Monday, January 11, 2010

American Chop Suey or What I Ate When I Was 8

I think I did not have my first burrito until I moved to California when I was 22. Ditto for artichokes and sushi and tofu. Yet, two of my favorite childhood foods were Jamaican beef patties and what we called Vietnamese Ravioli or as Slanted Door calls them, fresh spring rolls. We ate Spanish food because we had family friends who owned a restaurant, drove many miles for both "good" bagels and Lithuanian brown bread and the pizza was from a Greek-owned restaurant.

I'm thinking about this today because I made a use-up-the-food-in-the-fridge version of American Chop Suey last night. When I mentioned this to one of my coworkers, she assumed something with water chestnuts and soy sauce. Growing up in suburban Connecticut in the 70s and 80s American Chop Suey was tomato sauce, elbow macaroni and ground beef, onions or garlic powder or maybe peppers if your family liked them. Mine did. My modern version, btw, had home-canned tomatoes, whole wheat shells, CSA onions and spinach and grass fed ground beef. My coworker, who is a native Californian had never heard of such a thing.

When I think about the foods of my childhood, I think of my mothers garden with tomatoes, always too much zucchini, peas and lettuce but also Swiss chard. I think of my grandmother picking fresh asparagus from her garden to serve with hollandaise sauce or spending time on my uncle's farm and eating corn right off the stalks and tomatoes still warm from the sun. Exotic winter squash we had, because he grew them. But I had never had fresh tuna. Tuna fish, always with mayonnaise and celery, sure. In my house we were not allowed white bread or soda, unless we went out. Ice cream was something you walked downtown to buy one cone at a time. I also think about PuPu Platters and the Wonder bread with fluff we would sneak at Sean's house.

I also think about the foods that I have been unable to recreate here in California. The fresh pressed apple cider. The butter and sugar corn fresh from the farm stand. Wild black raspberries from our back yard. Real Italian sausage grinders and that Lithuanian brown bread. The cannoli that was available at many of Hartford's Italian bakeries. The cheesecake from Junior's that my father, a Brooklyn native, insisted was the best.

When I was home this summer, those were the foods I sought out. I ate grinders and fried dough and and pizza and more. I ate container after container of local blueberries and far too much ice cream. And I introduced my daughter to those foods that I still love and miss. I'm working on a new book, Breaking Bread that deals with families and cooking traditions. I'd like my daughter to have those memories some day.

I'd love to hear about some of your childhood foods or foods that you did not have growing up. Share with me?

1 comment:

  1. Our chop suey was ground beef, and canned La Choy items, along with soy sauce. Tomatoes were okay, too, but we never had macaroni. To my kiddie palate it was pretty darn good, too!

    I also recall roast beef grinders (yum!), an embellished Ragu spaghetti sauce (which I still make, slightly tweaked, and my daughter loves it), and something my mother called "mystery meat", which was essentially slow cooked cheap beef in some cream & sherry glop (and was also pretty good!).

    My grandmother used to make all sorts of things I miss as well -- brunswick stew (though I've finally mastered this, I think), homemade chocolate sauce and fudge, and turkey tetrazzini (or however you spell that!). She also had awesome Thanksgiving dressing, and a great cabbage slaw and marinated carrot dish. Some of these I can and do make, but others elude me. I have wasted so much cocoa and sugar trying to make the fudge I cannot even tell you! That stuff was TERRIFIC.

    I was really happy to find that I when I went back to CT about a decade ago that the roast beef grinders were still awesome. I had kind of expected them to not live up to my memory, but they were still really good.