May 9, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you to share stories of lost foods—cereal no longer on the market, hard-to-find diet sodas, dishes you remember from another place or time that you yearn to taste again.
Carole Baldwin is a marine biologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and she’s also an expert on food. Her book One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish explains how to choose the most sustainably harvested (and tastiest) seafood. Her “lost foods” aren’t extinct fish species, but childhood treats that some of you might remember. “I’ve often wanted to share these two memories,” she writes, “largely in hopes that somebody could help me rediscover the foods that produced them.”
Lost Cookies and Beans
By Carole Baldwin
I grew up in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina, which in the 1960s was home to two grocery stores: Red & White and Piggly Wiggly. Red & White carried a type of cookie that I will never forget. The cookies were rectangular, like graham crackers, and covered with fine crystals of sugar. Embedded in the cookie were lots and lots of slivered almonds. I can still taste them today. This was a foreign cookie—Swedish maybe—and the brand name began with a “K,” but that’s the only part of the name I can remember. The cookies came in a blue bag that had a roll top with tabs on the side to hold it closed once rolled up. That’s my first “lost food” memory, and it makes me wonder what other foreign delicacies that store may have harbored.
Another memory also involves foreign foods and is from about the same time. When I was 7, our family made a cross-country trip to visit friends in San Diego. While there, we went across the border to Tijuana. I sort of remember festive colors, music, streets crowded with vendors, etc., but I strongly remember what we had for lunch: bean tostadas from a food cart on the corner of a street. Although I would become something of a “foodie” later in life, at 7 my palate wasn’t very developed (although I did order and love licorice ice cream on that same trip while in San Diego). The fact that I even tried a bean tostada is remarkable. The fact that I loved it and still remember it so vividly is astonishing. There were only three ingredients: a crunchy tostada, beans (refried, I assume), and shredded lettuce. The flavor of the beans is what the food memory is all about. I have eaten Tex-Mex in the United States and real Mexican food in Baja California and never again tasted the flavor in those beans. I’ve pored over Diana Kennedy’s Art of Mexican Cooking and tried dozens of frijoles recipes, and I haven’t been able to recapture the essence of those beans. To this day, when I’m heaping shrimp or meat, cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, hot sauce, etc., on tacos and tostados, I think about those Tijuana tostadas. They were simple and simply delicious.
May 2, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for memories of forgotten or lost foods—things that are no longer available, hard to find, or that just don’t taste as good as they once did. Reminiscing about the distinctive packaging, bitter taste and earworm jingle of an almost-lost soft drink, writer Kelly Robinson takes us back to the to the 1970s.
Robinson is a freelance writer from Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Mental Floss magazine, Curve and Games.
Waiting for the End of the Tab
By Kelly Robinson
The first time I ever heard the word “addict” was in relation to Tab cola. I was 10 years old, and a neighborhood pal was apologetically explaining why her family’s garage was piled floor-to-ceiling with six-packs of empty bottles. “My Mom’s a Tab addict,” she said.
I had to ask my own mother what the word meant, and she laughed when she learned the context. “It means that someone has to have something,” she explained, “because they can’t live without it.” “I guess I’m a Tab addict too,” Mom added.
The idea that two women in one neighborhood were addicted to a soft drink stunned me. What would happen if they didn’t get it, I wondered? That question, along with the fact that my diabetic mother had declared Tab “off limits” to my brothers and sisters, combined to create an aura around the drink that couldn’t have been stronger to me had the bottles been locked in an antique trunk marked “mysterious treasure.”
I began sneaking Tab at every opportunity, noting the level on every two-liter and quaffing the stuff quickly in my room. Tab had saccharine then, and the bitter taste was almost as tongue-numbing as szechuan peppercorns. While the drink is now flavored with Nutra-Sweet, Tab maintains a flavor unlike any other diet soda—less cloying, boldly acidic.
Now, as an adult, I find Tab to be the perfect match for bourbon, with any other mixer tasting too sweet. But while the drink hasn’t completely disappeared from the market, it has vanished from anywhere social: no vending machines, no restaurant soda fountains, no bars.
To enjoy a Tab, I have to enjoy it at home (via harder-and-harder-to-find cans) making the drinking of it a solitary vice. Gone are the days when, as a child, I drank Tab from a glass bottle (with its signature grainy texture and yellow starbursts) in the public pool and vamped while singing the jingle, “sixteen ounces and just one cal-o-rieeeee” to anyone who would watch.
