There’s a distinct possibility that personal preferences (or dislikes) form early in life, but is what we remember even reality? When visiting my mother last December in South Florida, where she grew up and now lives again, she started telling tales of Cornish game hens and Boeuf Bourguignon. Really? I have the general impression that what my parents made for dinner in my formative years was far from restaurant quality. To be sure, I racked my brain and spoke with both of my parents, and my older brother Eric, about what I ate growing up in suburban New Jersey. What I learned made me question my memories, and left me to ponder how those meals influenced my food preferences.
My mother, who has a flowery view of the past, said she sourced recipes from the Campbell’s Cookbook, including Beef Burgundy (“with beef gravy + Marsala wine as called for in the recipe”). My mom recalls roasting Cornish hens (“brown and crispy”), baking then grilling “bar-b-q chicken,” and for a few Thanksgivings – when friend Bill Lovell would drive down from New York – serving roast turkey with fixins, “as they say in the South.” She also rattled off spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf, and pork chops with applesauce as staple dishes. She correctly said, “I began to wonder if you ever believed that I had cooked.”
I do remember my mother making beef stew, which could be the “Beef Burgundy” of her dreams, featuring big chunks of not-so-tender meat. From there, proceedings degenerated to Gorton’s buttery breaded fish sticks cooked in the toaster oven, when I wasn’t pan-frying bologna and piling it on bread with scrambled eggs. After my parents divorced when I was eight years old, my mother returned to the work force and started spending a lot less time cooking at home, resulting in a seemingly bottomless tray of Stromboli from a nearby Italian deli called Carmen’s.
My brother, who’s always quick to serve a slice of family history, along with an archaic expression that predates him by a century, said, “Mom’s cooking was more extensive and not horrible before I was about eight (which means it would be prior to your memory).” My brother is five years older than me, so that would have put my mom’s culinary peak prior to my third birthday. Clearly, that’s going to hurt my impression of her kitchen skills.
Gladly, my brother brought up plenty of local gems in and around my hometown of Berkeley Heights. His tales took me back to chocolate milk and pot pies from Wagner’s Dairy in Warren; buckets of fried chicken from Chicken Holiday in Summit, which Afghan neighbors of ours ran; burgers and the legendary pickle bar at Don’s in Livingston; plenty of pizza and parm from DiMaio’s and Marcello’s; Chinese food from Hunan; and the occasional short stack with ham on weekends from the shimmering Summit Diner.
My father, who’s pretty much the opposite of nostalgic, frequently quotes Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, who said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Given that mindset, what he ate for dinner last week, let alone in 1984, isn’t exactly a priority. However, he described driving to Barth’s Pork Store in New Providence, where Otto Barth sold us Italian sausage and hamburger patties, which we promptly grilled on the porch.
My father fed my brother and me during about half the time after my parents’ divorce. Thankfully, he’s smart, and knew enough about his strengths to keep out of the kitchen, though he did have a knack for grilling those glorious burgers and sausages. In New Jersey, of course grilling wasn’t possible in winter, and he clocked a lot of time building his business, so that meant a steady stream of takeout. Still, there were a couple times he dusted off the oven, which resulted in baked burgers that didn’t exactly honor the cows they came from. There was also a legendary Thanksgiving with extended family starring undercooked turkey, since my father never removed the stuffing from the take-and-bake bird. Thankfully he also ordered a spiral cut ham, which we devoured as a group. Good thing I come from a Jewish family that enjoys pork so much.
After deposing my immediate family members, I had to consider their testimony. Was the home cooking I ate through elementary school really as bad as I remember? Probably. Were the options limited in suburban New Jersey in the ’80s? Absolutely. Did we make the best from what was available? No doubt. Did what I ate before my voice cracked have a lasting impact on how I view food? Not at all. Basically, you only know what you know, and it wasn’t until I moved beyond the suburban sameness of my youth to experience more of the world’s cuisines and truly understand what I like. Not that my opinions are set, even at age 37. Now if only I could find a killer sub sandwich or Stromboli in L.A.