My grocery store visits are turning into museum tours. I walk down every aisle at the pace of an 80-year-old with emphysema and a cane. I linger over pickled shitake mushrooms, rabbit terrines, sour cherry spreads, basil and walnut pestos and jalapeno kettle corn. I contemplate the merit and aftertaste of dried kiwi and an Indian snack mix that looks like it would set my insides on fire. I act like I was born in Africa and am having my first North American grocery shopping experience.
In the checkout line I flip through the glossy magazines and find a recipe for a cake that looks like a pumpkin covered in orange M&M’s. I sometimes wish I was a Family Circle-type wife. I’d make recipes with Cool Whip and Jell-o and make a trifle with tiny coloured marshmallows that would be forever referred to as “Jules’ Trifle.” Like my Aunt Brenda’s “Broccoli Salad” with a tangy mayo-vinegar dressing, crispy bacon, sunflower seeds and raisins. It’s not really her recipe, but she made it once and it instantly became hers. My grandmother Joyce has her old standby “Green Fluff” (Cool Whip and lime Jell-o with pineapple tidbits—the ultimate 70s throwback that she has carried forward into 2009, solo). My mom has her “Baked Ziti” with noodles as thick and as long as garden hoses, a block of mozzarella, 10 cups of cottage cheese and a fiery tomato sauce that can keep a spoon upright.
We all need our own specialty. Dax has his “Betty’s Bread Pizza” and Oreo cheesecake, and my dad is best known for his towers of salad with two slices of buttered toast as croutons, piled on iceberg lettuce with six diced carrots. And Kiley? Well, she can blend a beautiful banana shake and makes a Banff-friendly trail mix with a decadent 75-25 chocolate-nut ratio.
I like to know what a person’s specialty is, it says a lot about them. I’ve evolved over the years, but I used to score high marks for my stuffed lasagna rolls (which were so intricate, it was like making a flock of origami swans). I moved on to Jamaican tarts, addictively savoury numbers filled with caramelized onions, spicy ground beef and topped with a jalapeno jelly glaze. I can also do quesadillas blindfolded–and gingerbread pancakes when in the mood to flip the batch of 56 pillowy crowd-pleasers that the recipe makes.
So how do we come about our own kitchen niche? I can’t imagine it stemmed from my great-grandmother who fed us “Slop” (ground beef, peas and onions) and “fish eyes” (tapioca) on a regular basis. My mother exposed us to a world beyond Captain Highliner fish sticks and Tater Tots (but we certainly ate those too). Is cooking genetic? Do we pass down our familial menus like tongue-rolling and bent pinkies?
Looking in somebody’s grocery cart speaks volumes more than a medicine cabinet. All the sins are exposed, and sometimes the guilt has to be vocalized and shared with the patron who’s next in line (like me, today). “I quit smoking four weeks ago, this is what keeps me away from the cigarettes,” the woman explained as she placed a box of 56 chocolate popsicles on the conveyor belt. “And these are for my husband,” she offered, as she put a box of mini pogo sticks beside the popsicles. I wondered if the two loaves of 100% white bread were an anti-smoking measure as well.
The check-out line is like a confession booth with fluorescent lighting. I didn’t feel a need to explain my California raspberries and soya milk to the Chocolate Popsicle Lady. Or the sweet potatoes and spinach. But, if you have bad stuff in your cart, the guilt rises to the surface faster than a goose egg. I’ve done it before myself, absently blurting out to the cashier or the person behind me, “Oh, it’s not for me, it’s for a friend.” Because the Diet Coke wasn’t for me. I felt compelled to defend my grocery cart’s contents.
And we’re all indiscreet Peeping Tom’s when it comes to the checkout aisle or a colleague’s lunch. It’s amazing how many co-workers get by on a pail-sized Starbucks something-or -others and “granola” bar. More often I am reminded of a petite Asian woman I did my massage therapy training with. A loved one had given her a waffle maker for Christmas, and the box suggested using waffles as a bread alternative. On the 40th day Grace pushed her waffle sandwich away, and with chubbier cheeks admitted she couldn’t use the waffle maker anymore. She waffled.
In elementary school I remember certain classmates for their distinct lunches. This of course being the golden era before peanut allergies ruined everything that was sacred. Richard Nott, for example, came to school EVERY day with six homemade chocolate chip cookies. His mother was as skinny as a whippet, and he was too. He always had a white bread peanut butter sandwich. Multi-grain was as unheard of as trans fatty acids in the 80s.
