Which is more important, food or sex? One sustains life, the other perpetuates it. I guess that’s the reason one or the other subject is usually lurking in the recesses of the mind as we go through the day, and perhaps the night as well.
Though, come to think about it, I think I dream of sex more often than food.
Nevertheless, my whole life has been informed or enriched by new food experiences. Perhaps food events punctuate life.
As a child I focused on desserts and foods I hated. Turnips were my main food aversion, and to this day I have a deep suspicion of turnip like vegetables – parsnips, kohlrabi and the like. These days, what with health and weight worries, desserts are for special occasions, but in the old days everyone had dessert every day.
My mother made things like Floating Island and Rice Pudding. Bread pudding and Apple Brown Betty were other favorites of hers.
In Andover, where I spent much of my childhood in the household of my aunt Clare and my uncle Bart, Mary Stanton, the cook, ruled the kitchen. She often made junket, and I had a book which my uncle read to me before bed called “Junket is Nice”. Many years later my uncle told me that the name of the book had to be changed because it infringed on the trademark, Junket, so now it is called “Pudding is Nice.” Somehow that doesn’t have the same ring.
Mary Stanton had a specialty which I have never found out how to make. I’ll describe it. It had sweet coffee jelly on the bottom, and a sort light colored, frothy layer of coffee, perhaps mixed with beaten egg white or cream, which seemed to have risen to the top as it jelled. For a long time it was my favorite dessert. I wish I could find a recipe for it.
Mary Stanton often made cookies. If she was in a bad mood, which she frequently was, she would shoo me out of the ball-room sized kitchen, with its shiny linoleum floor and big black cast iron coal stove. But sometimes she wanted company and she would let me sample a cookie, and tell me stories about life in Ireland before she came to Massachusetts.
Since dinner in those days was not until 7:30 or 8:00, Mary often had a quiet break at around 4 in the afternoon. Mike, the Irish gardener, would come into the kitchen for tea. He was always welcome, and they would talk about Ireland. Mike was a big, handsome fellow, but a confirmed bachelor. We thought that Mary was in love with him, but she herself was plain, heavy set, with a black shingled bob, pale skin and thin lips. She didn’t have a chance with Mike.
Because pigs were raised every year there was always a side of bacon hung in one of the pantries. There never was better bacon. But the best New England breakfast was on Sunday morning. We would have baked beans, often home made, Boston Brown Bread (a sweet moist bread from a can – Cross and Blackwell) and deep-fried codfish cakes. Yum.
I loved to climb the apple trees in the small orchard down the hill from the house. I was warned not to eat the apples because they were sprayed with an arsenic solution for worms. They had white water marks all over them, which I suppose was the spray, but I used to eat them anyhow, and I wonder to this day how much arsenic I ingested. I had no ill effects as far as I can tell.
The War came, and we had rationing – meat, sugar, shoes. When I was put on the train in Boston to go to Washington to visit my mother or my father I had to carry my ration books with me. Was coffee rationed? I was not old enough to care about that. We had margarine instead of butter. It came in a tough plastic bag, all white, with a little packet of orange color which you pressed to burst and then kneaded the bag to mix in the color so as to make it look like butter. But it tasted bad. I enjoyed mixing in the color, though.
We saved grease in cans for the war effort. (To make explosives?) We squashed cans and saved other scrap metal. Of course we had a victory garden, or it got called that in the war. We always had a garden. When the corn was ripe someone would go to the garden to pick it and run to the kitchen to cook it. Then it tasted sweet. These days the corn is genetically altered so that the sugar is not converted to starch nearly so fast. You don’t have to run. Peas were a staple, and shelling them was often my job.
At some point during that time Mary Stanton left us, and so did Mike. Freddy, the other gardener, stayed on, and since my aunt, Clare, had begun having babies there was a parade of nannies. Aunt Clare did most of the cooking, often aided or supervised by my grandmother when she was with us. My grandmother and my aunt were interested in food and cooking, and there were lots of consultations about both lunch and dinner.
Thick steak cooked over the open fire was a wonderful treat. There was a fireplace in almost every room, but the biggest one was in the den, where there was a rough stone fireplace jutting out into the room, set high, so that there was stone seating around it with asbestos cushions for comfort. Bart cooked the steaks over the hot coals of the fire. The steaks were clamped between metal racks with a handle, and he held this over the fire. They got charred on the outside and were red and juicy on the inside. There were often guests for these feasts.
I think the day I made the transition from being a little kid to being a big kid was the day I learned to love raw oysters on the half shell. I was about 12, and there was a big party for some reason I don’t remember. But my uncle Bart’s younger brother, Guy, was there. He had just finished medical school, he was very good looking and he was nice to me. I had a really big crush on him.
There were several bushel baskets of oysters in the kitchen which Guy was opening and serving on a platter of ice to the guests. I watched him opening them and then followed him around as he offered them to the martini drinking guests. After a while I sat down on the bottom step of the big winding stair leading up 2 flights from the front hall. Guy urged me to eat an oyster. I refused, thinking they were disgusting.
“Go on,” he said, “Just try one.”
I was brave about trying new food (with limits), I was curious, and think who was offering it. So I took one. It was cold, slightly salty, and smooth, with a fresh taste of ancient oceans. What a revelation. I must have eaten at least 20.