Whenever you ask anyone about their absolute most favorite foods, you’re going to get a wide variety of answers. Guess what is going to be consistent about those foods though!
It isn’t the ingredients, or eating at a fancy restaurant. It isn’t about something that is elaborate and complicated to prepare either.
It’s about foods associated with great memories and happy times. Often, they are relatively “cheap” foods, or recipes made by a specific person because it just tasted better when Grandma made it…or Aunt Betty made it. Sometimes its a food that was eaten at a restaurant, but it is still associated with the reasons for eating there, like friends and family.
I loved macaroni and cheese when it was made by my great grandmother, who made it the old fashioned way. Macaroni was carefully stirred into a white sauce, into which she had put diced chunks of longhorn cheese. It was topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked for an hour or more in the oven, and came to the table with browned topping and chewy chunks of cheese in the creamy (and overdone) macaroni. Sometimes, she’d “stub her toe” putting in the salt, and it would be so salty that no one could eat it, and we’d all pretend to be “full.”
My dad’s family lived in Iowa, and their tradition for Christmas Eve was to have oyster stew. I’m not sure why, because oysters aren’t exactly common in Iowa, but they did. Perhaps it was because of a perceived opulence? Each year, my grandma would buy a half pint of oysters, which would serve up to a dozen people, by the way. On Christmas Eve, she’d put some butter, salt, pepper, and a couple of quarts of water in a pot, and add the oysters. She’d simmer them on the stove all day, turning those tiny oysters into balls of vaguely oyster flavored rubber. Just before serving, she’d add a couple of quarts of milk, more butter, and get everyone to the table while the soup reheated. We’d then eat bowls of the broth heavy “stew”, and get an oyster if we were lucky. I know that is about the worst way to cook oysters imaginable, but still…I prefer my oysters in oyster stew overcooked and rubbery, with tiny oyster crackers floating on top. Does it taste good? Not really–my daughter dubbed it “caca soup” when she was about 18 months old and introduced to it the first time. I just like it that way!
Grilled cheese and tomato soup with pickled peppers on the side. I love it. I also don’t want the grilled cheese made with “good” bread or “real” cheese. I want it on ultra cheap bread with that processed American cheese flavored loaf stuff that isn’t unlike some odd form of glue. I want it toasted crisply on the outside but not charred, with a big bowl of tomato soup made with water, not milk, and out of the can too, of course. The peppers on the side just make it taste even better. Why do I like it? It’s cheap, we ate it at school a lot (minus the peppers, we got sliced dill pickles instead.) I remember eating it with my friends as a kid, and it was just one of those foods that said “everything will be okay.”
Another favorite food I haven’t even seen in decades, let alone eaten it. It was this fast food offering called the “Pizza Burger.” It was a typical hamburger patty with a dollop of spaghetti sauce, a chunk of mozzarella cheese, and encased in a breadcrumb breading so that it could be dropped into the fryer by any greasy spoon cook. It was served on a bun, maybe with a pickle or two, and is associated strongly with my teen years as one of my favorite drive-in offerings, hanging out with friends, and even chocolate malts. It makes me wonder whatever happened to Leanne and Sandy, my two closest friends in high school. Before long, the rest of the gang’s faces are in my mind’s eye: Marcia, Marjo, Joan, and Cheryl. I have no idea where they have all ended up, nor what their names would be now. We’ve all changed a lot, I expect.
For my daughter, I know that I get asked to make one of her favorites often: broccoli cheese soup. I make it very simple, and with the cheap frozen chopped broccoli from the store, but she loves it. Basically, it’s just a thin white sauce or slightly thickened milky broth in which I throw diced sharp cheddar cheese and the frozen chopped broccoli, and then serve it with bread or biscuits. It is seasoned with just the ingredients, and a light hand with salt and pepper–no fancy seasonings or exotic ingredients at all. It takes about fifteen minutes from start to table too, just long enough for a batch of biscuits to bake!
Another big favorite is tamales, showing our Southwestern connection. We love our tamales, and are not impressed with the version sold all across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at all. (I won’t even eat one ever again!) We make them with dry masa because we can find that here, but we do still insist on real corn husks (the paper does not taste the same!) and chili powders from New Mexico. I’m good at making the masa and filling, but she excels at folding the most beautiful tamales I’ve ever seen! Tamale making always brings me back to get togethers with my Aunt Evelyn and other relatives, because it was something we normally did when several people got together because of the immense amount of work that was involved. I have to admit though, I swear I got masa on the ceiling every single time I ever mixed them up!
My daughter is hosting a birthday party for my 50th birthday, which is rushing towards me like a comet, I have noticed. Its a big deal, to manage to survive fifty years, it seems. It is at least a marker birthday. I guess I’ll get my next birthday bash when I’m 75? I have asked for a “Rembrandt’s Torte” which I made for HER fourteenth birthday, by her request. It was not the kind of cake you’d normally expect a fourteen year old to ask for, as it was quite “adult” in nature, but she always was a little bit different than her peers anyhow.
This torte, which we found in a cookbook from England, featured stacks of shortbread with a chocolate rum ganache kind of filling and then was topped with more of the whipped stuff. As I assembled it, I could see why she found the torte intriguing, it strongly resembled the common rock foundations she had grown up around in Arizona with the irregular edges and color variations as we stacked the round layers of shortbread with their filling. After the mound was coated in the whipped filling, shaved chocolates of different kinds were dusted over it, creating the light/dark effect which gave it Rembrandt’s name. I should have realized that a young teen that asked for such a cake would have some artistic bents with food as an adult, shouldn’t I?
It seems to be the perfect cake for her to make for my fiftieth birthday, so we’ll see if I win out!
As I ask my friends and family about their favorite food, it becomes blatantly obvious–those favorite foods are always associated with great memories. Most of those memories weren’t “big” occasions, but rather small, intimate family and friends events. That gives us the tools to help the next generation associate healthy food with “favorite foods” by putting in place the tools to turn them into favorites by creating simple, happy memories to go with when they are eaten, instead of battles at dinner.