November 21, 2011

Of Food Gone By

A few of you readers, the ones who have been here since the beginning (well, the second "beginning," I suppose) I know in real life.  We've worked together, gone to school together, hung out at parties or talked on Facebook.  Maybe we're even related.  Some of you (more and more, thank goodness) don't know me at all, except as the person who typed what you are reading.  The feature that counts page views tells me that you are there, although for the most part you are just lurking--I don't have that kind of following yet, that people feel obligated to comment on my every post. But like any good Thanksgiving festivity, today's post is about sharing.  Getting to know one another.

I don't have a recipe today. I haven't been to any restaurants, good or bad. I don't even have a grain of culinary wisdom to share. On this, the week of Thanksgiving, I just want to talk to you about something near and dear to all of us: food memories.

With all that is dark and depressing in this world of ours, it seems profound to me that some of humanity's most endearing memories are of music and sex and fragrance and food.  I can hear the right Weezer song and suddenly find myself reliving a teenage broken heart.  I can smell hay and manure driving past a field and remember carefree summer days growing up on a ranch.  Perhaps it is a gift humanity has been given, that memories such as these are more likely indelible than our pains; perhaps it is simply harder to forget the things that affect not only our lives but our very senses.  From the traditional Thanksgiving meal to our own family customs, food memories are perhaps the strongest of all of these.  Not only can a well made dinner strike the same emotional chord as a song, but food is also at the core of survival; it perfectly encapsulates both want and need.  So rather than try to add to the lexicon of turkey and pumpkin pie recipes, I thought Catfish's Dishes would celebrate Thanksgiving by talking about a few of those seminal experiences.  It wouldn't be sharing, though, if it's just me doing the telling.  Whether you are one of my friends, a casual reader who has stumbled across my site, or even just here because you tell EVERY food blogger that they are great and should join your food blog aggregate site, leave me a food memory in the comments below.  I can't wait to see what you have to say.
Boy and his cracker crumbs are here as a pagebreak!
My mom is a great cook, and if you try and tell me that every kid says that about their mom you'll just irritate me.  That being said, the most visceral memory I have of food as a child isn't from her kitchen.  My dad is a fair cook too, and while he only made a few dishes here and there, everything in his small repertoire was fantastic.  I'm not going to talk about him either.  Several decades before Jamie Oliver or Mrs. Q started trying to fix school lunches, my mind was blown by cafeteria food.  To be fair, Owyhee Combined served its fair share of nutrient deprived crap.  They served frozen pizza (apparently a vegetable, if you haven't heard) and the burger/fry duo regularly, and the salad bar was a sad thing, only ever stocked with five or six salads and pushed into a corner where only the weird kids could find it.  They even shipped their milk cartons in through a long and winding canyon on an unrefrigerated truck, so that during the hot months that bookend the school year any milk not drank on delivery day was a pulpy, sour mess.  It was enough to make a kid want to bring in a sack lunch, even if all they were getting was peanut butter and jelly or (ugh) baloney.  But not on Fridays.  Friday was Indian Taco day.
Pic taken from Wikipedia.  I only wish I had an Indian Taco to photograph right now.
Now, an Indian taco isn't much different than a regular taco. It has meat, cheese, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and sour cream.  But something separates it from its Mexican cousin-frybread.  Frybread is a leavened dough that is flattened into discs and deep fried in oil or lard, and is such a quintessential staple of the Native American diet that it was named the state bread of South Dakota (thanks Wikipedia!)  I've had frybread since elementary school, in fact the stalwart Boise breakfast location Merritt's serves "scones" that are really nothing but frybread, but it isn't the same.  While so much of my elementary cafeteria menu was the standard processed junk polluting schools today, this frybread was clearly an individual person's recipe.  The halls would begin to smell with that sweet fried bread smell half an hour before lunch, and class became an afterthought.  It has been eighteen years since I have had real frybread, loaded with slow cooked beans and beef and sharp cheddar cheese and a full compliment of condiments, over half of my life.  I still think about it a couple of times a year.  Ever since I've started writing this blog it's becoming more and more a question of "when," not "if" I tackle the Indian Taco myself. 