The forcing of Tab drinkers underground makes it a special moment, though, when I spot a rare kindred spirit. About twice a decade I see someone else make for the obscure corner where the few stores that still stock it relegate their stash.
We make eye contact and look shocked. Then the shock gives way to understanding, as we feel a silent bond. We rarely speak, but when we do it’s about the fear that Tab will disappear completely. We gravely fill our carts with what we worry, every time we shop, might be the very last of our calorie-free nectar.
My childhood curiosity returns: What would happen if we didn’t have it?
April 18, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. A pattern emerged from the stories we received: nothing focuses the mind on a meal like hardship, hunger or disgust. Today’s entry reminds us that meals don’t have to be traumatic to be memorable (and that sometimes food tastes even better if you reject standard table manners).
Emily Horton is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in food and culture and is an enthusiastic cook. As she explains about her story: “What inspires me most, as a cook and a writer, are traditional foodways and remarkable ingredients, which is where the food I wrote about in this essay takes its cues. This meal was so memorable to me in part because it was so fresh in my mind, but also because it epitomized what I value most in cooking: simple, unfussy food made stellar by way of local and seasonal ingredients, and the shared experience of cooking and eating with others.”
The Magic of Kale
By Emily Horton
Kale is best eaten with the fingers.
I don’t think we had specifically planned to make dinner. But it was already around 6:00 when my friend John came by; it was a Friday and warm, and there were dogs to be walked. This being March, when warm days are a tease and thus impossible not to ravish, I thought company would be just the thing. “I’m bringing kale,” he said.
In my kitchen he emptied his bag of its contents: a bunch of Siberian kale, sweet, tender and mossy-hued. If it’s not the variety responsible for inspiring those “Eat More Kale” T-shirts, it should have been. We cooked it in a Dutch oven over a low flame, slicked with a glug of olive oil, a few dribbles of water and some sea salt, until it turned into a silken, glistening heap. We emptied the greens onto a plate, grabbed juicy bits with our fingers. Forks have no place here. We’re not sure why. “It’s so much better eating it this way,” he said. I nodded. We finished the plate with fewer words; we hadn’t bothered to sit down. I credit the kale for its sumptuousness. John says my technique is magic (it’s nothing special, and I’ve since taught him how to replicate the results). But flattery gets a person everywhere, and when he asked if I might bring him another beer from the fridge (could I open it, too?), I only narrowed my eyes a little.
“I have an idea,” I said. I remembered a dish I had coveted all winter, refusing to make for one, that had seemed too lusty of a thing to be eaten in solitude. We set about cracking walnuts, pounding them with garlic (actually, John took both of those tasks because he’s a better sport than I am), grating copious amounts of cheese. We stirred butter into the walnuts, then the Parmigiano, then olive oil. We boiled fresh linguine, nutty with spelt and oat flour, saving a bit of the cooking water. I turned everything into a bowl. The pesto covered the pasta now like a creamy coat, and the heat coaxed such a fragrance from the walnuts, heady and floral, that we understood why adding herbs would have been something of an interruption. We took the single serving bowl to the table, two forks, in the interest of minimalism.
John sat back in his chair, the wicker one without a match, and closed his eyes. “Wait a second, I’m having a moment.” There were bits of walnut shell in the sauce that my teeth kept catching. I decided not to care.
April 11, 2011
Judging from the responses we got to this month’s Inviting Writing query, “what was the most memorable meal of your life,” many people’s most memorable meals were memorably awful. The experiences may have been unpleasant at the time, but they make for good stories later.
Today’s essay comes from Erich Hugo, who is now a digital strategist and digital service designer living in Stockholm, Sweden. But in 1992, he was a soldier in South Africa. He explains the circumstances: “Military service in South Africa during apartheid years was mandatory for all white males over 18 to fight the supposed U.S.S.R. and Communist danger. I served for little more than a year before the democratic elections. But by that time, the illusion of apartheid was shattered and the army was nothing more than a mechanical institution of a dying political system. We were not motivated soldiers, just kids biding our time.”
The Joy of Cooking Dried Eggs
by Erich Hugo
When writing about food and the pleasure of eating, it is easy to get carried away in the culinary halls of thought where sweet smells and musty aromas bring Rome and Paris to mind. My story is a little different.
It was in the final days of apartheid South Africa, and I was one of the last of the white male military intakes. Just because apartheid was falling to pieces did not mean the military training was any less arduous or our young instructors any less brutal. I was selected to become an officer, which made the training even worse, because one had to stay sharp mentally as well as physically.
