Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Things I Used To Eat When I Was Growing Up In Missouri

A lot of people think that just because I'm from Missouri I've never eaten anything. Nothing could be further from the truth. Go ahead, measure the distance between the belief that I've never eaten anything and The Truth and you'll find a distance greater than that between the earth and the sun. You'll need some pretty long arms to hold that tape measure, I'll warrant you.

But seriously, I ate quite a lot of things growing up in Missouri. Here are twenty-five of my favorites from childhood. Some of which I still find myself eating from time to time even today, well into adulthood.

1. Peanut butter and syrup.

My mom would often make this for us kids in the morning if she was in a hurry and didn't have time to cook anything. We didn't know the difference. As far as we could tell, she spent hours on this meal. It was many years later when I finally realized how easy it had all been. She would take a slice of bread, spread some peanut butter over it and then pour syrup over that and hand us a fork. I remember always liking it, partially because I liked the trippy swirling patterns that the peanut butter and syrup used to make. I used to stare at the end of my fork before each bite, blowing my young and impressionable mind.

2. Biscuits and gravy.

Need I say more? The ultimate breakfast food. You can't get it in New York at all and in California they ruin it by making it healthy--I've even seen green gravy in San Francisco! No, no, no! The white gravy with the little bits of sausage in it. In the Midwest, in the South, that's where you find the real stuff. Biscuits and gravy were the perfect foundation food. You could eat them alone as a meal or you could pile all sorts of stuff on top of it--like hash browns, bacon strips, or cheese slices. At the Shoney's Restaurant breakfast bar in Sedalia, I used to even cover it with mushrooms! Ironically, I never preferred my mother's biscuits and gravy. She wasn't that good of a cook, actually. There were very few meals that she made that I enjoyed. One was the aforementioned peanut butter and syrup and the other was--

3. Burritos (and Mexican food of all formats: homemade, restaurant, and fast-food)

Soft flour tortillas, Old El Paso refried beans, grated cheese. Yes, burrito night was a happy night in our household. At least for me. My sisters hated them. Not me. I was always sure to clean my plate when two burritos were on it. This passion for burritos--and, by extension, Mexican food in general--I have carried with me all of my life. From Taco Bell to Tijuana, I've tried them all. Some old Missouri standouts include Mexican Villa in Springfield and El Sombrero in Sedalia. Gone, but not forgotten include Taco John's and Taco Grande.

4. My dad's chili

Technically, chili falls under the rubric of Tex-Mex, which is why it is receiving its own slot here. The only time my father stepped in to do anything remotely domestic was when he made chili. It was filled with meat, beans, and tons of melted cheese. It was painfully hot--indeed, that was its charm. And the masochist in me couldn't resist chasing each bite with a raw jalapeno pepper. Mostly to impress my father who was fond of eating jalapenos straight from the jar. I used to take three slices of Kraft American cheese and lay it on top of my already cheese-saturated chili and then crunch up a fair amount of Saltines to sprinkle all over. The result was an irresistible paste!

5. Handi-Snacks Cheese and Crackers

This was an after school treat. I remember watching "The Flintstones" in the late afternoon, munching away on Handi-Snacks Cheese and Crackers. For those of you who don't remember, Handi-Snacks Cheese and Crackers consisted of a small plastic tub with two compartments. The longer one contained a stack of five crackers. The shorter one contained processed soft cheese. It came with a little red stick that you used to spread the cheese onto the cracker. I had a ritual with these. You see, I liked the cheese a little bit more than the crackers. So I would spread a tiny amount on each cracker and eat them quickly just to get them out of the way so I could focus on my real interest: the cheese sans crackers. Once all the crackers were gone, I would scoop up the remaining cheese with the red stick and shovel it all into my mouth.

6. Oatmeal pies

You know, if you asked me today if I would like an oatmeal pie, I would probably say no. But when I was a child, I ate quite a good deal of these. Small little cream filled things with an oatmeal cookie covering. I can't tell you why my interest in oatmeal pies faded over the years. It's probably best not to think too much about it.

7. Coca-Cola

We were raised on Coca-Cola. We drank it more than milk, more than juice, more than water. Our refrigerator was always packed with cans. In the garage, dad kept an extra supply of twelve-packs in case we ran out, which was quite often. As a child, I averaged anywhere from six to twelve cans a day. I was never discouraged out of concern for my health from drinking such an excessive amount. Rather it was because my parents drank even more of it than I did and didn't want me guzzling too much of their stash. Nowadays, my favorite soft drink is Dr. Pepper. But back then, I hated it--mostly because it didn't taste like Coke. Pepsi, as you might have guessed, was frowned upon severely. It simply wasn't done in our household.