Of course, not all food memories are good ones.  While the main intent of this post is to focus on the magic of food in our lives, I don't think I can talk about food memories without giving a brief mention to the Shamburger. 
Gem State Academy: known for its commitment to Christ, not its food.  Clearly.
After having gone to elementary school and junior high on an Indian reservation, my parents made the choice to send me to a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school.  Now, not every Adventist is a vegetarian.  If you meet somebody of this faith on the street, chances are they might wear jewelry, dance, or go out to eat at a restaurant after church on Saturday.  But boarding schools are funded by the staunchest members of a faith.  Not only did the lunch ladies not serve us meat, but most spices were verboten (even pepper!)  Really, none of the food was good.  Some people who grew up Adventist are nostalgic about Haystacks, which is basically meatless chili piled onto Fritos, but I was never sold.  Now, I don't mind meatless meals.  I even spent a couple of years as a vegetarian.  Still, with the exception of a few well made veggie burgers and one brand of fake sausage, the good vegetarian food isn't trying to pretend to be meat.  As bad as the pretend meat cranked out by companies like Loma Linda was, it couldn't hold a candle to the strange creation of the cafeteria staff, the Shamburger.  The patty contained three ingredients: cottage cheese, cream of mushroom soup, and cornflakes.  The lasagna they served, which broke plastic forks like they were wishbones, didn't hold a candle to this monstrosity.  The "burgers" were warm and slimy, served with American cheese on cheap buns with only ketchup and mayo as options.  Each bite was the same texture, like a big pile of mushroom flavored ketchup covered oatmeal. 

The final memory that stands out is of a more recent vintage.  Just over a year ago, I received a call informing me I had won a trip for two to Reno, Nevada.  While the main purpose of the package turned out to be a bit anti-climactic, there was a day and a half of free time to tour the "Biggest Little City" bookending the trip. That's how I found myself wandering around a strange city looking for something good to eat on the day after Thanksgiving.  There was plenty of food to be had in the casinos, but apart from the buffets nothing was really worth the price they were charging, and neither Wife or I was ready for the all-you-can-eat segment of our trip, so we braved the cold to try and find something affordable AND appetizing.  Across from the valet parking was a McDonalds, but that only met the cheap part of the criteria. Wife was eyeballing a grungy Mexican place akin to Boise's own Los Betos, one of those places with huge portions of cheap food served any time of day or night, but it hadn't been that long since we'd made a Betos' run and I wasn't feeling burritos.  It still might have been the best option if I hadn't walked around to the backside of the casinos.  Sitting in a weedy parking lot across from a depressingly secure liquor store was The Golden Flower, a Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant.  My eyes lit up.  I expected Wife to be resistant due not only to her dislike of Asian food but her reluctance to try new things (we'd never had Vietnamese before,) but the fact that I won us a trip to Reno had given me enough brownie points that the choice was mine alone.  We entered, and I was struck by a wave of culture shock.  In Boise's Asian restaurants the cook might be Vietnamese (or Chinese, or Japanese, depending on the cuisine.)  There is a decent chance the servers are as well, but it isn't guaranteed.  But all or most of the customers would be Caucasian.  Not so at The Golden Flower.  Wife and I were the only white people around, and the place was packed.  While I knew that the casino industry employed large amounts of Vietnamese it was still surprising that this little restaurant, no more than fifty yards from the door of the El Dorado, had no diners that appeared to be gamblers or tourists.  Between the atmosphere and the smells, I already had an inkling I was in for something special.  Not really knowing my way around a Vietnamese menu, I decided to order their signature dish, pho (pronounced "fuh,") a beef and noodle soup.  Though I couldn't have paid more than five dollars, it was brought to me in a bowl that probably held at least two quarts of soup.  Tender strips of beef were floating alongside rice noodles in a rich, long simmered broth, and the whole thing was accompanied by a plate of sliced jalapenos, bean sprouts, basil leaves, and wedges of lime.  That one bowl  contained everything I love about Asian food and the homemade comfort of chicken noodle soup in each bite.  I've since had pho in Boise, at Pho 79, but it didn't compare.  It was good, it just didn't have the same *something* in the broth.  A new place, Pho Bac, recently opened in a space long held by a sandwich shop and I am trying to convince Wife to go with me this Friday and create a new Thanksgiving tradition, a Black Friday bowl of pho.         

So now that I've shared these three dishes and their impact on me, what food stands out to you as clear as the day you ate it?  Pies made in a small kitchen with your grandma?  A killer Reuben at a border town truck stop?  I want to know.  Oh yeah, and one more thing-

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. John, your comment about GSA being committed to Christ but not food has me laughing out loud! ha ha

    As for haystacks, remember there are many more toppings than just chili! How can you forget lettuce, tomatoes, olives, salsa, ketchup, ranch dressing, sometimes fake hamburger, chopped onions, etc. Yes, growing up SDA I am partial to them, of course. They're basically glorified salads, really, and you can make a salad as tasty as you like.