During the end game of our training, we had to go into the bush and spend a dozen days living off the land. We were given seven rations (seven days’ worth) of ratpacks [contents listed below, none of them fresh] to last us the 12 days, which meant that we would inevitably run out of food and really live off the land.
One might believe that South Africa is a warm country, but this was midwinter in the desert and the temperatures were often below freezing at night. It was so cold that five soldiers would crawl into a two-man tent just to keep warm. And in the mornings we would stand in front of the diesel generator’s exhaust stream, putting our hands and fingers out, just to get warm. I guess we shortened our lives considerably that way.
By day nine we had all run out of food and that, combined with marching between 15 and 20 kilometers during the day, made us hallucinate with hunger. Some intrepid chaps caught some snakes and scavenged some duck eggs—a meal for a king, I jest thee not. I had never thought that ingesting such foreign food would induce such gratifying pleasure.
Then, on day 12, one of the officers in charge took pity on us and we got an extra ratpack. The meal was a king’s feast, better than anything from the finest restaurants in Paris or New York, from the “Just Add Water Eggs” to the tinned food and the rum and raisin energy bars.
Contents of a typical ratpack:
2 tins of preserved food, usually fish in curry, bully beef, Vienna sausages (hot dogs for Americans) in tomato sauce, or beans in tomato sauce
2 packages of crackers
Instant porridge (malt)
2 energy bars of the highly artificial variety
Powdered soup (chicken broth, minestrone or beef)
Powdered cool drinks
1 roll of candy loaded with Vitamin C
2 cheese tubes
Coffee and tea
April 4, 2011
Thanks very much to those of you who contributed essays to this month’s Inviting Writing project. The theme, introduced by Lisa, was “the most memorable meal of your life.” A surprising pattern has emerged from the submitted essays: many of the most memorable meals were sort of horrible!
This week’s entry comes from Kristen Freeman, a senior at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. She’s working toward a degree in Science in Secondary Education in Mathematics. She submitted this piece as part of her Writing in the University English class.
How Hard Can P.B. Be?
By Kristen Freeman
November 28, 2007 will always be known to me as the day I had surgery. Due to a birth defect, my left kidney was enlarged and obstructed in two places. The surgery corrected this life-threatening issue.
The days that followed will live in my memory for other reasons—such as being the first time I ever spat out a peanut butter sandwich. I had a three-inch incision on the left side of my abdomen. After being allowed only clear liquids and intravenous vitamins and minerals for 48 hours, the only thing in my mind that would make me feel human again was a meal. And I thought anything would have tasted appetizing.
Two mornings after surgery, I received a lunch menu. I scanned the various choices. Three words caught my eye like a nurse with a needle: peanut butter sandwich. I quickly checked the box next to the listing and smiled with pleasure. Messing up a peanut butter sandwich is impossible, right?
As the hours passed, my hunger grew for a plain peanut butter sandwich. Finally, I heard the creaking wheels of the food cart coming down the hall. The only thought in my mind was how wonderful that peanut butter sandwich would be. My mouth began to water as the thought of lunch filled my mind. As the squeaking cart stopped in front of my door, I quickly sat up and cleared off the small table at my bedside. A delightful atmosphere filled the room as the hospital worker carried in the tray. My stomach growled louder as the food was within reaching distance. All I could think about was the peanut butter sandwich I was about to devour. The two pieces of white bread with the creamy goodness between them had finally arrived.
I hurriedly unwrapped my meal, anticipating the mouth-watering sandwich. I lifted the sandwich and took a large bite. As I began to chew, my hunger quickly subsided as the flavor hit my tongue. While I looked around the tray for a napkin, my mother, who had been by my side since arriving at the hospital, knew something was wrong by the expression that came upon my face. The napkin became home to the only bite of lunch I ate.
“Mom, that is the worst thing I have ever tasted,” I said as I rinsed my mouth out with juice. “It’s worse than the medicine,” a horrible liquid I had received just before entering the operating room.
My mother assured me that my intravenous pain killers and other medicines were the cause of the disgusting taste. To prove her wrong, I made her try it. She pulled off a small portion of the sandwich and began chewing. All of a sudden, the same disturbing look that had come over me consumed her. She quickly grabbed another napkin and spat out the bite, apologizing and admitting how horrible the meal tasted.
My appetite had disappeared like a doctor being paged. The most memorable meal of my life is one I couldn’t allow myself to eat.