Can a moment be 25 years?
I’ve been trying to nail down a singular food moment that deserves the modifier “worst,” and am coming up empty. I’ll conveniently blame the hyperbolic state of food entertainment — having caught one too many episodes of Last Cake Standing (my husband despises that show, and really, so do I — how much drama can you possibly cook up in a cake-baking competition? [obviously enough to keep me watching to see if the cake! Really! Falls!] It’s like a soap opera of monstrous confectionery proportions). So when attempting to visualize a Worst Food Moment, I keep picturing this giant cake falling to the floor. The main problem being, of course, that my giant cake has never fallen, because I’ve never made one.
I’ve also never had food poisoning. Nor have I (to my knowledge) sickened anyone else with my cooking (though there was that one slightly-undercooked Thanksgiving turkey, which suspiciously affected only one family member). Those would be moments worthy of a one-upping storytelling contest at a party.
But I’ve got nothing. Except I keep coming back to the first 25 years of my life.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. There was the occasional pot roast or buttered farmer’s market squash cooked by my Mom; there were pivotal restaurant meals, like the time my Dad took me to a quaint Italian dive for my 12th birthday, and I first discovered eggplant parmesan; there were the late 70’s super-8 memory clips of shelling beans and picking blueberries at my grandmother’s bungalow in south Mississippi.
But those moments were exceptions. The rules were Velveeta Shells & Cheese, Chef Boy-R-Dee pizza, and swimming pools of milk. I seriously drank nothing else.
It’s interesting, I think, that the vacuum of real food for most of my life is what defines a worst moment. Because — when you think about it — eating boxes of pasta and powdered cheese is a pretty safe way to live. Not healthy, but safe. You’re not likely to be food poisoned, and you know exactly what you’re getting every time you open the box. But like the woman afraid to leave her house for fear of dying in a car accident or being struck by lightening, all of that perceived safety comes with a price.
I don’t like to get too political in this space. Primarily because I’m not a very political person — I have my opinions, but don’t tend to share them publicly or try to win others to a cause (laziness and apathy help). But I can look back at my life, growing up in a suburban 1970s-80s America, and see it as a microcosm of our society (the food part, not the big hair and Units knockoffs, though one could make a case). Our generation has tended to grow up expecting food to be safe. Not only literally — we sterilize most foods we consume — but also sensuously. We like to know what we’re getting, and when we find something we like, we are repeat customers.
I can one-hundred-percent completely identify with finding comfort in routine. I am a woman who will not go to sleep without a glass of water by my bed, and this is just one of several nighttime
compulsions habits. But there is something miraculous about food that allows my proclivity toward predictability to fall wayside. And it makes me sad, to think about all of those years that I didn’t like so many foods — simply because I didn’t try them or had never had them cooked fresh and not served from a can. I lived in a food desert of my own making, but didn’t realize it, because for a variety of reason — some self-inflicted, some circumstantial — I never ventured close enough to the horizon to realize there was a world beyond.
In the food movement as it currently stands, people of all ages are attempting a pilgrimage toward a closer, more adventurous relationship to our food. Part of this voyage involves turning away from previous habits of eating the same foods day after day, week after week, with no regard to season or consideration of what foods might be locally available rather than trucked in from across the country. A mistake I often fear is made by local food activists is setting the bar so high that people in transition — people like me who grew up in an environment antithetical to locavore eating — throw up their hands in frustration, unable to keep up with all the new (to them) rules. The way I see it, any small step toward better understanding the source of our food is a step in the right direction, and should be duly encouraged.
But, somewhat ironically, those steps often result in failure. We buy fresh beans, and steam them for a potluck, only to realize as no one can chew them that we bought shelling beans rather than an edible pod variety (me, in North Carolina, circa 2002). Or we join a CSA, and get a box-full of unidentifiable greens, and overwhelmed, let them go bad in our refrigerator (also me, in Georgia, circa 2006). We try to make yogurt and it’s lumpy, bake bread and it’s a brick, sprout grains and they mold, plant a garden and late frost kills every plant. All of those times, at the moment, seeming quite worthy of the modifier “worst.” We might curse, wring our hands in frustration, and wonder what’s the point.
Except there’s that tiny little part about learning something. Because those little mini-disasters turn into knowledge that we can’t gain from reading a cookbook — and with that disappointment under our belt we are all the more ecstatic when the next time (or the next) we succeed. The thrill of dirty-nail success, of being able to hand someone a thing of my own making and watch them enjoy it, of tasting something entirely new and wondering how I’ve existed without it my whole life — those are the joys I was missing for a quarter century. That’s the part that is most deserving of the superlative negative adjective. My Worst Food Moment, circa 1972-1997.
I wrote this post at the challenge of The Peche, as part of a fun little Pity Party on Twitter — never one to shy away from competition, especially when there are loads of other things to do. #Procrastination #WantingTheCookbooks