Last updated on February 9th, 2015
For a sad family occasion, our contributor C.C. has been summoned back to her birthplace of Southeast Michigan. This gives her reason to consider her family history with food. Caveat: C.C., whose nom de plume, you may recall, stands for Culinarily Challenged, would not like to disparage her parents for her food cluelessness. Rather she—as a small town girl, born and raised in South Detroit—would like to blame it on her status as the byproduct of an environment that apparently hasn’t changed much since 1950.
Let us begin with the environment: Michigan. Downriver from Detroit. What do you think of when you think of Detroit? Auto industry bailouts? Factories? Burned-out buildings? A formerly polluted river cleaned up by zebra mussels? Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Eminem?
How about celebrity chefs? Or haute cuisine? Uh, no, not so much, unless you consider battered lake perch a delicacy. At least Michigan offers blueberries, cherries, and Madonna. Ah, Madonna—a fellow Leo with the good sense to get out and go to New York, L.A., and London, and become an icon and a myth in her own time.
But alas, C.C. is not Madonna and didn’t have the benefit of something like Madonna’s Italian heritage from which to appreciate cheese, wine, and bread. Instead, C.C. grew up with plastic-wrapped slices of orange American cheese, rye bread, and bologna. Add a waterlogged, washed-to-death piece of iceberg lettuce, a whiff of Hellmann’s, and call it a sandwich.
This does much to explain why even today, C.C. is more familiar with Madonna’s oeuvre and trajectory of fame than she is with the finer points of say, mascarpone, of which she couldn’t give you a proper definition if it were an essay question, or pretty much any other food not produced by say, the Kraft corporation.
Meals at C.C.’s house tended to follow this menu, which, one can easily attribute to the shiny industrial appeal that permeated everything after 1950: canned foods, onions (but never caramelized) as seasoning, washing and cooking everything to death lest you get poisoned by germs or worms, and stored safely with an airtight lock in layers of that buzzword of the 1960s—plastics! There are never “courses,” just a table full of foods set out anywhere along the timeline of “dinner.”
Something to Drink?
The wine selection is predictably a fine vintage either by Ernest and Julio Gallo or Carlo Rossi, in the jug, served fresh from the fridge in a brandy snifter because that was the nearest available glass—the real wine glasses being locked up in the china cupboard and displayed with inherited bits of porcelain (faux porcelain?) and glasses stolen from cruise ships by C.C.’s father. (He used to steal the hotel towels, too, you know.)
If C.C. had to call something an “appetizer,” it would be the ever-present dish of raw vegetables, not as a harbinger of the raw food movement, but just a dish of garnishes, including garbanzo beans (more commonly referred to in these parts as “chick peas”), strips of green pepper (raw), slices of radishes (also raw), and strips of carrot and celery. No dip. At all.
For more “formal” dinners, one would include a small fanciful glass bowl of black olives from a can, sans pits of course, and those green olives with the pimiento in them, sans martini. If store-bought breadsticks made an appearance, it was clearly a special occasion dinner with “company.”
Note that during this particular trip to Michigan, C.C. told her mother that Good. Food. Stories.’ Danielle told her that the French way to eat radishes is with butter. And then C.C. smeared some on and took a bite and asked if her mother wanted to try one. But her mother said, “No, I don’t even use butter.” That’s right: C.C.’s mother scoffed at butter.
A little background here: C.C.’s mum grew up on a farm in the bleak Midwest and grew up drinking unpasteurized milk, probably still warm, and milked cows and ever since dislikes milk, so perhaps butter is cow by association. But still, butter? Resist? Mon dieu! C.C. probably could’ve gotten her dad to try the buttered radishes because he butters everything, like cookies.