Despite wanting a ham and French’s yellow mustard sandwich for all my primary school years, my mom wouldn’t allow it. “You’ll get cancer eating ham sandwiches every day.” We believed her, and the day she put Dijon on my sandwich almost turned me off ham sandwiches forever (until my taste buds matured and I became a mustard elitist, embracing the Dijon and grainy blends).
She made us fantastic lunches that were like unwrapping Christmas presents. A Thermos presented so many possibilities. Sometimes Zoodles, often brown beans with a chopped wiener—but best yet? A hot dog in a Thermos! The bun would be as soggy as a diaper, and the boiled wiener resembled a bloated body found in the lake—but what a thrill. It took a few smacks on the bottom end of the Thermos to get the sucker out, but it was the envy (and stink) of the classroom.
Of course, we had a school-sanctioned Hot Dog Day too, which was the highlight of the month, generally. It was all very simple, white serviettes that could be mistaken for cardboard, split over-boiled weenies, mustard, ketchup and green relish. Jeff Kellam and David Spencer always ordered four hot dogs, and the rest of the class was in awe of their hot dog-eating prowess. Some girls only ordered one, battling self esteem issues even in grade 5. The biggest delight in Hot Dog Day was being allowed to take a can of pop to school. Somebody’s mother (Lois Isbister’s?) used to wrap her daughter’s can of Coke in foil, to keep it cold. I was so excited to have pop in the first place that it didn’t matter if it was as warm as a fart.
There were much anticipated Pizza Days too—greasy slices from Maria’s or Brick Oven Pizza. They were the only two places that would deliver to our country school. Shannon Johnson and I would always split a Hawaiian at who knows what expense to my parents.
Pizza was the main fuel of my high school years with Rosa’s pizza being situated a convenient one minute walk away. A slice and a pop for $2.25 was an economical choice and helped with my teen angst. Everyone was doing it. In fact, Stacy Hill and I challenged each other to a month of pizza-eating as a bet. She was five feet flat and could run like the wind, a cheetah and an Indian motorcycle. I secretly hoped the bet would make her more lethargic so I could finally beat her in the 1,500 meter.
Then I met Bob Vamos, the guy who hated to “break a toonie.” I ate the lunch my mom packed for me on the school bus for breakfast (well, the cookie part at least), then joined Bob for a decadent lunch of cafeteria fries, gravy and mayo (we were European back then). Also $2.25. I’m not sure why I didn’t become a candidate for stomach-stapling in those years.
I laugh to think that in kindergarten we were given prizes for eating our entire lunch. Talk about encouraging bulimia. I won a seashell once. Did I only finish my lunch once all year? Maybe the other prizes sucked. I guess I’m like a dog, I’m not ashamed to admit that I like rewards. It was simply the kindergarten version of the 76 oz. steak challenge.
My fondest memory though is of the Lunch Swap, which is not in any way related to the Key Swap parties of the 70s. Lunch Swap days at Mt. Pleasant Elementary involved drawing a number, and on that very special day, everyone brought an anonymous lunch that was also numbered. Four Michelin stars went to the leftover pizza lunches wrapped in foil, leftover KFC (even with the stone-cold mushy fries and Leprechaun barf coleslaw) and any lunch with a chocolate bar (and a real, life-size chocolate bar, not a “fun-size” or “Hallowe’en size” bar). Fudgeeos and Oreos ranked high on the Awesome Meter too, especially in groupings of more than two. Boos and hisses went to the kids who forgot to tell their parents about Lunch Swap day, and came with swampy tuna fish or runny egg salad or an everyday blah and peanut butter sandwich.
I wish I could do lunch swap now at the Rose Avenue School near Bloor and Parliament. The primary school has the highest number of nationalities and languages spoken in all of Toronto. For sure there would be pakora, samosas, korma and shawarma. I’d even give out my “I Ate My Entire Lunch” seashell for one of their lunches!
We’ve come such a long way since squashed, Saran Wrapped mock baloney sandwiches and chocolate pudding in pull-tab cans (and didn’t it suck when the tab broke off and you had a plastic spoon and no way to get into the pudding inside without lacerating yourself?). Now kids get Lunchables with pizza, crackers, cheese and chocolate bars. It’s like a marijuana munchies snack pack.
Maybe I will single-handedly bring back the hot dog in the Thermos. Or randomly give prizes to co-workers for finishing their lunch.
More importantly, what are you having for lunch? And what’s your specialty?