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Five childhood food memories, or the good, the bad, and the ugly

Yes, dear reader, it happened to me too. I’ve been tagged* to write about five food memories from my childhood, and frankly, I can’t resist. Though I’m ambivalent about memes in general—they trigger in me a sort of unspent, pent-up teenage rebellion; I won’t do what you tell me to!—this one presents an all-too-tempting opportunity to revisit a few of the greatest hits, some now thankfully out of rotation, from my family’s kitchen. What follows is a mish-mash of the good, the bad, and the ugly: I’ll let you decide which is which.

1. Bologna Roll-Ups

My mother was staunchly anti-“junk food”: no Cheetos, which she distainfully dubbed “Styrofoam peanuts”; no Hostess Twinkies, except for the occasional pack smuggled in by a kindly babysitter; and no sugared cereals, save for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch I’d filch from my best friend Jennifer’s pantry. Somehow, however, certain anomalous items escaped my mother’s sanctions, most notably Oscar Meyer beef bologna. In fact, I’m quite nearly made of the stuff: in the first several years of my life, I ate enough flabby, pale pink, processed lunch meat to probably permanently alter my cellular makeup. But I’m not talking bologna sandwiches. Most of the time, I asked instead for what my mother called the “bologna roll-up,” a slippery creation she’d herself invented. It consisted of a slab of bologna smeared with Hellman’s mayonnaise, rolled into a thin cigar shape, and eaten out of hand. Though perhaps best described as an experience rather than an edible item, at the time I loved it—fatty, smooth, saltylicious. Really, sometimes mother does know best.

2. My raspberries-and-cream-cheese birthday cake

In 1984, the Oklahoma City Junior League published a cookbook optimistically titled Superlatives. My mother, ever wise, bought a first-edition copy, and sometime thereafter I began celebrating my birthdays with its raspberries-and-cream-cheese layer cake. Among other things, the recipe calls for a box of white cake mix and half a box of raspberry Jello (still in powder form). The cake layers, tall and rosy, were cloaked in a cream cheese frosting dyed carnation pink with the other half of the raspberry Jello powder. Lest you have doubts, let me assure you that it was delicious: sweet, moist, and tangy with berries—or facsimiles thereof. In fact, the recipe was so well-loved—even by our (now dearly departed) dog Sasha, who once ate a still-warm cake layer right off the kitchen counter—that the page is covered with day-glo splatters of dried frosting. Actually, writing this gives me an oddly powerful urge to crack the spine of Superlatives and resurrect the cake in all its pink glory for my birthday next month. Mea culpa.

3. “Breakfast for dinner”

Sometime during her aerobics phase, my mother did a stint on Weight Watchers. Though its meal suggestions were not exactly the stuff of dreams, we stumbled upon one that would stay on our kitchen table long after the diet had gone: steamed spinach topped with an over-easy egg and shredded sharp cheddar cheese. We called it “breakfast for dinner,” and for many years, it was a weekly regular on the household menu. Though today I’d generally opt for sautéed spinach, a poached egg, and a finer cheddar than the orange block we used to buy, when I want an easy dinner, something comforting yet clean, I still make “breakfast.”

4. Beluga caviar in the bathroom

Despite my early love for bologna and items flavored with raspberry Jello powder, I knew a good thing when I ate it. To a large degree, I owe that to my father, who proudly introduced me to beluga caviar well before I even owned a training bra. He’d have it shipped in on special occasions from faraway places, and we’d scoop up the tiny, grey-black eggs with delicate mother-of-pearl spoons. For my parents’ anniversary, there was almost always caviar, and for my mother’s 40th birthday, my father delivered a tin of beluga and a bottle of champagne, both on ice, to their bathroom, where she was dressing to go out for dinner. And I remember several caviar-filled New Year’s Eves spent down the street at the home of family friends the Fretwells, where we’d crowd around the coffee table in the living room to eat caviar with homemade toast points, sieved egg, sour cream, and diced red onions. And then, the deathly expensive fish eggs devoured, their daughter Leslie and I would revert to normal activities, such as hiding in the closet, prank-calling, and pretending to be Harriet the Spy. Needless to say, my New Year’s Eves as an adult haven’t yet been able to measure up.

5. My father’s Saturday lunch

Now, item #5 isn’t something I used to consume myself, but rather a memory of a ritual that took place in our kitchen nearly every Saturday morning: my father’s post-garage-sale lunch. Without fail, it featured two ingredients: eggs and beer. Often it was an omelet, made in a heavy pan with a blue rubber handle and filled with (too much) sharp cheddar cheese, feta, or sautéed mushrooms. If it wasn’t an omelet, it was egg salad, a chunky improvised mixture of hard-boiled eggs, (too much) mayonnaise, diced celery, curry powder, salt, and pepper, mashed together in a red-and-white enamel bowl. On the side, he’d toast an English muffin or a slice of whatever bread happened to lurk by the toaster, and he’d wash it all down with a foamy ale, sipped from a thick stem glass with grapes and grapevines in relief around its sides. I can still picture him sitting there at the table, reading The Daily Oklahoman or a copy of The New Yorker, his beer glass ringing against the marble-topped table each time he set it down. I’m not sure why I haven’t tried to recreate the scene myself, here at my steel-topped table in Seattle, but something tells me it’s only a matter of time.

*Thanks, Kate, for offering the incentive to take this proverbial trip down memory lane.


Blogger Ruth said...

I love this particular meme. It allows us to peek into what makes growing up unique for each of us.

Bologna roll-ups sounds similar to our "stuffed chicken" just without the mayo. And my father's day meals were on Sunday.

Thanks for sharing your memories and making me remember my own.

7:41 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Clare Eats said...

I loved reading your responses to this meme :)

Of course you grew up on beluga.... how else could you have such great taste now!

