Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Food Crimes

His name was Kimmy. He was my co-conspirator and partner in crime. We operated seamlessly and soundlessly. For a very small, four year old girl and a glossy black haired cocker spaniel, we had a good thing going. Every evening during dinner, Kimmy would lie on the floor in the living room in a spot that was open to the kitchen, remaining in clear view of the kitchen table. He would pretend that he was sleeping and I would pretend that I was eating my dinner by pushing food around on the plate with my fork. Everyone in my family would finish before me, excuse themselves and head to the den at the end of the hall, where “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “World of Disney” was beckoning from the television. Every night I received the same instructions; to finish my dinner before I could leave the table. As soon as the last family member was completely out of sight, Kimmy would quietly get up and come over to me. He would sit at my feet and place his head in my lap, his big brown eyes looking up at mine. I would quietly take the food left on my plate and piece by piece, feed it to the patiently waiting dog. We would finish our task within minutes and I would then bound down the hallway, exclaiming happily that I had finished. They must have thought that I couldn’t wait any longer to watch TV and finished eating in record time. The truth was that on all those nights that food I didn’t like showed up on my plate, if it wasn’t for Kimmy, I would have remained at the kitchen table for a long, long time.

It’s not that I was a “picky” eater. But there were certain foods that I did not like and that I still do not like. I realized much later that there were perfectly valid reasons why I didn’t like them. Take for example, canned peas. I have never liked canned peas and I never will. Canned peas are preserved in water and acquire a mushy texture, lose much of their original colour and the skins come loose. Yuck. I do, however, enjoy fresh peas, ever so lightly steamed to keep their lovely, bright green colour and retaining that delicate “bite”.

Let’s see, what other foods didn’t I like as a kid? That’s easy. Lima beans; pale coloured little pockets filled with a dry powdery substance inside. Blocks of frozen cod, cooked in a frying pan and covered with canned tomatoes. Liver, cooked until death do us part and smothered with sliced onions. That always brings to mind an image of chewing shoe leather. Powdered milk. No further explanation required on THAT one. And, oh, yes, let’s not forget the breakfast cereal called, “Puffa Puffa Rice”. Gigantic bags and BAGS of the stuff, bags so large that they were difficult to fit into the cupboard. During the early ’60’s, this puffed rice cereal was purchased by my parents for its economical value and eaten by my two brothers and I, regretfully, with just enough powdered milk to wet it down a little. “Spam”, that economical canned “mystery meat” that would become the source of so many comic sketches. And while we’re on the topic of canned meat, I wasn’t too crazy about canned whole chicken and canned ham, which was preserved in triangular shaped cans that had a little key attached to each can. The key had to be twisted around the top to release the lid, revealing the contents inside. My grandmother served canned ham for every Christmas dinner, alongside buns and “marshmallow salad”.

As the years went on, I could add other items to that list, like the results that came from “Hamburger Helper” and “Shake ’n Bake.” My mother has since expressed surprise that some of these items ended up on my food “dislike” list. “But, you ATE them.”, she has said, seemingly genuinely taken aback. Of course I ate them. I was hungry. And with the exception of the help that Kimmy happily provided during his years on this earth, I was always made to “clean up my plate”, regardless of whether or not I liked what was on it. I was sometimes reminded of the “starving children in Africa” who would be happy to eat what I was supposed to be eating. I felt bad about those kids, but it never made the canned peas taste any better or make them any easier to eat. I remember swearing that if I ever had kids, they would never be subjected to any of the items on the “dreaded foods” list. I did have kids, three of them, and I always stuck to the promise I had made many years earlier.

While growing up, the meals at our house were typical for the times. They included things like spaghetti with sautéed hamburger added to plain tomato sauce, hamburgers and hotdogs, casseroles, and every Sunday, well done roast beef, served with mashed potatoes and gravy. During summer vacations we would occasionally have hamburgers, fries and shakes while on the road, but aside from that, we never had take out food of any kind. In our house, it was unheard of. I never had pizza until the summer that I was 12. I had been allowed to stay for several days at my grandmother’s cottage, in the care of my great-aunt and her family. One day my great aunt announced that we would be having pizza for dinner. I knew what pizza was but had no idea what it would actually taste like.

Great-Aunt May and I made the short trip into town and I was taken into an Italian restaurant. Long strings of beads hung across the opening that led into the darkened dining room, which was lit only by the soft light of flickering candles inside glass containers on the middle of each table. Long white table cloths hung over the sides of the tables and all of the chairs were empty, ready for the first diners of the evening. I had never seen a place like this before and I was immediately captivated by the exotic mystery and romance of it all. At the back of the restaurant, we picked up our pizza which was concealed in a large white box. We then rushed back to the cottage to reveal the contents. The slices, fresh and still hot, were served up to the four or so people waiting in anticipation. I picked up my slice and took my first bite. Nothing I had ever eaten before had prepared me for the taste of that pizza. The crunchy crust, flavourful tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese topping, tasted like heaven. Who knew that food could be like this? The texture, the aroma, the flavours; it was pure magic and a revelation to me of what food could be. This was the beginning of my life long love affair with great food.

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