It's My Party, and I'll Eat What I Want To

Editor’s Note by Elizabeth Langosy

My Long Journey from Subsistence to Celebration

 


I arrived at college with a severe food impairment. I'd never heard of bagels or lox. Pizza? Um....a tilting tower in Italy? Chinese food? Canned chow mein!

Eat These Every Day food posterIt’s not that my mom was a bad cook. She made everything from scratch and paid rigorous attention to the food pyramid.

But maybe all that rigor was the problem. My mother’s earnestness about what a family was supposed to eat never felt joyful or celebratory. I don’t think she differed from other women of her generation or in my immediate family, yet this flat culinary world shaped my view of what was possible for years to come.

I had to learn as an adult how to connect holidays and other festive activities to special foods. And in putting together this issue of TW, I’ve pondered for the first time—with a degree of sorrow for my own missed opportunities—how a child’s experience with food carries over into adulthood.

Perhaps because my mom was busy raising four small children, she developed a weekly menu that rarely varied. On Tuesdays, we ate meatloaf served with peas and mashed potatoes. On Thursdays, we got baked chicken accompanied by white rice and a green salad. And so on. Meat, starch, vegetables—and nothing too exotic, either.

Fridays were the days she went a little wild, when, in a nod to our English Catholicism, we didn’t eat red meat. That’s when the chow mein might appear. Or macaroni and cheese with a crust of buttered breadcrumbs. Or, my favorite, an airy cheese souffle.

We didn’t have lively conversations at our family dinners, so I never connected meals with sociability. We weren’t allowed in the kitchen while food was prepared, so I never learned how to cook. And I never thought—or, really, knew—about the raw ingredients in many of the meals I ate.

The Universal Food Chopper posterFast forward to my early twenties, when I settled in Boston. On my very first attempt to make a nice meal for my guy, I undercooked a chicken. We dug into a mess of sinews, blood vessels, and other viscera that looked way too close to home—and we became vegetarians on the spot.

Going meatless at a young age and coming from such a restricted food environment means that I’ve never had lobster or shrimp, most kinds of fish, venison, or exotic meat parts.

But, lest you think I continue to eat spare, earnest meals, I’m happy to report that I quickly grew much more adventurous. I read Diet for a Small Planet and learned how to make indigenous foods like guacamole, falafel, and enchiladas with pinto beans. I collected international cookbooks (including the entire Time-Life Foods of the World series) and drew on the recipes and ingredients of other cultures for celebratory meals.

One memorable experiment was a Thanksgiving dinner based on Russian cooking. It included a home-baked and highly decorative boule stuffed with cheese and eggs, a cucumber-and-sour-cream salad, and something zingy that involved cabbage.

Over time, my husband—the chicken victim, who married me anyway—our two daughters, and I settled on our own celebratory foods: spanakopita at Easter, cheese-filled crepes with orange sauce for Christmas, a broccoli-and-walnut quiche that was requested in advance by dinner guests. We made our own granola, baked gingerbread cookies and hot cross buns for holidays, and grew sage in our garden to sprinkle on our fresh tomatoes.

Our family has now expanded to include sons-in-law, grandchildren, honorary siblings and children, and friends from many countries. We have boisterous meals where everyone crowds around a table laden with an eclectic assortment of food. And if you ask me to meet you for lunch, I’ll probably suggest my favorite Vietnamese restaurant.

 

"Cart & Balloons" © Carl Warner

 

The original title for this issue was “Food Writing: Blogs, Cookbooks, Gourmet Tales.” We envisioned it as chock-full of cookbook reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and stories from the front lines of the foodie universe.

Then, our writers began turning in quirky and heartfelt pieces about the many roles food has played in their lives—a far more glorious look at what eating really means. Now we’re delighted to bring you “Not Your Average Food Writing.”

In "My Slow Prose Manifesto," TW Reviews Editor Karen Ohlson draws a parallel between attentive food preparation and slow and careful writing. Of Anne Lamott’s famous advice to write "shitty first drafts,” Karen says:

The composing process she describes—which involves forcing oneself to keep typing without worrying about the writing being terrible and without backtracking to make changes—is my idea of hell.

For Raymond Sokolov, the distinguished restaurant critic, the thrill is in the hunt. In "The Joy of Edible Muskrat," TW Contributing Writer Jeremiah Horrigan describes a humorous conversation with Sokolov that touches on where to find the best all-beef hot dog in America—and other far odder "specialties" of regional cooking.

You’ll also find an interview with author Steve Almond—"So Much Sensual Data to Be Mined"—a review of The Kitchen Daughter, and a cornucopia of TW Columns. Our Featured Artist, photographer Carl Warner, offers enchanting landscapes created entirely out of food and an image essay that reveals the inspiration for his work.

In the TW Bookmarks for this issue, writers describe how foods—from steamed carp in China to lechón in the Philippines—provide sustenance that goes well beyond satisfying physical hunger. In "The Power of Squash Blossoms," Emily Gelsomin notes:

Too ephemeral for any outside drama or noisy to-do lists, squash blossoms are best cooked the day they are picked. So they force you to live in the moment.

And in honor of National Adoption Month, we’re running a series of pieces about adoption and parenting throughout November and into December. The series includes interviews with authors Adam Pertman and Mei-Ling Hopgood as well as a review of Melissa Fay Greene's No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. In a companion essay—"Whoa! I'm a Character in a Friend's Memoir?"—Andrea Cornell Sarvady describes what it's like to live across the street from Greene and her family of nine children.