9:20 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Compmouse said...

Wow! I thought I was the only one who did stuff like that, but instead of bologna I used ham and mayo instead. :9 Delish!

11:43 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Lovely meme, lovely answers Molly. Loved reading them!

11:49 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Fried bologna on white bread. Fried bologna.

Good meme!

12:20 AM, August 31, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

What lovely memories. Thanks for sharing. My husband survived on bologna and mayo sandwhiches all through elementary school.

7:50 AM, August 31, 2005  
Anonymous kayenne said...

nice one. i had my own ham and mayo combo when i was younger too. maybe i'll do my own 5 list. c",)

11:01 AM, August 31, 2005  
Anonymous abby said...

I loved the bologna roll-up story, it makes me feel like much less of a freak for my many childhood snacks of rolled-up "Lebanon bologna" with mustard (which had to be drawn in the shape of a smiley face before rolling up.)

9:40 AM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Ruth, I heartily agree--this meme has made for some wonderfully entertaining and insightful posts, yours being one of them! I loved reading about your mother's holiday cookies--it reminded me both of my paternal grandmother and of my mother. They made very different cookies--and as I mentioned in my comment to you, I never saw my grandmother's cookies in one piece!--but the spirit was the same. And like your mother, my mother worked hard to hide her finished cookies, although my dad or I would inevitably find them...

Thank you, Clare Eats!

Compmouse, between our two roll-ups, I think you definitely chose the better pork product!

Zarah Maria, you're lovely. Thank you.

Amy, so that is what drove you to vegetarianism, eh? Priceless, m'dear. Now I'm regretting having not passed the ole baton for this meme...you would have been an excellent candidate.

Foodiechickie, I did the bologna-and-mayo sandwich thing for a while too (when I wasn't, of course, taking my bologna roll-up style). By early grade school, though, it was replaced by plain peanut butter sandwiches.

Kayenne, maybe you and Compmouse should swap ham-and-mayo stories...

Abby, I'm not familiar with this "Lebanon bologna" phenomenon. What exactly is it? To think--I could have been eating *exotic* bologna, but I was stuck with Oscar Meyer! Hmph. At any rate, I see that you have a newborn food blog, with a great title to boot--congratulations!

4:49 PM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger violet said...

most of your childhood foods read like something out of the 1950's. that's so endearing!

i remember the first time i had caviar as a child was flying first class from dc to france. it was served on tiny garlic herbed, fish-shaped crackers. i hated it. i've never touched it since. i suppose i don't have exquisite tastes. :/

5:52 AM, September 02, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Mmm PB & J for me.

9:37 AM, September 02, 2005  
Anonymous Julie said...

Charming food memoir, Molly. Yours seems like a particularly American childhood, so much like mine. We too were great devourers of caviar on special occasions (which I think of as being due at least in part to our Russian heritage), champagne, good French food. And we also had our various fondnesses for grilled American cheese on white, salami, hot dogs, cheese-peanut crackers, lemon cake made with mix and lemon jello...

I loved doing this meme also -- and I've really enjoyed learning these bits of other bloggers' food histories.

11:12 AM, September 02, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Violet, you know, this all does sound pretty 1950s, doesn't it? Thank goodness my mom had retired her kidney pie recipe by the time I was born! Oof. And as for your taste, I assure you that there are plenty of exquisite palates in the anti-caviar camp! Plus, how good can airplane caviar be? I mean, really.

And Julie, we'll have to swap more childhood food stories on Wednesday, m'dear. I'm really looking forward to it...

5:29 PM, September 03, 2005  
Anonymous abby said...

"Lebanon bologna" is a fancy name for something that tastes like salami, sort of. Y'know, until looking it up just now I had no idea it was a regional treat. (I grew up in Philadelphia.)

11:23 AM, September 07, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Many thanks, Abby, for introducing me to the regional delicacy that is Seltzer's Lebanon bologna! It sounds much more appealing than Oscar Meyer...

8:06 AM, September 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, we've been eating bologne roll-ups with mayo (and sometimes american cheese) since i was 2 - not an original invention - sorry - they are yummy, though

6:53 PM, September 12, 2005  
Blogger Steph said...

Funny, I've read your blog before, but I never saw this post... I was googling out of curiosity to see if anyone mentioned the Superlatives cookbook online. My maternal grandmother and aunt and some of my mom's cousins were in the OKC Junior League in 1984 so several of the recipes were actually family staples (some dating back to my great-grandparents, etc.) There were certainly some interesting food items in that thing. I wish I could find mine... I have my grandmother's copy of the book somewhere, but I just can't find it right now.

12:43 PM, June 26, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Oh, I hope you find it soon, Steph! I was just thinking about that book - and remembering that raspberry cake - when I was in Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago. I was tempted to bring the recipe home with me and try it again, but then I forgot, and before I knew it, I was on the plane back to Seattle. Harumph! Next time, next time...

11:48 AM, June 29, 2007  
Blogger Kelley said...

The Fretwells.... Ed Fretwell - wasn't that a plymouth or dodge dealership? west nichols hills grade school, hoover jr. high, john marshall HS - left in 1983.
whole family is gone, but i'm having a sadness i can't explain

11:25 AM, July 14, 2008  
Anonymous Marisa said...

Molly, I just finished your book and loved it, but as a proud Madisonian - home of the Wienermobile, it appears that you refer to our company as Oscar Meyer, when we refer to is as Oscar Mayer...why the misspelling?

I can't imagine it made it into your book and onto your blog as an error. Is it a copyright thing? Please, enlighten me.

5:52 PM, September 24, 2010  
Blogger Molly said...

Marisa, nope, nothing that exciting! It's a simple misspelling. I wish the copyeditor of my book had caught it! I'll correct it here.

8:05 PM, September 25, 2010  

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