But then again, C.C.’s mom cuts out 90% of the sugar, butter, and salt from baking recipes, like her “carob brownies”—but that topic denotes another post exploring the deep psychological damage inflicted on C.C. when she, like every young child, snuck into the cupboards and ravaged the unguarded chocolate bars, which turned out to be baking chocolate (and this happened repeatedly as if she believed the chocolate fairy had somehow taken pity upon her and paid their house a visit). Even worse were the times she discovered their evil brown cousin masquerading as something dark and delicious, but that really turned out to be dry and drier: the carob bars. Cruelty, thy name is 1970s health foods.
This garnish plate is on the table as the same time as the sliced bread: both white and rye purchased, at least, from a bakery, and not from Kroger’s [“s” on purpose] in one of those polka-dotted plastic bags, all surrounding the evening’s entree, which will typically be one of two choices:
Spaghetti, which while carefully and healthfully handmade did not benefit from any authentic Italian know-how, like using salt, consideration of texture, or say, spices.
It invariably ended up a pale reddish-orange water, which C.C., at a young age realized was wrong after sampling a savory penne dish sent over as a thank-you by their elderly neighbor Rose, because the neighborhood kids teased her and called her “Nosy Rosy” and they had to make E-Z Bake Oven cookies as peace offerings. The watery spaghetti sauce was tragic, but C.C.’s whining fell on deaf ears because the man of the house liked it that way.
For the spaghetti, Parmesan cheese is available in powdered from a green can, which at least provides the necessary sodium. Never Parmesan shredded in a tub, or in that thoroughly unfamiliar fashion where it comes in a solid block that you shave off and put back in the fridge loosely wrapped in some kind of paper instead of triple sealed in various plastic bags and Tupperwares so the evil germs can’t get at it.
The spaghetti is cut into small bits so it can be eaten with a knife and fork. The reddish water, AKA “sauce,” remains on the plate, mixing with a salad composed of iceberg lettuce thoroughly washed and still dripping (salad at C.C.’s is never dried, and definitely not spun by one of those exotic salad spinners), and a slice of beefsteak tomato and some bits of raw onion. Also on the table, one can find Paul Newman’s “lite” olive oil dressing or one of those Italian dressings from a package mixed up in a special bottle.
Swiss Steak, which is some kind of beef cooked to a grey color in a frying pan of water with onions and tomatoes (no oil or butter, or spices to note) and served on a plate with a bunch of the water, which, really, is not the same thing as a sauce is it?
C.C. in particular hates this dish as it is often served after someone dies, so watery tough grey meat just has a nasty connotation for her and no wonder she dabbles in vegetarianism. This dish is served with potatoes, mashed (sans butter, but with maybe with a drop of milk) and green peas that were frozen or from a can and cooked to a very advanced degree. Sans butter, of course.
C.C. only late in life discovered the joys of cooking with butter. Cooking steak with butter! Who knew! What a revelation. Some butter, some bacon… you can make anything better! Anything!
Finally, dessert is brought to the table as soon as the meal is eaten—which happens quickly and with little eye contact and with much silverware scraping and the “polite” pushing of peas onto forks with one dainty finger due to improper dining style—and before any dishes are cleared away, so one has to look at the soggy remains of meat while trying to savor a really nice (but healthy and not too sweet) blueberry pie or some “healthy” cookies that are in need of butter ex post facto.
However, credit where credit’s due. C.C. applauds the fact that she was never fed cheese from a can (this spray cheese she considers a step below plastic-wrapped orange American cheese slices? Maybe? She hopes?) and not much fast food, soda, or store-bought candy and cookies. In her childhood, at least the typical Fat American Processed Diet has been supplanted by the Bland and Unadventurous American Diet of the Nuclear Family of the Atomic Age.
And C.C. lovingly admits that her family really tried and it could’ve been much worse, and that currently anyone could pick apart with equal relish the “fantastic” cheese plate that is about the extent of C.C.’s culinary repertoire, so she offers this history out of love and laughter and all the food foibles we find in life.
After all, C.C.’s parents were not operating during a time of food tourism and celebrity chefs, and they’re not foodies, and aren’t we all victims of the food fashions of our time and won’t, someday, some other generation look back at us and our lime butter and laugh, oh how quaint? Or was that last year already?