I was always an adventurous eater. I ate olives as a toddler. By the time I was 6 or 7 my Dad was giving me $1 for each jalapeno pepper I ate. I’m confident about the age of my jalapeno fixation because of where we lived at the time. We moved when I was 7.
Hold the Mayo
For practical purposes, in my childhood there was no food I wouldn’t eat. Except mayonnaise–not sure how that aversion developed. But the fact is I’ve never liked mayonnaise. My parents taught me to eat whatever food was served to me, especially when I visited friends. The only time I refused was when I was served a sandwich with mayo. I was around 8-years-old at the time, I had a playdate with a friend, Tina Randolph. Tina’s mother served us sandwiches that she’d already made. She’d slathered mayo on the sandwich. I played around with mine, ate the bits that didn’t touch the mayo. That’s all. I tried. I didn’t refuse. But I couldn’t finish the sandwich.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents who rarely ate junk food or fast food. My brother and I weren’t allowed to buy chips, candy or colas when we stopped for gas or when we were in the grocery-store checkout line. That doesn’t mean we never ate chips or candy–just that we weren’t allowed to have them as random snacks at any time we wanted.
Likewise, I don’t recall eating many meals from fast food restaurants before I was a teen. I don’t recall eating any fast food meals in my early childhood years. Once little bro started playing Little League baseball I remember having the occasional Hardee’s burger. My brother jokes that he became a cookie fiend as an adult because he didn’t get to eat junk food as a child. We both love chocolate chip cookies–but I’ve been making chocolate chip cookies since I was old enough to cook and I only eat the homemade kind. Everyone in my family says I make the best chocolate chip cookies ever.
But it’s not as though we were totally “deprived,” if you want to call it that. (In retrospect, the “deprivation” of junk food during my formative years has been a blessing). One of my most vivid memories as a 4-5 year old is a day I spent with my grandfather hanging out at Gene Myrick’s store. The grandpas and farmers “chewed the fat” and probably tried to outdo each other with tall tales. I drank five bottled Cokes. The 10 oz. bottles. They cost 10 cents each. Paps died when I was 5-1/2 years old, so I know the special Coke day happened well before my 6th birthday. I loved my Paps and I remember that day in great detail.
The Coke day aside, junk food opportunities were rare before I was a teen. We did not have bags of potato chips or Doritos in our house for snacking. My mom didn’t buy twinkies or snack cakes in those days. One year (or two) when my brother went through a phase of taking his lunch to school, Mom bought those little oatmeal cream pies to include in his lunch. He was a growing boy, after all. But I never liked those oatmeal cream pies, so I didn’t eat them. We didn’t have them in our house for long. Not sure if Chip stopped eating them or my mom just stopped buying.
My family ate at restaurants pretty regularly in the 1970s, although nothing like the families of today. My parents’ favorites were Bill’s Seafood in Muscle Shoals/Sheffield and, later, Fisherman’s Resort, near Lexington. I learned to eat raw oysters when I was really young, maybe five or six. My Dad loved them and Bill’s Seafood was the place to go for raw oysters. He taught me to put the oyster on a saltine cracker, add a bit of ketchup-and-horseradish sauce, and swallow. I can taste it now. Of course, raw seafood was much safer in those days. I never got sick from raw oysters. My aunt and uncle purchased Fisherman’s Resort in the early 70s. Fisherman’s Resort had an extensive seafood buffet on Friday nights and we ate there often.
For several years my family also liked to dine at El Toro, one of the first Mexican restaurants in the Shoals area. My favorite meal at El Toro was the Mata Moros platter (enchilada, taco, tamale, beans and rice).
We rarely ate at steakhouses during those years–my parents preferred fish and seafood or Mexican.
We also ate barbecue, but I don’t remember frequently eating at BBQ joints per se. My grandmother occasionally took me to a diner called The Blue Goose. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, way out in the country, around the Franklin/Lawrence County line. I think they offered barbecue, but I don’t remember for sure. And there was Bunyan’s, a landmark barbecue house, in Florence. And Singleton’s in Muscle Shoals. A local grocer sold Thompson’s Barbecue and I remember Mom stopping by that store now and then, specifically to pick up a quart or so of Thompson’s barbecue. We never ate at these restaurants often, only enough that I remember them.
Fast food was by far the exception, rather than the rule. It was never a choice for meals. When we traveled, we took a cooler and sandwich makings and picnicked en route. Come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing my father eat a fast-food burger at any time in my life. Even through the present.
