This morning, just as I was waking up, I dreamed I was cooking a dish that was meant to be a compendium of intense flavors: extremely sour and salty dried Chinese plums, Coca-Cola syrup concentrate from a little keg I had to tap, tiny silver birthday-cake decoration balls, and thinly sliced jalapeno peppers. The resulting amalgamation, which I pictured myself stirring in a sort of vat with a big wooden paddle, was sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, and crunchy; in my dream, it was very beautiful, and I thought just before I woke up: I have to make this.
Of course I won’t make that. Can you even get those little silver balls anymore? I am sure you can, but I haven’t made or decorated a birthday cake in many years. My mother used to keep them in our cupboards when I was little, along with a bunch of other things I haven’t thought about in years. After I woke up from that dream, I lay in bed, thinking about all the stuff we always had around the house when I was growing up in Arizona in the 70s — stuff that I never buy, or think about, or eat anymore.
It wasn’t only kid food – there was a whole array of things that, when we ran out of them, we would put on the shopping list, which was a common contraption, a wood back with a round paper roll on a dowel, the paper threaded through a steel corrugated ripper-offer at the bottom. A pencil dangled on a string next to it. When it was dull, you sharpened it. Our lists were written in everyone’s handwriting, from my mother’s illegible flat-lined cursive to my baby sister’s big spidery letters. We were all zealous about it; it was fun to add items. When we embarked on a trip to the supermarket, the list, often nearly a foot long, came with us.
There were certain things that we had around the house all the time: cottage cheese, for one thing, and Karo corn syrup and Graham crackers. We always kept a set of food coloring squeeze bottles in different colors, soft fat plastic containers with colored hats; they looked like a row of little gnomes. We replaced as a matter of course powdered sugar, popcorn, frozen mixed vegetables, and canned creamed corn.
Then there were those wholesome staples our mother bought that we didn’t care about, boring things like whole wheat flour and yeast for making homemade bread, fresh vegetables, wheat germ and Cream of Wheat cereal, prunes and raisins, and peanut butter, which had to be crunchy in our house. On most nights, she gave us cut-up raw vegetables or frozen mixed vegetables to snack on while she made dinner, which was more often than not some sort of fish or chicken or meat, one or two cooked veggies, and a starch. Dessert was also generally fairly wholesome: fluffy tapioca, or Jello with canned fruit cocktail, or warm butterscotch pudding from a box, or vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup poured from the little can we always kept in the fridge.
We yearned for the treats we only got once in a while: Vienna sausages in little cans with a pop-top lid, hot dogs and fish sticks and frozen chicken pot pies and TV dinners – when we were allowed to have them, we lingered over the freezer case, choosing carefully between Salisbury steak or fried chicken, dizzy with excitement. My little sisters loved Kraft mac and cheese; I was the only kid in the land who hated it, for reasons I have never understood. Once, we got to have Spam, fried in slabs, which we loved, but our mother thought it was disgusting and nixed the stuff forevermore. We never got pop, as we called it in Arizona, or sugar cereal, or chips of any kind, or processed sweets like Pop Tarts or Hostess anything, so these salty, fatty, special main courses were our indulgences.
Yesterday, we needed groceries; Brendan gallantly offered to go and get them. We hit on the menu for the next few nights, then I said, “And that usual other stuff we always get, and the stuff for Dingo’s stew,” to which Brendan replied, “Of course,” and off he went. He came home with two full bags and didn’t forget anything. We almost never make a list. We don’t need one: our shopping habits are so efficiently codified and our cupboards so ridiculously organized and pared-down, we always know what we need. Just like my mother’s kitchen in the 70s, we generally always buy the same things, but our staples seem lackluster compared to the glittering array of glamorous, thrilling stuff she stocked her pantry with – so lackluster I don’t even want to write them down for fear of falling asleep. (Here’s an example: gluten-free flax crackers. Canned kippers. Nettle tea. Goat cheese. Zzzzz.)
I’d rather think about baloney sandwiches on honey-wheatberry bread with thick globs of mayonnaise, with Campbell’s tomato soup, so salty I had to drink three glasses of milk with each bowl. And deviled ham… what the hell was deviled ham? Was it a ham paste you spread on bread? All I remember is that I loved it. I’m sure I would hate it now – along with all the other stuff I prized so dearly as a kid. It’s all too salty for me now, it all contains gluten, and it’s all probably disgusting. But in my memory, those foods remain just as delicious as they were back then.
Now, my favorite indulgences seem to have become those things my mother didn’t let us have, like potato chips. Last night, because we’re grownups and we can have whatever we want, we made ourselves pre-dinner cocktails and tore open a bag of Vinegar and Salt Kettle chips, sitting at the kitchen counter on stools, shoving handfuls into our mouths, crunching away, washing them down with lovely booze.
1970s afterschool snack
Take a handful of Triscuits and put them on a plate. Cut part of a brick of Cracker Barrel cheddar into slices. Put them on the plate. Take the plate into your room and get into bed with a book and lie there till dinnertime, snacking and reading like a pasha amid his silken pillows. Replenish as needed when your mother isn’t looking.