Growing up in Satellite Beach, Florida (“Where Progress Prevails”)......
.......in the 1960’s and 70’s, far from the glamour and culinary delicacies of a more cosmopolitan world, I was really gastronomically sheltered. We grew up in the shadow of the rockets of NASA where dining seemed to have been reinvented for the Space Age : this was the era of the packaged, the canned, the frozen and the freeze-dried; we were the Hamburger Helper, Cap’n Crunch, Ding Dong, Slim Jim and Spaghetti O’s generation. We lived at the dawn of the Meal-in-a-Kit Boom, where a good homemade meal consisted of a can of tuna and a box of noodles enhanced with a can of cream of mushroom soup and topped with crushed potato chips. Rip open the box and blend whatever mystery contents came out with hamburger. TV dinners, boxed macaroni-and-cheese, canned soup were the old stand-bys and very special treats to us kids. The 60’s was gadget cooking at its best - Shake & Bake, Great Shakes, Shake-a-Puddin’, Jiffy Pop (there was a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on). This was the time when parents and kids alike glorified and reveled in the modernization of the kitchen culture.
How did any of us who came of age in the era of the new-fangled, we of the meal-in-a-bucket generation learn to love, well, real food?
On the surface, there was little to inspire. My mom always made it clear that she didn’t enjoy cooking. When she decided to offer up the homemade, the ancestral recipes handed down, no Julia Child crossed our threshold, there was no Escoffier hanging from a branch of our family tree. Her family cooking was born of poor, Russian stock and it began and ended with liver the consistency of shoe leather, oven-baked fish and onions so dry that it needed to be choked down with a gulp of milk or, her favorite, a big insipid pot of cabbage soup. Poor mom. She claimed that she learned to cook from her mother who was forced to cook everything until it was carbonized for a suspicious and extremely kosher man, my Grandfather - I remember when he would come to visit us in Satellite Beach, my mom would pull us all into the kitchen before he arrived and hiss “Don’t ask for butter to put on your baked potatoes when we have steak.” My mother obviously hated to cook, but my theory has always been - those of us whose mother was a bad cook or whose mother was a fabulous cook would eventually turn to cooking ourselves - either because we were inspired by a great chef or because we really just wanted something good to eat.
Dinner at home, April 1970: slab of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, iceberg lettuce & cucumber salad. Yummy!
Mealtimes though, strangely enough, were usually joyous affairs, sometimes bordering on the hilarious. In between not annoying our father - normally a gentle and loving man who kissed us on the lips and said “I love you” every night before we scooted off to bed, but who’s dinnertime credo was “I don’t want a word out of your goddam mouths so I can hear the news” - and enfuriating our sister Sue without calling attention to ourselves, easily done with one of any number of facial grimaces or secret hand signals laden with meaning, until she exploded, we were great eaters. The spinach may have come from a can, but the one who swallowed the most was allowed to be Popeye for the evening; in front of a plate of broccoli flowerets, no matter how overcooked, we were tree-eating giants, battling for the right to be considered the strongest. Bananas squished between our fingers before licking off the mush or mashed potatoes pushed through our front teeth, chocolate pudding lipstick to imitate Ginger on Gilligan’s Island; mealtimes often turned into fun and games. I must admit that it wasn’t always plates of leathery liver or cold, jarred borscht. Dad’s waffles for dinner or steaks thrown on the charcoal grill, Surprise burgers or homemade submarine sandwiches, it was rarely difficult to get us to take our places at the table. Dinnertime was an oasis of family intimacy and laughter, sandwiched in between school, homework and hard play outside in the Florida sun and ice cream sundaes or one of dad’s desserts in front of the television.