Raspberry River © Carl Warner

For all the diversity of this issue, one thing is clear: Food conjures memories like nothing else. I vividly recall holidays when we gathered at my grandmother’s house for the most traditional of fare: turkey or baked ham, creamed onions, Brussels sprouts, scalloped potatoes. We ate quietly. We cleared our plates neatly.

Yet even in this placid culinary landscape, strange stars appeared.

Grammy’s holiday meals ended with Baked Alaska, an old-fashioned dessert that involves ice cream baked inside sponge cake and meringue. The whole concoction, ringed with liqueur, is set alight before serving. As a child, I was astonished to see something flickering with flames one moment, then frozen on my plate the next. The sponge cake was slightly crumbly, the meringue hot and crispy, the ice cream cold and creamy—the best of all worlds.

In verifying the name of the dessert, I discovered that February 1 is Baked Alaska Day in the United States. Who would have thought it? Sometimes food is magic.

  

Table of Contents for the Nov/Dec 2011 Issue 

 


Art Information

  • “Eat These Every Day,” NYC Work Projects Administration War Services (1941-1943); Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; public domain
  • “The Universal Food Chopper”; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; public domain
  • “Cart & Balloons” © Carl Warner; Used with Permission
  • “Raspberry River” © Carl Warner; Used with Permission

 


Elizabeth Langosy

Elizabeth Langosy is the executive editor of Talking Writing. She's considering attempting a Baked Alaska for the holidays.

As the new year approaches, dear readers, may all of your days be celebrations.

 


 

Comments

Despite Grandmother's unimaginative cooking, she still makes the best potato salad and macaroni salad I have ever tasted. And you, in contrast, raised a daughter who believes - sometimes incorrectly - that she can make any recipe she sets her mind to and has absolutely no fear of combining all sorts of ingredients to see what happens. She also knows the names of most of the produce she encounters - be it at Whole Foods or at the Korean supermarket. And yes, I am talking about myself.

I associate apple streusel with Christmas and cheese soufflé with my birthday and while I do not think I was born or, if I was, old enough to eat during the Russian inspired Thanksgiving since I have zero recollection of it, I do remember being raised on homemade yogurt and that had a certain percentage of cool points attached to it growing up.

Yeah, I had to be made a special grilled cheese sandwich at those late 70's and early 80's MacDonald's birthday parties - why were those so popular? - but it was worth it because I grew up feeling no fear about food - unless you try to feed me stuffed peppers or tomatoes - and I think my vegetarian upbringing made me more adventurous than a lot of my meat eating friends were. And I think I still am.

I'd probably try a bug.

Thanks, Hadley!

Yes, Grandmother made wonderful salads, including a fantastic chicken salad with grapes that she served when guests were coming for summer suppers. And she made very good egg salad, grating the egg into teeny little slivers and mixing it with mayo and sliced green olives.

The Russian meal was for your first Thanksgiving. You were too little to eat it, but I still wanted to make something special. :-)

One of my favorite food

One of my favorite food memories is dinner at the Langosy's with Donald's famous crepes! Unparalled in yummyness. I also remember Sunday being Mom's day off, and we ate odd but cozy things like creamed eggs on toast. 

Ooh, Diet for a Small Planet!

I have a vivid memory of my mom bringing home peanut butter with oil floating on top, and being puzzled by it. I realized that a new wind was blowing, and it'd be less fun for me. It was the 1970s and she started reading books by Adele Davis & Diet for a Small Planet. She fed my Old World grandfather zucchini bread and didn't tell him what was in it. I still think there's nothing quite like a well-seasoned steak on the grill. But thanks to Lappe's "Monastery Lentil Soup," I realized as a kid that meatless meals can be tasty...and I still make the soup regularly!

Ah, yes, Adele Davis: Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit. That was my other guide to healthy eating. And I loved (and still use) the early vegetarian cookbooks, such as The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas.

Your mother and I sound like kindred spirits, Wendy. And horray for "Monastery Lentil Soup"!

Would you really eat a bug, Hadley? I ate a crispy, chocolate-covered grasshopper once, but I don't think I'd eat one again.

re "My mother’s earnestness about what a family was supposed to eat never felt joyful or celebratory": Were we separated at birth? Siblings from another mother? Fellow diners at the Homesick Restaurant? Well, first full disclosure: my mother never cooked anything by scratch, except perhaps scratching her head Friday nights while standing in front of the freezer trying to decide between Swanson's Salisbury Steak and Turkey dinners. However, you caught my eye--and my culinary roots--at "earnestness." My mother, as fine a mom as a boy could want, did not put much truck in haute cuisine. While it might seem to some that she was trained at the Gas Station School of Nutrition (it's motto: "Fill 'em Up, Get 'em Outathehouse") she was nevertheless quite earnest about the well-being of her family. As such, she diligently followed a form of the food pyramid as she understood it--except that her her daily dietary guide for nutritional dinners was based on color: brown (meat), yellow (canned corn), green (frozen peas or iceberg lettuce wedge), and white (boiled potatoes or rice, accompanied by a glass of milk). It was not all so business-like, though, as evidenced by the weekly orange or red jello mold.

Steve, I love this. It's like a flash essay (if flash exists outside of fiction). I'd say we were fellow diners at the Homesick Restaurant--or at the dinner tables of the 1950's.

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