8. Mister Salty pretzel sticks with Frito-Lay bean dip

This was another after school snack favorite of mine. A bag of Mister Salty pretzel sticks and a can of Frito-Lay bean dip. I would take a cluster of pretzel sticks and scoop up a generous amount of bean dip (some brown paste in a tin can) and wash it all down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Often I would go through an entire can of bean dip and half a bag of pretzels in one sitting. I couldn't eat anything else with bean dip except pretzels--even though I know now that most people probably used chips; or perhaps refrained from bean dip altogether.

9. Totino's party pizzas with pizza rolls

My mother used to buy Totino's party pizzas, which I absolutely loved. She would spray the baking tray with Pam before heating one up in the oven and, like one of Pavlov's dogs, I would come running. I want to be very specific that no other brand of frozen pizza did for me what Totino's did. As I've gotten older, I've noticed that Totino's aren't available in many places anymore. I'm concerned about the company, to be honest. I hope they're doing well in these tough economic times. When I was a child, I used to eat an entire party pizza with a fork. Even though on the box it says that one pizza will serve up to four. When I started living on my own at sixteen, I used to cook two of them simultaneously (preferably sausage and pepperoni combination) and sprinkle a box of Totino's pizza rolls over the top of each pizza. When everything was cooked, I would pull the tray out of the oven and put one pizza on top of the other with the pizza rolls sandwiched in the middle. I would then put the entire concoction in a bowl and eat it all with a fork.

10. Pillsbury cinnamon rolls with lots and lots of butter

Another breakfast treat before school. Honestly, I was less interested in the cinnamon roll and more drawn to the butter, which I would heap without consideration, either for personal health or my mom's grocery budget, centimeters high on each roll. I was not satisfied until the entire top of the roll was yellow with slowly melting butter. The best time, I thought, to take a bite was when the butter was still cold and the roll was hot. The two temperatures turned into a tantalizing tornado of taste!

11. Pop Tarts with lots and lots of butter

The same as above except with hot pop tarts instead of hot cinnamon rolls. Butter spread all over the rectangular surface of the pop tart (the flavor of which was irrelevant) and bites taken while the butter was still cold.

12. Reese's peanut butter cups

As the commercial says, "There is no wrong way to eat a Reese's". True enough, although I was always filled with remorse at the fact that I devoured the cups whole with one swallow. I ate everything that bore the Reese's logo. The single and double and king-size packs of the peanut butter cups. The miniature ones that came in bulk-sized plastic bags. The easter-egg shaped ones that came out once a year. And, though they were not my favorite, even Reese's Pieces had a special place in my heart. To this day, I always take note when Reese's comes out with a new variation on an old theme. My personal favorite over the last few years has been their Crispy Crunchy Bar. When I was very young, probably six or seven, I remember asking my mother "What is Heaven?" She answered, "Heaven is a place where you have everything you've ever wanted for all time." For years, I imagined Heaven as a grocery store that carried nothing but Reese's products.

13. Buddig brand sandwich meats with Kraft American cheese slices.

I was probably in 5th or 6th grade when I got turned on to Buddig brand sandwich meats. I wonder if anybody remembers them or if they're even available anymore. They were very heavily processed, thinly-shaved meats that came in handy little pouches. Supposedly they could make three or four sandwiches. Not for me. The whole clump of meat came out of the pouch and went onto the bread. Then came three individually unwrapped Kraft American cheese slices. One on the top of the meat, one on the bottom and one right in the middle. When I began living on my own and buying my own Buddig brand sandwich meats, I realized how impractical they were on a cost level. I think for the same amount that an individual pouch of Buddig meat cost, I could have bought an entire week's worth from Oscar Meyer. Buddig brands came in all different kinds: Corned beef, pastrami, ham--but my favorites were chicken breast and turkey.

14. Stove-Top stuffing and my grandmother's noodles

I have put these two together because I associate them both with Thanksgiving. For most people, Thanksgiving is Turkey Day. For me, at least when I was younger, it was Stove-Top Stuffing and My Grandmother's Noodles Day. I haven't had grandmother's noodles in a while, so now it's just Stove-Top Stuffing Day. It's a consistency that runs throughout my dietary preferences. You can see the same principle operating with biscuits and gravy (#2) and my dad's chili (#4)--that is, the more a food resembles a thick, colorless paste, the more apt I am to enjoy it. As far as my grandmother's noodles, I don't really know what they were. They were just long, flat white noodles. When I saw a picture of a tapeworm in a medical book years later, I thought "Wow! That looks like one of grandmother's noodles!"

