I am a foodie. Love to cook it, love to eat it, love to talk about it. I am a walking, talking officially certified foodie. Food is such an interesting, broad subject, and I find that most people are fairly opinionated about their food. We all know food is a very personal connection we have to home, family, and our childhood. Our likes and dislikes all started when we took that first nibble of gooey rice baby cereal. The ensuing personal path we each chose differs from person to person. Some kids use food as a tool in a power game with their parents; others sometimes don’t eat at all. Apparently my brothers and I "bellied up to the table" every time we were called, regardless of what was served. There was none of this nonsense that if we did not like the meal, a better option would appear; there were no options. Eat what was here and be grateful for it, or leave the table.
Growing up during the 1960's, our house was served typical country food—fried chicken, meatloaf, ham, roast, potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn, lettuce salad—basic menus. Oh, and that ever-present pot of pinto beans. Growing up with limited resources for my parents meant you boiled that little smoked ham hock in with your pinto beans, and served it with a heap of homemade chow chow, chopped onion and crispy scratch made cornbread. (Pintos are not my favorite bean, so I always piled on the chow chow and ate lots of cornbread.) There was rarely steak and never fish. We seldom ate at a restaurant, and when we did it might be a burger at Myrtle Armstrong’s café or The “Y” cafe. A “fancy” meal out would be at Meyer’s Fried Chicken in Amarillo. I always wanted to eat something exotic like pizza or Chinese food, but never got to. (I have to say however, I would kill right now for some of that yellow gravy from Meyer’s over some mashed taters….)
See? Just thinking about those times at the dinner table as a kid has taken me back to that very moment when I could dig into my mother’s fantastic cooking. Mmmmm. But I have come to realize that every person has their own version of that memory. My husband’s family never ate black-eyed peas in Iowa, so he does not share my fond memories of a big, steaming bowl of those things cooked with salt pork and served with a big slab of cornbread. (And that was after I spent the morning picking them and the afternoon with a newspaper in my lap shelling those little boogers.) Like my dad’s biscuits and bacon gravy for breakfast and epic Thanksgiving dressing, every household has their family food legacies. I have some Hispanic friends who get all swoony talking about their mother’s menudo. (Gag, gag, shudder.) Or the friend who talks about her family’s traditional Russian meals with names that I don’t understand. And even the friends whose mothers did not cook remember the pancakes or bacon-egg sandwich that their dads used to make.
When I think back to those days, Hartley had a tiny grocery that had a small meat market, and a few rows of staples. We did not have these massive grocery stores that we enjoy now. Our grocery trips were pretty simple, because at our house we had the four basic food groups: Miracle Whip, Velveeta, Spam and the garden. We had huge gardens and canned almost everything imaginable. My grandmother had a good two acre plot full of fruit trees and we planted that to vegetables too. My mother made jellies, relishes, pickles, canned green beans and tomatoes, froze corn and fruit. That is when I honed my sous-chef skills peeling, chopping, seeding, shelling and dicing.
My mother always had a plan for her meals—she said you needed a meat, a vegetable, and a starch at every meal. Desserts were for special occasions. We always had a slice of bread and butter with our meal. Various salads were common—carrot-raisin, waldorf, cabbage-apple, and at least a thousand variations of Jello salads containing fruit or vegetables. You could always count on knowing what the holiday meals were going to consist of. Thanksgiving: Turkey, Daddy’s dressing, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, a cranberry Jello salad and cranberry jelly, and a huge relish tray and homemade bread. Pumpkin chiffon pie with Cool Whip or fresh pecan pie followed. Christmas and Easter: ham, mashed potatoes, ham gravy, candied sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn, a fruit salad, a jello salad, rolls, and that ever-present relish tray and loaves of delicious freshly baked bread. Dessert was usually homemade pecan pie, apple pie, and occasionally a chess pie. If everyone was home, they would have both ham and turkey, with all the above. Occasionally, she might make baked beans instead of potatoes to have with the ham, or occasionally throw in a broccoli rice casserole. The amount of food was ridiculous--we ate on platters instead of plates. But we were young, and usually all "made a hand" at this table of plenty.
When I walk the grocery aisles now, I can get overwhelmed by the thousands of products available. All of that pre-cooked, ready-to-eat stuff contains ingredients that have more letters than the VIN number on my car. I can avoid whole aisles, as they don’t have anything we eat on them. I don’t cook anything remotely like the way my mother did these days as it is not prudent for our health. (Mother’s food was usually delicious thanks to butter, salt, bacon/bacon grease, or sugar.) These days I just throw a piece of meat, chicken or fish on the grill, roast some fresh vegetables in the oven, chop up a salad, and call it. I really look forward to having company to cook for, as most recipes make more than a party of two can eat. That is when I might make a good chicken fried steak and potatoes or huevos rancheros for breakfast. I have my mother’s recipe book with all her wacky hand-written recipes on napkins, waitress tickets, grocery receipts, and more. I love my old Hartley Cookbook, and the Dalhart Community Cookbook, and my Beta Sigma Phi cookbooks. Donna Bryant’s “Thumbprint Cookies” recipe, and Karen Brown’s “Chicketti Cassarole” recipe from the Hartley Cookbook are both favorites. Helen Summerour’s “Snickerdoodle” cookie recipe from the Dalhart Community Cookbook is the best ones I have found. I have adopted Opal Baker's oatmeal coconut cookies recipe as my own. It is kind of sad that I have most of my recipes on the computer or pulled from online these days, cookbooks may soon be a thing of the past—heck, at the rate we seem to going, COOKING may be a thing of the past!
I wonder about parents now, feeding their kiddos fast food meals and fruit drinks that aren’t really fruit, all the while complaining about the GMO foods, and demanding free range chicken. Some kids eat more meals in the back seat of the car than they ever do at a table. They don’t consider that all our non-GMO vegetables were bathed in pesticides to be able to make a crop, and I wonder how people would react if they knew that “organic” veggies and fruits they are eating were probably fertilized with cow or chicken poop. I am sure there would be an outcry, spreading poop on the fields would be outlawed, and we would be left with mountains of poop sitting around to deal with.
The bigger picture is that the only real bonding time for a busy family is often at mealtime. We always turned the TV off and sat at the table to eat. Even until my girls were grown and left home, we tried to eat together at least once a day. With school and sports, at times it was just a rushed lunch--but it was a little window to talk with each other. It really doesn’t matter so much what the food is, it’s about the love and connections we make while eating it. What are some of your favorite family food traditions? Are you continuing your family traditions? Leave me a comment below.