Inspired by reading Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a collection of essays from the New York Times, I cast about for a food memory and recipe of my own to share. I have very little to work with, but here’s a memory from summers as a kid.
Before we were old enough to be busy full-time with berry picking, babysitting, paper route, mowing lawns, returning beer bottles to the store, hustling for money any way we could, and after we were old enough to prepare our own lunches and snacks, summer was a time my brother and I ran wild, entirely unsupervised. We only came home for food. Our favorite lunch was a sugar sandwich – and here’s the recipe – white bread, a thick layer of butter so as to stick as much sugar as possible, white sugar the sandwich filling – washed down with Kool-Aid. This is a meal best eaten on the backyard patio because there is inevitably sugar spillage due to overestimating how much will stick to the butter, and grape Kool-Aid spills never go over well with mom.
Moms of that era didn’t compete for who had the most high-quality food and healthiest, most nutritious diet for their kids. A good dinner was meatloaf or spaghetti or some concoction with browned ground beef as the base and a can of Campbell’s soup as the sauce. Hamburger Helper was an exciting food innovation still a few years off. Because we ran around outside from morning ‘till dark (as late as 9:00 to10:00 pm during summer months in Portland), sugar sandwiches were the perfect fuel.
When I was an adult, my mom confided to me she knows she was a lackadaisical parent and should have kept better track of us when we were kids. Due to this lack of supervision, one day a bunch of us kids set a small fire, which got away from us as fires do, growing big enough to require the fire department, all the commotion caused because we were curious and wanted to see what the ants would do. Setting that anthill on fire was wrong on many levels; I understand that now.
Back to food. As kids, a big treat was a take-out burger and fries from McDonalds. I never recall sitting down for a meal in a restaurant as a family, although we did go out for ice cream at Farrell’s for special occasions like graduations. Due to limited dine-in experiences as a kid, restaurant behavior and protocol were unknown, information I didn’t consciously realize was lacking until I went with a man on a date to a fancy restaurant when I was a freshman in college. Sitting there in the Sizzler, eyes darting around to see what other people were doing, appetite ruined by nervousness, it suddenly dawned on me the only time I’d ever been in a restaurant was a couple of times when my grandmother took me to lunch at the Safari Club in Estacada. I had no idea how to act or what was expected at the Sizzler, and was agitated and uncomfortable the entire time. I would have been more at ease eating a basic burger while nonjudgmental eyes peered down on me from animal heads mounted on the wall.
I didn’t realize how much food and parenting intersect until I wrote some of these food memories. I’d like to state here: When I became a parent I was more attentive and watchful than my mom had been, though I tried not to veer into helicopter or bulldozer parenting. I was also more forgiving of dumb-ass* exploits that happened despite my watchful eye. Remembering the mischief we got up to, often eluding harsh punishment only because no one paid enough attention for us to get caught, I tried to make unfortunate decisions into learning experiences for my daughter.
And because of that uncomfortable date at the Sizzler, permanently imprinted in the part of my brain that stores trauma, I also set a conscious intention to take my daughter to all kinds of restaurants from a very early age, and to expose her to world travel and upscale hotels and resorts, not often, but enough here and there that she’d feel comfortable and at home wherever life took her as an adult.
* Dumb-ass is a term carried over from my childhood. My dad’s preferred all-purpose parenting advice, applied to most of our behavior, was don’t be a dumb-ass.
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