My husband and I grew up on simple foods. Perhaps what best describes old-fashioned simple food tastes: We were hungry from physical work, and good food on the table was often the kind one grows in the dirt. My parents had a small farm and big garden, and Mom canned vegetables and some meat. Eventually there was a freezer and less canning. Mom baked bread. We ate simply and well. Lots of berries, fruits and veggies and very little processed stuff. Dad often said we ate like kings, especially when we were eating a fresh trout he’d caught. Meals were often a meat and potatoes affair. Now, I realize that these meals were delicious without much revision, tweaking or embellishment.
Later we moved over two-thousand miles away for college. Gradually we tasted the culture of a city and met people from other areas with different and varied tastes. And we were trying out our lives together.
After I married Clay many of our meals were like Mom’s with two vegetables including a salad, although I made more casseroles with smaller amounts of meat than she did. I gradually experimented more, and at picnics and social gatherings we came under the influence and tastes of fellow grad students and many different types of ethnic foods. We ate hummus, tabouli, and Moo Shu pork. When we went out, we tried gourmet fare like chicken mole and fricassee, dishes our parents had not heard of and did not make, and dishes that became so common they were no longer considered unusual. When they visited us I enjoyed trying out new dishes, hoping to impress them with different foods and combinations of foods.
Once when my parents came for a visit, I served them what I thought was a lovely exotic dessert. Fresh peaches slices are soaked in Chianti overnight. The Chianti takes on the sweetness of the peaches but without completely giving up its wine flavor. I made some almond biscotti to dip in the peaches with the peach/wine dessert or serve alongside, introducing a third flavor and bit of crunch to the rest of it. When we’d finished dessert, I asked Dad what he thought. He grinned and said, maybe it could have used some ice cream. I fondly remembered the two pies Mom made each weekend and the ice cream topping the slices, including the cream pie.
Clay says his dad did not stand on ceremony when he helped his busy mom by providing a meal for the family of five boys. The bread stayed in the wrapper and at least on one occasion, he burnt the pudding. He told the boys if they reached across the table and picked on the food before the prayer, they might pull back a stub. If one didn’t eat what was on the table, dinner was over for that brother.
Once when Clay’s folks visited, we all went to Florida and Disney World. There was a gourmet restaurant in the area with good reviews, and I was looking forward to trying it. Once we were seated and I looked at the menu, I was satisfied we’d found the right place. I don’t remember what any of us ordered, except Clay’s Dad. He ordered, not the gourmet dishes with unusual ingredients and preparations, not the pasta bolognaise or bouillabaisse, but a steak. I was sure this restaurant would cook it just right too.
Our dishes came and looked delicious. The waiter gave us a few minutes and then asked if everything was to our liking. It was then that Clay’s dad asked for the Heinz ’57. I saw the waiter quickly look askance and then recover. Perhaps he had to remember that the customer is always right. Dad was completely oblivious to all of this. In any case the waiter returned with the familiar bottle. Dad applied the sauce to his steak. Simple and unassuming, as though he expected this with no insult to the chef. He was accustomed to having steak with that condiment regardless of how the steak had been cooked just like Clay intends no insults to the chef when he adds ketchup or Siracha to foods I cook.
After that lovely dinner, Clay and I and his mom went to our rental car. We were pulling up to the curb in the ubiquitous generic car to pick Clay’s dad up after he’d stopped at the restroom. Then we saw him get into the back seat of another car that had pulled up to the curb ahead of us. We saw some words exchanged with the couple sitting in front, and Dad getting out of the car and back on the curb.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize your rental or perhaps the Heinz ’57 had made him feel welcome wherever he plopped down. Maybe he’d seen enough of Florida’s Anhinga and alligators, and unaccustomed to another state’s exotica, was ready to come home and eat comfort foods. Once again, he did not seem embarrassed but quietly enjoyed the laugh. He had a steady humble confidence and from the time I first met him, always made me feel welcome and comfortable as though he were glad to have a daughter. I was fortunate to have two good dads. Their tastes in food were simple. What they gave us in life was laughter, some freedom to grow, and a belief that food does not need to put on airs. But especially they gave us love—abundance in our simple lives, complex and full of blessings.
I don’t search for gourmet restaurants anymore. Is gourmet still “a connoisseur of good food and drink prepared artfully?” I seem to have lost the thread of what that is. Prepared foods in markets are readily available and just adding an interesting sauce can make more ordinary dishes seem gourmet. Alongside Heinz ’57 sauces like chipotle cherry, caper Dijon, and tomato pesto are available in the grocery stores. Biscotti, too all of these condiments and prepared foods, making it easier for cooks to add the more challenging or creative touches to menus with a wallet and a shopping bag.
When the virus was raging, and we weren’t going to restaurants at all, and a variety of recipes were more available than ever, I cooked more. I could make many dishes that tasted as good as restaurant fare in my humble opinion, or maybe the ordinary restaurants’ foods tasted gourmet after we’d not been there so long while those brave workers continued to take care with take out.
Food is delicious prepared simply. While food lines became longer during the pandemic, simple grilled meat became special or meatless, a fresh vegetable stir fried with rice, enough. Perhaps the peaches and Chianti were delicious with a touch of biscotti’s elegance, but a bowl of sliced peaches will always be delicious. Skip the Chianti. Add a scoop of ice cream.
I still love going to restaurants. Better than ever, restaurants are serving more delicious foods creatively as though relieved that the pandemic and preparing only take-out will not be forever. Spaced out, partitioned off, or eating al fresco, with or without Heinz ’57, being served is a treat. About those dirty dishes, they are someone else’s responsibility. I love meeting friends over food and knowing that smoky burnt smell is not coming from my oven, and the crash in the kitchen is not my wine glass. Sometimes I order dessert, and I may be surprised someday to see chianti-soaked peaches served with biscotti with a scoop of ice cream on the side.