobs, redesigned my own websites, sold my beloved bucket list M3, started another new blog and business ( NidoBeato Creations ), and struggled through my first full year without both of my parents. I guess you could say I'm slowing down because I can't remember anything exciting and I don't miss it.

Maybe it's what's sitting on the horizon that has me so pensive. See, this is now a 4 year, which for me is a 0 year, meaning decades. I enter winter this year - 60 - and while at times I've struggled with the reality that the face in the mirror is no longer young, I think I've finally come to terms with the winter stage of life. In fact, I'd say I'm ready to embrace it. The truth is, youth exhausts me now. I no longer identify with it, and having moved past it, see it for the learning experience that it is. Would I go back if given the chance?  Hell no.

But I digress. I was sitting here yesterday, projects lined up on my work table but not really in the mood to tackle them, and instead started couch surfing and ended up on the Cooking Channel watching a marathon of My Grandmother's Ravioli, and it reminded me that some of my best memories revolve around food and family. Our family was small (just myself, my parents, my brother, and my grandmother who lived with us part time), but we were extremely close. Maybe it was all those years in the military, moving from place to place with no one but ourselves to depend on, and maybe it was that Old World, Depression-era mentality of my parents who believed in family above all else, but my youth was a happy, innocent time that revolved around family and friends.

Family dinners
Like scent, food triggers memories. Sunday mornings meant my dad's pancakes, Thanksgiving and Christmas meant waking up to the smell of roasting turkey, Christmas meant my dad would make all those traditional Italian pastries like cannoli and struffoli. Wednesday was spaghetti night, New Year's Day meant S.O.S. for brunch. July 4th meant a picnic with cold homemade fried chicken and deviled eggs. The first cold snap brought on my mother's homemade vegetable soup. And always there was a pot of navy beans or greens simmering on the stove. The mixture of Italian and Old South in my heritage made for an interesting dichotomy of flavors.

We didn't have much money. We weren't poor, but we weren't living it up either. We were just your average family--at least, so we thought. And the foods that were common and special were a whole lot different than they are now.

And so I present my list of Ten Family Food Memories.

1. Soda of any kind was a rarity. As a kid, we lived on Kool-aid, milk, and water. Orange juice (from concentrate) was a weekend breakfast treat. When we were sick, my mom would give us 7-Up with ice that she wrapped in a towel and crushed with a hammer.

2. Going out to eat was also a rarity, even for fast food. There were no MacDonald's when I was a little kid, and later, when there were, getting a restaurant-bought hamburger and fries happened only a few times a year.

3. Miracle Whip. It landed on every bologna or tuna fish sandwich. No mayo in my mom's house.

4. Speaking of tuna fish (a can of tuna--in oil, which for me is still the best way to buy it, two hardboiled eggs, Miracle Whip, and a chopped pickle) on toast was a welcome lunchtime break from bologna or PB&J sandwiches.

5. American Cheese. We didn't have the money for fancy special cheeses. My parents would buy those huge blocks of American cheese at the base commissary, which would then find itself in cheese and crackers (saltines, or if we were really getting fancy, Ritz), cheese eggs, the best grilled cheese sandwiches anywhere, and the ultimate comfort food, my mom's homemade macaroni and cheese.

6. Black Olives. I don't know what it is about black olives, but they carry a special meaning to me. My dad would buy those small jars of green olives to have with his lunchtime sandwich on the weekends, but black olives were only brought out for holidays, special occasions, and parties, which means that, for me, they're still something a little special.

7. Biscuits. The first thing I (or any other self-respecting Southerner) ever learned to cook. Every Saturday morning when my grandmother lived with us, I would drag my stool over to the counter and help her make biscuits. She always gave me the last bit of dough too small for a whole biscuit and I would ball it up and set it on my biscuit like a snowman. Throw some sausage gravy on there and you have a meal. Or, just drizzle them in syrup or honey.

8. S.O.S. Love it or hate it, it was a throwback to the Wars (WWI and WWII) when chow hall cooks had to feed armies with short supplies. The Army used dehydrated chipped beef in theirs, which gave it its name (Shit On a Shingle), but my dad made it with hamburger. It's still the quickest, stick-to-your-ribs meal I know how to make, which meant my kids also grew up with it and still love it as much as I do. Recipe: brown a pound of hamburger (the fattier, the better) in a heavy skillet, toss in a tablespoon or two of flour and mix to make a roux, add a mixture of milk and water, salt and pepper to make a smooth gravy, and serve on toast. Ten minutes tops. Great for New Year's Eve brunch.

9. Honky Soup. I laugh whenever Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory asks for it. Little hot dogs cut up in spaghetti. Like greens, biscuits, and mac 'n cheese, it's a Southern tradition, and another really quick meal for busy moms. Just cook up some elbow macaroni, open a can of tomato sauce, cut up a package of hot dogs (the cheaper, the better), toss it all in a pot and simmer for ten minutes. Trust me, kids love it. We sure did.

10. Toast in the broiler. Yep, just plain old white bread buttered on one side and browned in the broiler. Sounds simple, but in those days of hard stick butter and margarine that never melted on your bread, having the butter melted into your bread was heaven.

There are dozens of others, but these stand out. I'm sure your family had your own food traditions as well. I'd love to hear about them.