Monday, July 15, 2013

Beyond Sustenance and Taste, An Ode to Food

A modern-day Boo Radley knothole.
When I was seven, I was privileged to have a snack cabinet, at my grandmother's house, all to myself. Of course there were paper plates and extra cups stored in there, but there were also little treasures of Fig Newtons, and ‘Nabs.’

If you’re not familiar, Nabs are Nabisco products, mainly bags of crackers or chips, and I was obsessed with Fig Newtons because of its weird texture and slight aftertaste. Fig Newtons were my inspiration to be sneaky. How could I get two packs of Fig Newtons without being obvious?

My sister, the stealthier of the two of us, had a weakness for the candy dish.  Watching her remove the glass top was like watching Stella open the safe in the Italian Job. When I opened the dish, inevitably a grownup would yell from the other room, “Get out of the candy!” Dang.

Food, particularly the variety that foodies and doctors warn you about, was always a fun memory to revisit. My grandma would ‘split a Coke,’ with me, or we’d pack up a cooler of snacks for a trip to the pool. My sister and I first learned how to negotiate with Kellogg’s cereal variety packs. We took extreme care to ensure if someone was stuck with the Frosted Mini Wheats, then they got dibs on the Frosted Flakes.  

I was a pretty happy kid, but there came a time when I needed to be out of the house every so often. Fortunately, food was also a way to get out of the house, and I was very open to even the smallest field trips. Bubba’s, a soft serve joint, was just half a mile away, and happened to serve a mean banana milk shake. We also filled after-class time with Cappuccino Blasts and Rax’s curly fries.

What were we thinking when we made a Wendy’s frosty run? It wasn't important, and most likely, it was just an excuse to drive “the Strip” on Friday night. Or mess with the Wendy’s workers by driving the car backwards through the Drive-Thru. Food represented a context; it was an entity that coincided with an event, effectively creating a snapshot of time. The BBQ sandwich special at Short Sugars* was a small reprieve from high school classes (and it didn't hurt that it was $2.63 for the sandwich, chips, and a sweet tea). Joe and Mimma’s was the ‘fancy’ Italian restaurant that denoted straight A’s or a birthday. Auntie Anne’s was more about the quest for acquiring a limeade versus whether it was made of fresh juice or not (although I frequently became hypnotized by both the operation of the juicer and fresh-pretzel making while waiting to pay).

There was always a dose of people watching thrown in. My husband and I are masters of noticing oddities at restaurants, and our specific series of eye movements are undetectable, except from real spies. “Do you see that older guy over there?” one would say.
“Yeah, what about?”
“He’s got a jar of peanut butter at the table.”
Insert subtle, non-directional glance. Report verified.
“Who does that?”
“Maybe he just likes peanut butter.”**
“Sure, but when you decide to bring in a whole jar of something to an establishment, is it a quick decision or have you been thinking about it for a while?”

And so on. It is a delight to dine at both expensive and low-rent establishments. Weird people go to both types, though there’s a higher density of them at places like Waffle House after 2 am.

Now that I live in the county, my going-out options are severely limited. To keep the food front fresh, I take up experimenting in the kitchen and sharing with my husband, friends and coworkers. Sometimes it goes well, “Liz, you've made the most perfect dessert (angel food cupcakes with butter cream icing). The cake part collapses into itself and all you’re left with is a mouthful of icing.”

What the perfect dessert looks like.
This was after I had scrapped a whole bowl of homemade cookie dough that refused to rise en oven. I've also created the seven-pound pumpkin cheesecake, modifying and combining a couple of internet recipes on the subject.*** It is both a blessing and a curse being an everlasting gobstopper of a cake, but if you really want to show someone who likes cheesecake that they are special, it does the job. 

Honestly, it’s not as fun making things in the kitchen as it is sharing food, although any time spent perusing the Food Network would lead you to believe otherwise. As such, I've transformed our kitchen into a sort of laboratory, outfitted with a proper snack cabinet for our guests.

And cats, evidently.

*Didja know you can buy individual hush puppies here? Yes. They are 25 cents.
**This is a real conversation we had in a local diner.
*** I used these recipes for the biggest cheesecake ever: