Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Peanut Butter in the Wine Rack: Food Memoir Part I

My parents gathered us in the living room and told us that we were moving to Argentina. My older sisters cried, no doubt for the drastic changes this would cause in their lives. Me? I didn’t really think much of it—I just wanted to know if Argentina had TV and food.
My parents assured me that it had both.
For the next five years, my family tried to hold onto our American roots while the Argentine culture tugged us gently, and sometimes forcefully, from our comfortable soil. Our culinary roots fed off good ol’ fashioned large breakfasts, fast food, Miracle Whip and other staples of the American diet. The menu during my early years in Centerville, Utah was fairly predictable. On Sundays we ate usually had pork chops or roast with mashed potatoes, and on other days of the week we could bet on spaghetti with a big pot of RagĂș Meat Sauce.
Despite the predictable culinary palette, my violent allergic reaction to milk products kept things interesting. If I touched the stuff, painful rashes would inflame my skin and I would swell up like an inflating basketball. The remedy was drinking Benadryl, a dreadful experience given my enduring gag reflex to liquid medicine.
That’s why we ordered pizza with one half without cheese. The ordering process usually involved the clarification “No, not half the cheese. Just cheese on one half.” When the pizzas showed up ignorantly covered with a full circumference of mozzarella, we picked it off. After scraping my slices, there wasn’t much left but sauce, which is probably why it’s still my favorite part.
When I first had macaroni and cheese instead of macaroni and margarine I was about fifteen. At school, bagged lunches satiated me since school lunch was infested with demonic creamy products like butter and, shudder, whey. Mom gave my teachers Starbursts to dole out to me when someone brought cupcakes or something else for the class.
To my everlasting appreciation, Baskin Robbins’ daiquiri ice flavor and the Starkiss popsicles at Dairy Queen saved me from further dessert embarrassment. When it came to Arctic Circle, however, I was out of luck. No ice-based confections there. Trying to include me, Dad finished one drive-through order with the statement “and one cone.” “Did you want ice-cream in that?” asked the crackly voice. “No,” Dad replied, “just the cone.”
When people hear about my allergy they look at me like they would rather be strapped to a raft, have a sweaty gym sock stuffed in their mouth and set off to sea than endure it themselves. Actually, I don’t remember feeling socially excluded or even wanting to eat milk products. I couldn’t miss tasting what I never had. But even after a decade of being allergy-free, I still can’t bring myself to drink plain milk or have it in cereal. The sight of it still makes my stomach turn and brings back memories of choking down Benedryl.
It seemed that Mom and I went to Arctic Circle for lunch every day, though she assures me that this was not the case and she made plenty of lunches. Nevertheless, our visits were so frequent it may not be coincidence that it closed just a few months after we moved. Arctic Circle had horse saddle chairs for kids where I sat as I consumed tens of thousands of calories in fries alone. The Galaxy Diner was another burger joint that shuttered soon after we left, and I still reminisce about it like an old friend. A friend with crispy battered fries and fluorescent green lime Sprites.
Eat-a-Burger knew how to cater to the younger crowd, too. Their kids’ meals came in small cardboard classic cars! I would take them home afterward and drive them around our house. When my family hosted girls from the Hong Kong Children’s Choir, we stopped in Eat-a-Burger to give them a taste of American cuisine. We ordered a monstrous amount of fries that came in what seemed to be a twenty-gallon bucket. Wanting to complete their American experience, we urged the Chinese teens to order root beer. To our surprise their faces became fraught with worry. They haven’t heard of root beer? Realizing they probably mistook it for actual beer, we took turns explaining that it’s not alcoholic, but the young Asians wouldn’t consent. “It’s like sarsaparilla,” Mom finally said. “Ah!” they exclaimed, “Sarsaparilla!” Their faces lit up and we ordered root beers for all.
One of our family’s longest standing food traditions going to the Chuck-a-Rama Buffet on Grandma Humphrey’s birthdays (she always said she didn’t want to live to one hundred, and her wish was granted with just three months to spare). While everyone was gorging themselves at their tables, my cousin Jeff and I would sneak off to the steaming, golden pile of scones. With no witnesses we poked a hole in each of them and filled the hollow morsels completely with honey before consuming them. Squeeze after squeeze we launched our taste buds into heaven and our teeth into the dentist’s chair.
But all was not fast food gluttony. As my parents would passionately interject, to this day they cultivate organic gardens and fruit trees. Perhaps my most transcendent childhood food experience was on a late summer’s morning long forgotten by everyone else. I awoke, earlier than my family, and went out to our twin peach trees. I plucked a plump offering and returned with my bounty to the kitchen. I poured Corn Flakes in a bowl and sliced the succulent orange-colored fruit into it. The abundance of juice from the just-picked peach was more than enough to cover the cereal—milk be danged! The crispy flakes and decadent peach chunks danced merrily across my tongue and etched the experience in my memory.

Click here to continue to Part II

1 comment:

  1. "Just the cone." I almost laughed til I cried. Poor Bryce!