Most men lead lives of quiet desperation
and go to the grave with the song still in them
–Henry David Thoreau
A few days ago, as hunger pangs set in, I realized it was noon and I hadn’t eaten since the evening before. I have been fighting a bug, so had been too tired to go to the market and there wasn’t a lot of “fresh” in the house. I am also really minding my pennies right now, so have been avoiding a grocery run. I cobbled together a simple meal from the few ingredients I had on hand: whole wheat pasta, ½ of the last brown onion, some leftover tomato sauce, six frozen shrimp, frozen peas, the last tablespoon of olive oil, the last pat of butter, two cloves of garlic, balsamic vinegar, a brick of unopened cream cheese that has been in the refrigerator for God-only-knows how long (I only used a sliver), some parmesan and kalamata olives. Of course, spices and freshly torn basil. It was a sumptuous repast. Spicy and satisfying. As I savored each bite, it occurred to me how seldom I eat this way anymore. Nothing I ate was truly “processed,” yet on a typical day, I would consider this meal an extravaganza of the “wrong” foods (pasta, cream cheese, butter, parmesan). Although this is not a food blog, this was really good, so thought I’d share it: Throw It in the Pan Pasta.
I started my first diet when I was 14. The Stillman diet was all lean protein all of the time. No fruit. No vegetables. No grains. The ultimate low-carb diet. I wasn’t much of a meat eater, so this was a hard diet for me, albeit effective. I could only get cottage cheese down if it was covered in pineapple or peaches—and neither was permitted on the Stillman diet, so I learned to eat it heavily seasoned. To this day, I will not eat cottage cheese—fruit covered or not. I loved shrimp cocktail and ate one for so many successive days that I broke out in hives. This was my diet of choice for many years (and clearly a testament to self-flagellation).
Since then, I have tried myriad diets and had some success on most. The Exchange Diet, Atkins, South Beach, the cabbage-soup diet, Fast Metabolism Diet (FMD). I have adopted new ways of eating: vegan, vegetarian, Paleo. Yet, I haven’t been thin in nearly four decades. I’ve abandoned diets and just eaten, but always with a dash of good Catholic guilt. I would overspend on the “right” foods and when I would change culinary practices, often gave away hundreds of dollars worth of food so I could make “better” choices. My kitchen bookshelf is lined with all these vagaries in my culinary adventures.
Although that lovely bowl of pasta was cooked from a meager, yet flavorful larder, I realized it was eaten without remorse. It cost me nothing—no special ingredients that necessitated stretching my limited grocery budget. A guilt-free meal replete with carbs and cheese—simply because it was available and I could afford it—was liberating. This sent me into a spiral of food memories from childhood and some of the amazing meals served at the family table.
In 1960s Los Angeles, Adohr Dairy trucks delivered little metal crates of fresh milk, cream, eggs and butter to your door. My mom would buy soft golden egg bread, rolls and donuts from the resplendent drawers of the Helms truck. We would hear the melodic jingle of the Good Humor truck and beg for change as we raced to the corner to buy Drumsticks, ice cream cups with little wooden spoons, cinnamon popsicles, Big Sticks, or my favorite— Dreamsicles (aka 50/50 bars).
Mom was a great cook. She made the best meatloaf (her secret ingredients were loosely crushed saltines and tomato juice which kept it moist and not too dense). As good as it was, I loved it even more the next day turned into a sandwich on egg bread, slathered with mayonnaise and ketchup. Every Halloween Mom made a big pot of chili and homemade corn bread, and popcorn balls. She gave out full-sized candy bars. Her stew consisted of browned stew meat which was then covered with layers of vegetables—first sliced onions, then whole carrots, sliced celery, fresh whole green beans, a can of whole tomatoes, crushed as you added them to the pot, and finally, small White Rose potatoes, left whole and placed on top. Each layer received a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper, was covered, and then simmered until the potatoes on top were cooked to perfection (usually a couple of hours). Everything cooks down and creates it’s own tasty juices and it is still one of my favorite cold weather meals. A slice of crusty bread efficiently sops up the juices at the bottom of the bowl. Mom cooked tough brisket into a melt-in-your-mouth marvel by covering the meat with Lipton’s onion soup mix, wrapping it in foil, and slow roasting it until the flavors transformed it into something sublime. It was served on thick slices of sourdough that went soggy from the flavorful juices, and topped with diced Ortega chilies. She always served her fabulous three-bean salad with the brisket, robust and tangy with mayo, pickles, onions and hard-boiled eggs.
My Italian-American stepdad was also a fabulous cook. I would sit with him on the patio as he hammered flank steak into paper-thin sheets to make bracioline. He would dip the thin strips into an egg wash, sprinkle them with a parmesan, romano, breadcrumb and parsley mixture and roll them into thin little cigars of meat. About six were gently coaxed onto a skewer and then sautéed in olive oil in one of the cast iron pans that now reside in my cupboard. All the recipes I’ve found online for bracioline (or braciole) are cooked in tomato sauce, but my stepdad didn’t serve these little masterpieces with anything but the perfectly sautéed mushrooms that he cooked in butter, olive oil and Vermouth. I have tried to replicate his mushrooms, but to no avail. Oh my God, my mouth is watering as I write.
Nanny, my Italian step-grandmother, also taught my mom to cook spaghetti sauce with pork shoulder and lasagne laden with rich ricotta, romano and mozzarella and a spicy sauce made with Italian sausage. I preferred the sausage in this sauce, so my spaghetti sauce is a hybrid of the two. Nanny also took Bridgford dough and formed it into little balls and fried them in a pan of oil until they puffed up. She then rolled them in cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. And she always made a pot of pasta fagioli when I stayed for the weekend because she knew it was my favorite. At Christmas, her house would be covered in trays of homemade pasta and “lover’s knots.” Food has the ability to transport us. It creates memories redolent of garlic and onions and cookies baking and cinnamon popsicles staining our tongues bright red and dripping down chins on a hot summer’s day. It conjures people and places that are long gone. With all this goodness, why do we (some of us, anyway) have such twisted relationships with food?
As previously mentioned, when my mom and stepdad’s marriage started to unravel, my weight became an issue. Mom went back to work and Swanson started catering meals for me and the babysitter. We would watch the Million Dollar Movie on channel 9, or the Shirley Temple Film Festival and eat our foiled dinners at the mosaic-tiled coffee table in our den. It is certainly not as convenient as one of those dinners to blame everything on processed foods, but the shift from home-cooked family dinners to lonely tin-foiled packets likely contributed to my troubled relationship with food and many other complexities that have plagued me throughout this wild ride.
Over the past few days, as I’ve continued to cook with what is in my kitchen and eaten without guilt, I realized I have been living a life of quiet deprivation for a long time. In the past three days I have lost three pounds. Sigh.
Alas, food is not the only thing I’ve eschewed in the past few decades, but that is an even more convoluted saga and a tale for another day. So, with a nod to Thoreau, I do not plan to go to my grave with my song still in me. I am tired of depriving myself of sensory pleasure and delight. For the next two weeks, I am trying a grand experiment: I am going to eat with childish delight and create a few more food memories along the way. I am going to act as if I never got screwed up with food and see what happens. Perhaps it will encourage me to satiate a few other hungers.