15. Four plain McDonald's cheeseburgers

By the time I entered fourth grade, my regular meal when mom would take us kids to McDonald's was four plain cheeseburgers. I ate them all in one sitting, usually averaging no more than three bites per cheeseburger. Only McDonald's had a special saltiness to their meat that I found difficult to describe but easy to devour. Today, I still prefer them plain--although I usually don't order them that way. You see, my main beef (no pun intended) with non-plain cheeseburgers wasn't the ketchup or the mustard or even the onions. It was the pickles. The goddamn, motherfucking pickles. I hate pickles more than Satan himself. You'll never get me to eat a pickle, I'll guarantee. Nevertheless, ordering four plain cheeseburgers (now, it's usually five) takes longer than ordering four regular cheeseburgers, because they have to make them special just for me. So now I just order them "as is" and wince when I lift up the bun to remove the pickles from each one. I detest pickles so much, I can't even bear to look at one longer than a second. Needless to say, pickles have no place in this list!

16. Hardee's Mushroom and Swiss Cheeseburger

I was eleven or twelve years old when Hardee's (known as Carl's Jr. on the West Coast) unveiled their Mushroom and Swiss Cheeseburger. There have been plenty of imitators since then, but I bear witness here today that Hardee's was the first; at least in the field of fast food. It was a stroke of genius. In so many aspects, their food was atrocious. But the combination of mushrooms, Swiss cheese and hamburger on a lightly toasted bun breathed new life into a fast-food franchise that, already at such a young age, I had cynically turned my back on.

17. Cauliflower covered with melted cheese

One of the only vegetables I don't mind eating--save for broccoli when I'm at some social function and they have one of those plastic trays with the dip and I'm looking for something to do with my hands because I'm bored with all the small talk--is cauliflower. The reason I liked cauliflower as a kid was because it was so bland and tasteless that it didn't interfere with the taste of the melted cheese. You may be noticing another dietary pattern here. As with butter in the examples of pop tarts and cinnamon rolls, certain foods like cauliflower were merely an excuse to eat melted cheese. That is to say, I could have eaten butter and melted cheese straight--yet, despite my ever-escalating eccentricity--even I knew that would be a trifle weird. Cauliflower, like pop tarts and cinnamon rolls, were simply a means to an end.

18. Cookie dough

When my mother made cookies, I could have given a shit less about the end product. It was the dough I was after. Many a time, she would leave a bowl of dough on the counter, go off and run an errand, and return to find half the lump missing. She used to tell me that I would get "worms" if I ate too much of it. I didn't really know what she meant by "worms" until we took our dog to the vet after she got heartworms. I swore off dough for about six months following that. Nowadays, I get my fix in the summer months with cookie dough ice cream. I remember feeling a sense of connectivity when I saw that ice cream companies were unveiling a cookie dough flavor, for I knew then that I was not the only one who had grown up enjoying its singular taste. There are many of us from all walks of life, all over the globe. Out of the closets and into the streets, I say. Although I should note here, once again, the consistency factor; for it was in this spirit that I also enjoyed a brief period of eating play-dough. A flavor I doubt that even Ben and Jerry, in all their corporate psychedelica, would deign to unveil.

19. Dairy Queen's Peanut Buster Parfait and/or Hot Fudge Brownie Delight

It was one or the other of these delightful delicacies for me when we visited the local Dairy Queen. And it was the hot fudge that piqued the interest of my taste buds. The ice cream, quite often, got in the way. A big blob of vanilla nothingness that one had to wade through with a small red plastic oar just to strike oil. Black gold. Texas tea. . .

20. Snickerdoodles

My mother used to make this type of cookie called a Snickerdoodle. I couldn't tell you what it was or even what it tasted like. I know it had some sort of sugary coating and it was soft and chewy. But that's about it. I just know that I loved them and couldn't get enough.

21. Crab Rangoon

This one almost didn't make the list. Remember, these are all foods that I ate while growing up in Missouri. I discovered crab rangoon when I was fifteen--one year before I left home and became a man. Had I waited just a little longer, crab rangoon would have found itself on The List of Twenty-Five Foods I Discovered As An Adult (due in November from Harper/Collins) Before I lost my crab rangoon virginity, the only thing I found halfway interesting about Chinese food was the fact that they made cookies that had little slips of paper in them. Crab rangoon, however, turned my whole conception of the Orient inside out. It expanded my mind. I became interested in Eastern thought. I started reading the Tao te Ching. My mind ran rampant with questions galore: What strange food was this; so crunchy, yet so pasty? Why do only some Chinese restaurants sell it? Is it only for the elite? How curious that, despite its name, I can taste no crab in this concoction. . .as indeed I could with. . .