    As for me, one food memory I have is of when I was touring the castles of England during Christmas break of the year I studied abroad (sophomore year of college). Nothing delicious, mind, it just sticks out. I was on a college student budget and while I had a handy train pass from my parents, I had to be extremely careful with my daily budget. For two weeks most every meal I ate cheese which I put in these little croisants. They were the two cheapest bread and cheese items that seemed to be in almost every little mini-mart across the country, so I was getting the same brand every time. A few times I branched out but it was mostly cheese and bread. I was thankful for the one hostel I stayed at that let you eat as much toast as you wanted, and I would eat several pieces a day, and sprinkle sugar on it and of course have some delicious English tea with it, as well.

    I also remember buying some roasted chestnuts on the street in Windsor, from a lady clearly in the holiday mood. I hated them. I guess I shouldn't have expected much taste, they're just warmed nuts!

    As for warm food that I remember as a kid growing up, eaten during winter, it has to be my mom's chocolate cookie loaf. As the name suggests, you cut out pieces like cake, of course, but it's a bit lighter than an actual cookie and heavier than cake. I can taste it now, fresh out of the oven! That and my mom's taco salad (all mixed up in a bowl with Catalina) stand out in my mind.

    But probably the most unique Thanksgiving meal I can really remember is my Thanksgiving in Chuuk, Micronesia. Out there in the islands they did not have whole turkeys really, but they sold thousands of turkey tails pretty cheaply! Our pastor especially loved barbequeing turkey tails. If anyone ever wonders why they've never had a turkey tail, it's because they cut them off and send them to the islands were people are adventurous enough to eat them! Plenty tough, small and round, I remember eating many a charcoaled turkey tail cooked over a barbeque of coconut husks, and we certainly had them on Thanksgiving (i do think someone managed to get us a whole turkey or chicken, though, somehow). Of course, we likely ate some tuna which we had caught ourselves, or mackerel. Oh, I caught and ate many a mackerel that year. We also could have cut up and eaten the shark we accidentally caught in the fishing net once, but we put it back in the water and hoped it would live, which we found out the next day it didn't.

    Finally, while I enjoyed plenty of Thai food while living in that country, one of the foods I always think of from the streets of Bangkok are deep fried bananas. The type of bananas they used were small and just an inch or two long, and covered in the unhealthy fried, breaded covering they were delicious and greasy! I struggled every time I passed a fried banana vendor on the street, I always wanted to eat them! And for something like 50 cents a small bag, they were too often irresistible.

  2. I remember the BBQ down soulth. We out here in the west mostly dont know what it is. We mostly seem thinking that throwing some burgers on the grill is BBQ. That's direct heat grilling. BBQ is cooked indirectly low and slow with smoke. You could smell it from a long ways away. Flavor! Oh my good Lord it was good! I remember This corn on the cob that they'd cook along side the meat. It was carmelized and smoky. They always had homemade BBQ sauce and coleslaw, but the ribs... I've not had such since. - Chad

  3. I don't really remember ever being all that excited for most of the food I grew up on since I was a vegetarian trapped in a meat loving household. I could tell you lots of horror stories revolving around that, but I'm sure you can imagine! And besides I'd rather focus on the warm fuzzies that food has given me! I also have fond memories of Indian tacos but as we called them Navajo Tacos. My best friend's mom Novalin used to come make them often, and us kids would just stare so stuck with our anticipation! I also have fond memories of coming home from school to the smell of freshly baked banana bread, waking up early to make my dad breakfast in bed, homemade pizza nights that we baked on actual pizza stones we would place in the oven, baking "special" treats for all my friends for Christmas a few years back, stir fry in the middle of nowhere in a Colorado winter, making cream cheese jalapeno fried wontons and banana battered onion rings in the middle of the woods at a rainbow gathering with my favorite kitchen: Shut up and eat it! They would wake everyone up every morning by screaming into a megaphone: If you don't eat, you don't shit. If you don't shit, you die. So eat, shit and LIVE!! SHUT UP AND EAT! I have always thought that was a great motto! Thanks for getting me thinking Catfish! It has been great to reminisce on all my favorite food memories! What a fun idea!