There are only a handful of childhood food memories that have stuck with me. It’s not that we didn’t eat well. Even on a fixed income, Mom always made sure we had some meat, some carbs and something green on our plates every evening at five (and to this day, no matter when dinner is supposed to be, I still get hungry around four-thirty).
But we never ate fancy. Dinner was always more satisfying than it was memorable. For some reason, the only entrée I really remember is her stuffed bell peppers. I didn’t understand cooking, but I thought it was cool that you could take something I didn’t like at all (green peppers), and an hour and a half later it would magically taste great.
Another food memory, and one I can almost taste, is of the first fish I ever caught (not that this is relevant, but it also is the only fish I’ve ever caught). I was eight years old, and we were camping, and I caught one trout. Cooked it over an open fire next to where I caught it, and to this day, I remember it as the best-tasting fish I’ve ever had.
I also have fondish memories of a food item from the school cafeteria. One of the recurring ‘main courses’ on the lunch menu was called a ‘Pepper Belly,’ and it was a bag of Fritos corn chips, slit open on the side, and covered with chili and cheese. Even in high school, I thought, “This probably isn’t good for you.”
The strangest childhood food memories I have involve a pot belly stove. Part of the strangeness is that we had a pot belly stove. It’s not like we were living in the wilderness –I grew up about ninety miles from L.A., and we lived in a government-subsidized tract home. But for whatever reason, right there in our 1970s-looking kitchen (next to the avocado-colored fridge), was a wood-burning stove not unlike the kind that nineteenth-century pioneers would have used.
We mostly used it for heat, but every Christmas morning, I would wake to the ineffable smell of fried eggs and sausage cooking in butter on top of the potbelly stove. I’m sure we could have gotten a small space heater and Mom could have made breakfast with our electric range, but then it wouldn’t have felt like the holidays.
After a couple of years of finding my way around the kitchen, I cooked my first holiday meal last Thanksgiving. In retrospect, I should have chosen an easier holiday (there must be some quick and easy Arbor Day recipes out there).
But I forged ahead, planning to make everything from scratch with one important exception…the cranberry sauce. I know there are plenty of recipes for homemade cranberry sauce, but for me, cranberry sauce comes out of a can, shaken onto a plate in one solid mass, still marked by lines from the inside of the can.
I don’t care if you slow-roasted your bird for eighteen hours, lovingly mashed each potato by hand, and picked the green beans yourself, if there’s not a tube of cranberry ‘sauce’ on the table, I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner somewhere else, thank you very much.
I bought a five pound, bone-in turkey breast, patted it dry, and added a spice rub I created, and then I slathered the skin with butter (it’s not like we were celebrating National Health Food Day).
The side dishes included homemade mashed potatoes with cumin and roasted Brussels sprouts with a drizzle of lemon juice and a sprinkle of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. I made my own dressing, too. I would have made ‘stuffing,’ but apparently stuffing the bird before you cook it isn’t safe anymore, even though people have done it that way for hundreds of years.
Here’s where it gets a little weird: some recipes for dressing include eggs, some don’t. I opted to go with eggs. As I’ve said, I’m not very diligent about measuring things, and after eyeballing the ‘right’ amount of bread and eggs, it was too goopy. Sorta looked like Gerber’s. So, I added more bread. Great. Now it’s too dry. More egg, right? And then, at a certain point, I had no more room in my little blender. And it still looked like baby food.
Since I was worried about my turkey, and I had no experience with Brussels sprouts, and my potatoes were going to be finished way too early, something had to give. Needing a quick resolution to the Great Dressing Fiasco, I grabbed a meatloaf pan and poured the putative dressing mixture in. Then I shoved it into a toaster oven until I was ready to deal with it.
The end result? The turkey was terrific, the sprouts were spectacular, and the potatoes were…well, they were mashed potatoes. Might have been a bit heavy-handed with the cumin.
And as for my transmogrified dressing? Well, it tasted like dressing. Or maybe it tasted like stuffing. However, it looked more like meatloaf, and you had to slice it like a loaf of bread. So on some level, what I ended up doing was taking some bread, and turning it into…a different kind of bread.
The most amazing thing about my first Thanksgiving dinner was that, as crazy as the experience was, it didn’t make me crazy. In fact, cooking always makes me feel a little less crazy. I have a feeling Mom would have been proud of my effort. I wish she could have been there to see it. She might have been able to help me with the dressing, but then again, she probably would have just told me to get out of the kitchen while she made it herself.