22. Crab legs!

I was twelve years old and was spending the summer with my father in Texas, who was supervising the construction of a Western Auto store in Houston. One day, following work, he and a co-worker picked me up from the motel and we drove to a place called The Heritage Restaurant. I remember on the sign outside reading the word "smorgasbord". I asked my father what "smorgasbord" meant and he told me that it was a buffet. That made me happy, because I knew what a buffet was. I love buffets. I know, I know--it's lower-class and red state of me to say so, but still--I love buffets. In fact, I would count buffets as one of the top twenty-five in this list, but the very nature of a buffet prevents it from being compartmentalized in such a limiting manner. That is to say, if a plate of food is Jesus the Son, then the buffet is God the Father. The enjoyment I receive from both, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Yet this particular buffet table sported something that I had never seen before at a Western Sizzlin' or a Golden Corral or a Ryan's Steakhouse--dead crab body parts! My healthy curiosity got the better of me and I went back to our booth with an absurdly large pile. My father, in a rare instance of paternal patience, showed me how to use the nutcracker/plier thing, extract the meat, and dip it into the lemon/butter sauce. The taste? Well, to rework a recent metaphor, if the crab is God the Father and the meat is his Son, Jesus Christ, then I had just had my First Communion! Zowie! Wowie! But the drag was, it took so damned long to get to the meat. Especially when one is mechanically inept, like myself. So today, if you gave me a fork and a tub of crab meat, I would go to town. But getting it from the crab legs themselves? No. I am much older now and life is too short.

23. Long John Silver's Fish and Hushpuppies

There was something beyond the food at Long John Silver's that appealed to me. Don't get me wrong, the food was (and still is) excellent. But there was also an adventurous element that appealed to a young boy's imagination. It was the gestalt of the dining experience. I don't see too many Long John Silver restaurants anymore, but the ones I have seen in adulthood (most recently, the one near Vallejo, California) have been converted to look like any other fast-food franchise. They've lost their individuality, to be sure. But back in the day--oh, back in the day!--a kid could be the king of the high seas! The restaurants looked like pirate ships! The people at the register even wore pirate hats! My family would get a seat near the plate glass windows and, unlike the grownups, I didn't see cars and trucks buzzing by on South Limit Avenue. No, I was on the ocean, braving the waves, consorting with the sordid and vulgar pirates that manned the rickety ship. I ate voraciously to give myself strength, because I knew that at any moment, I might have to draw my sword to defend the skull and crossbones that flapped overhead. Yummy hushpuppies. The scrumptious breaded fish. And those addicting little fried crispy things scattered all over the styrofoam plate. Years later, LJS introduced chicken into their menu. I was older. Time to put away childish things. No more fish for me. It was a box of ten chicken pieces and some honey mustard to go--and a baseball game on TV back at a lonesome apartment.

24. Cornbread and pinto beans cooked in a pot with a hambone

One of the other rare meals in which my mother excelled. Exactly as the title suggests: you put a bunch of pinto beans in a boiling pot with a grisly hambone, let it simmer for awhile, and then serve them on a plate with a huge chunk of cornbread. Why did I love this so much? Well, let's see--if you mash up the the beans and mix it with the crumbly cornbread, you get a thick, colorless paste! You see, although I deplore socialism for humans, I quite like it for articles of food. If only everything edible could be stripped of its individuality and rendered into a thick, colorless paste, how happy my stomach would be!

And, finally, before I announce the last one, let me just say that this list is by no means comprehensive. There were many qualified foodstuffs from my past that, for the sake of space, had to be omitted. That being said, the last one on this list is:

25. Pussy

Ha! Ha! Just joking. No, I wouldn't discover that food until I was seventeen! But seriously, the last one on the list is:

25. String cheese

One of the most interesting toys every invented is the Russian matroshki, or nesting doll. That is, the doll within a doll within a doll. I've been fascinated with the concepts of macrocosm and microcosm ever since I was a child. I could literally meditate on a matroshki for hours, even to this very day. Can the layers of larger dolls extend into infinity? Can the smaller dolls become infinitesimal--going from atomic to the subatomic? Can matter be dismantled ad infinitum? The matroshki seeks to, at least on a subconscious level, pose this existential question. On the dietary plane, the same can be said for string cheese. How many strands of string cheese can one peel away until nothing remains of the original portion? I spent many an afternoon in front of the television, coming up with a myriad of answers to that question.