Five childhood food memories, or the good, the bad, and the ugly
1. Bologna Roll-Ups
My mother was staunchly anti-“junk food”: no Cheetos, which she distainfully dubbed “Styrofoam peanuts”; no Hostess Twinkies, except for the occasional pack smuggled in by a kindly babysitter; and no sugared cereals, save for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch I’d filch from my best friend Jennifer’s pantry. Somehow, however, certain anomalous items escaped my mother’s sanctions, most notably Oscar Meyer beef bologna. In fact, I’m quite nearly made of the stuff: in the first several years of my life, I ate enough flabby, pale pink, processed lunch meat to probably permanently alter my cellular makeup. But I’m not talking bologna sandwiches. Most of the time, I asked instead for what my mother called the “bologna roll-up,” a slippery creation she’d herself invented. It consisted of a slab of bologna smeared with Hellman’s mayonnaise, rolled into a thin cigar shape, and eaten out of hand. Though perhaps best described as an experience rather than an edible item, at the time I loved it—fatty, smooth, saltylicious. Really, sometimes mother does know best.
2. My raspberries-and-cream-cheese birthday cake
In 1984, the Oklahoma City Junior League published a cookbook optimistically titled Superlatives. My mother, ever wise, bought a first-edition copy, and sometime thereafter I began celebrating my birthdays with its raspberries-and-cream-cheese layer cake. Among other things, the recipe calls for a box of white cake mix and half a box of raspberry Jello (still in powder form). The cake layers, tall and rosy, were cloaked in a cream cheese frosting dyed carnation pink with the other half of the raspberry Jello powder. Lest you have doubts, let me assure you that it was delicious: sweet, moist, and tangy with berries—or facsimiles thereof. In fact, the recipe was so well-loved—even by our (now dearly departed) dog Sasha, who once ate a still-warm cake layer right off the kitchen counter—that the page is covered with day-glo splatters of dried frosting. Actually, writing this gives me an oddly powerful urge to crack the spine of Superlatives and resurrect the cake in all its pink glory for my birthday next month. Mea culpa.
3. “Breakfast for dinner”
Sometime during her aerobics phase, my mother did a stint on Weight Watchers. Though its meal suggestions were not exactly the stuff of dreams, we stumbled upon one that would stay on our kitchen table long after the diet had gone: steamed spinach topped with an over-easy egg and shredded sharp cheddar cheese. We called it “breakfast for dinner,” and for many years, it was a weekly regular on the household menu. Though today I’d generally opt for sautéed spinach, a poached egg, and a finer cheddar than the orange block we used to buy, when I want an easy dinner, something comforting yet clean, I still make “breakfast.”
4. Beluga caviar in the bathroom
Despite my early love for bologna and items flavored with raspberry Jello powder, I knew a good thing when I ate it. To a large degree, I owe that to my father, who proudly introduced me to beluga caviar well before I even owned a training bra. He’d have it shipped in on special occasions from faraway places, and we’d scoop up the tiny, grey-black eggs with delicate mother-of-pearl spoons. For my parents’ anniversary, there was almost always caviar, and for my mother’s 40th birthday, my father delivered a tin of beluga and a bottle of champagne, both on ice, to their bathroom, where she was dressing to go out for dinner. And I remember several caviar-filled New Year’s Eves spent down the street at the home of family friends the Fretwells, where we’d crowd around the coffee table in the living room to eat caviar with homemade toast points, sieved egg, sour cream, and diced red onions. And then, the deathly expensive fish eggs devoured, their daughter Leslie and I would revert to normal activities, such as hiding in the closet, prank-calling, and pretending to be Harriet the Spy. Needless to say, my New Year’s Eves as an adult haven’t yet been able to measure up.
5. My father’s Saturday lunch
Now, item #5 isn’t something I used to consume myself, but rather a memory of a ritual that took place in our kitchen nearly every Saturday morning: my father’s post-garage-sale lunch. Without fail, it featured two ingredients: eggs and beer. Often it was an omelet, made in a heavy pan with a blue rubber handle and filled with (too much) sharp cheddar cheese, feta, or sautéed mushrooms. If it wasn’t an omelet, it was egg salad, a chunky improvised mixture of hard-boiled eggs, (too much) mayonnaise, diced celery, curry powder, salt, and pepper, mashed together in a red-and-white enamel bowl. On the side, he’d toast an English muffin or a slice of whatever bread happened to lurk by the toaster, and he’d wash it all down with a foamy ale, sipped from a thick stem glass with grapes and grapevines in relief around its sides. I can still picture him sitting there at the table, reading The Daily Oklahoman or a copy of The New Yorker, his beer glass ringing against the marble-topped table each time he set it down. I’m not sure why I haven’t tried to recreate the scene myself, here at my steel-topped table in Seattle, but something tells me it’s only a matter of time.
*Thanks, Kate, for offering the incentive to take this proverbial trip down memory lane.