By the time I was a teen, I was eating my share of burgers and fries, but these were on teen outings, not family meals. And much less frequently than is common today. I drank unsweetened tea–it was the “cool” diet beverage of my high school years when the only other choices were Tab or Fresca. I don’t think I’ve ever had more than one sip of Tab or Fresca. One sip was enough for me.
Most Sunday afternoons in the 1960s and 70s were spent at the home of one of my grandmothers. Both cooked a full Sunday lunch meal (Sunday “dinner”) and anyone who showed up was welcome. My maternal grandmother had five children (and nine grandchildren) so we could have quite crowd at her house if everyone showed up on a given Sunday. The meals were typical Southern fare: Roast beef, ham, chicken or pork chops (usually fried), a variety of fried and stewed vegetables, cornbread, rolls.
The bulk of my family’s food came from the garden. My parents always had a garden, as did both sets of grandparents. My grandfathers died young (in their 40s, in the late 1960s), but my grandmothers continued to garden and relied on gardens to provide much of their food. My grandmothers canned tomatoes, green beans, pickles and pepper vinegar (which we still call “hot sauce”), jellies and preserves. My mom canned, as well. My maternal grandmother (and my family) both had deep freezers so home-grown frozen squash, corn and peas were always available, even when not in season. They also liked to freeze strawberries, peaches and wild blackberries for making cobblers and pies “out of season.”
My Mom says she learned to cook mainly from her aunt, Sue. My parents married as teens and both of them worked briefly for my great-aunt Sue and great-uncle Chess who (for some number of years) owned a meat processing facility–in those days known as a “packing house.” Pressure cookers are great for cooking dried beans on a tight-schedule.
As far back as I can remember in my childhood my mother prepared my family’s meals–from scratch. Mom still makes biscuits the old-fashioned way. Buttermilk, flour and just a very small bit of shortening. They are the lightest, fluffiest biscuits you can find. And so low-fat you’ll never see a greasy spot on your napkin.
Neither of my parents were big meat eaters. We always had beef in the freezer, those. In the early and mid 70s, they would buy a steer once a year or so and have it slaughtered and processed, but we only had beef at meals maybe twice a week. By the late 70s, it became more difficult to buy a steer and have it processed locally (thanks to federal and state regulations) so they shifted to grocery-store beef. We rarely had pork or chicken at home, although both were regularly on my grandmother’s respective dinner tables. Fish and seafood were my family’s go-to source for protein.
When I was in the 5th grade, I read a book called My Side of the Mountain. To say that book influenced my life would be an understatement. I’ll save the details for another post. Suffice it to say, My Side of the Mountain led me to Thoreau and the Firefox books and a book titled Camping and Woodcraft, which I kept checked out from the library for my entire 6th grade year. And, ultimately, to yogurt and whole grains. I’m not sure when I first ate yogurt but it was sometime in the mid-70s. And I got on a “buckwheat pancakes” fixation that we had to satisfy. (I’m pretty sure what we had was not real buckwheat, back in those days, but probably just whole wheat).
I Learn to Cook
Around 1976, my parents opened a lawn-and-garden shop they called The Green Thumb. During the two years or so they owned this business, my main “chore” was preparing the family dinner. For the most part, I made the same dishes my mother made because that’s what my parents’ liked to eat. And my brother and I ate what was served (which we liked, as well, because that’s they way meals worked in my family in those days). You ate what was served or you didn’t eat. Not that we minded.
I liked to cook, so sometimes I experimented with “international” dinners. When I was in the 9th grade, I bought a cookbook called “Foods from Foreign Nations” through the FHA club sale. I frequently tried out new recipes from that cookbook. My Grandma Martin once let me host an “international dinner” for a number of relatives and friends who lived nearby. I’m not sure what the folks in Frog Pond, Alabama really thought about my concoctions but the food was mostly consumed and everyone was complimentary.
We experimented, we traveled, we ate. My family loves food and food is a big part of the focus of our gatherings, then and today. But, for the most part, when I was a child we ate food that was grown in a garden and not food that was created by a corporation. Even today, most of my parents’ food is homegrown or minimally-processed.
I attribute my dietary habits today to the fundamentals I learned in my family environment. Veggies are the mainstay. Fish and seafood are good. Don’t go overboard on colas. Fast food is the exception. Restaurant meals are special occasions, not the main source for food.
More of “My Food History” to come. When I have time to remember and write about it. I expect it will be soon.