Friday, January 25, 2013

The Birth of a Food Nerd

As an adult, have you tasted a food that you haven't eaten in a long time, and experienced a sort of sensory-fueled time warp that brought you back to some sunny day in your childhood?

I have a lot of food associations, both good and bad. I remember that Grandma Gwen loved deviled ham on Wonder bread, which, to me, looked and smelled like nothing so much as a square of cat food-smothered foam rubber. Blech.

But Grandma was raised in the long shadow of the Great Depression, and probably gained a fondness for potted meats and smelly cheeses from both her mother's German heritage and her exceptional resourcefulness. Feeding 15 people on a lumberjack's wages required a little creativity and an open mind when it came to meal planning.

But food at Grandma Gwen's house wasn't always so odd, in fact, looking back now, I see that we routinely ate like kings, without having any notion of our privilege.

That time-travelling bite that I mentioned earlier? That's what brought this whole train of thought about. I popped a handful of hazelnuts while standing in my kitchen the other day and felt instantly present in my Grandma's back yard, circa 1982, cracking open the few filberts that we were able to pick just ahead of the hungry, cranky Stellar's Jays. We had a system that we'd learned from the birds - if you dropped the hulled nut against the porch, and it bounced, it was empty inside - move on. If it landed with plunk, there was a nut inside. We used a caveman-style approach from there and clobbered them with rocks until they either gave up their goods or went shooting off into God-knows-where from an ill-placed whack.

We had similar semi-feral country kid gorge-fests on English Walnuts, crab apples (big mistake!), red huckleberries, black caps and blackberries. Sometimes we'd be sent out with a dented old MJB coffee can and told to fill 'er up with blackberries or huckleberries, with the promised payoff of pie for dessert.

Besides what we could glean ourselves, we were also spoiled with the fish and game that Grandpa brought home. A Navy man and a Pisces, Grandpa had an incredible affinity for fishing. He was an avid fisherman, bringing home limits of salmon and steelhead, which he'd smoke or Grandma would bake or fry-up for dinner. We had salmon so often that we kids actually grew tired of it and would say "Again?!" when told that salmon was on the menu for supper.

Grandpa fishing for tuna(?) off the coast of Guam, 1957/58.

We also regularly enjoyed venison, catfish, trout and occasionally, crawdads that we kids took great fun in catching from the nearby icy-cold Nisqually river. The kind of groceries that would set you back a pretty penny these days were standard fare for us. If you'd have said to me then that king salmon and hazelnuts were considered "fancy", I'd have had a hearty chuckle at your expense.

Along with all of the great foods that I experienced as a kid were also those not-so-great foods of a 1980's latchkey kid - Salisbury steak dinners, blue box mac & cheese, Fruity Pebbles, etc. And to some extent, I'm sure that those foods would evoke memories for me too, though not necessarily great ones. I'm glad that I spent time outside of my neighborhood experiencing wild food in situ, because those are the flavors and experiences that have stuck with me, and shaped my foodie-geek palate. I love rustic. I love full flavor. I have a special place in my heart for DIY, "seed-to-skillet" food, and I have my Grandparents to thank for that.