Child Chef

April 29, 2024

I wish I weren’t as old as I am.  I wish that politics and governance hadn’t deteriorated as much as they have during these elder years of my life.  

In spite of that, I am glad to have started my life near the end of the 1930s and glad to have been able to witness, and then participate in what has happened to food since 1945, the end of World War II.

That is the subject of the book I’ve been writing – coming, in due course and with a little luck, to a bookstore near you.

Until my 50th birthday, I was just like everyone else who cared about food.  I wasn’t cooking for anyone other than me and my sons and dinner guests.  I cooked at home as enthusiastically as other men who cooked, and more enthusiastically than most of the women I knew.   The cooking of households in those days was without much thought assigned to the women of households.  They were cooking all the time for their families.  Some liked it; for many, it was a burden. 

My mother liked to cook for her family that was food-centered and still is.  Breakfast was hectic, all of us trying to eat breakfasts we fashioned for ourselves – eggs, bacon and other foods that could be prepared at the last moment – or the sardines, herring, and cheese spread on the table because my Swedish father liked to eat for his breakfast the foods of his childhood.

Dinnertime was unpredictable. The food was always good, and we noticed.  “What?  Swedish meatballs again?!  We just had that.”  (My mother kept a daily list so that she could respond to our selfish complaints.) 

 My father was moody at dinnertime.  So was Carla, my older sister (the creator of Politics and Prose). My mother was sunny.   My brother, Frank, was inside himself, and the other three were pretty young then, in the early Fifties.

I started cooking at the age of perhaps twelve because I got hungry in the afternoons after school.  What teenager didn’t get hungry in the afternoon?   Frank was there and Michael.  Anne and Ellen were there too, but too young to be interested in the foods that interested the rest of us.  Carla wasn’t there in most afternoons – and when she was, she would closet herself in her bedroom to get away from her brothers.  

Most of my siblings were content to drag into the living room the giant golden cans of Utz’s potato chips, a favorite snack of those who lived close to the Pennsylvania Dutch country where the best salty potato chips and pretzels, made in Hanover since 1921, were especially popular in Baltimore – still so.

We would remove the top, put the big can between our legs, and eat out of the uncovered cans.  Disgusting, but very satisfying to hungry, indiscriminate children.         

But I wanted a wider range of food when I ate in the afternoon two or three hours before dinnertime.

So sometimes I cooked.  I opened the refrigerator, a brother or sister peering over (or under) my shoulder looking, as I was, for something to cook.  Frequently, my mother had left a plate containing porkchops and a bowl of water with peeled potatoes.  She left notes on top, written hastily on lined paper: “For dinner.  Do not eat.”

 I made Dogwood sandwiches, piles of whatever ingredients I found in the refrigerator and combined even if combining wasn’t such a great culinary idea – cheese, luncheon meats or slices of leftover roasts, pickles and sauerkraut, whatever was there, piled on rye bread, dabbed with mustard or mayonnaise or both.  (No vegetables!)

There was always on the kitchen’s counter a large blue ceramic bowl filled with eggs that were delivered to our kitchen once or twice a week by our “egg man.”  I could make egg salad with mayonnaise and chopped celery and onion, sprinkled with pepper or relish or additional mayonnaise.  

If there was in the refrigerator leftovers of a ham, I could make a ham and cheese sandwich.

Sometimes, in desperation, I could find nothing and had to settle for peanut butter and jelly or jam, one side of toast rubbed redundantly with butter.

I wish that I could say that my having spent the past 35 years as a baker and cook started in my boyhood; but that really isn’t so.  

Nor did I who really enjoyed cooking that early in my life have any thoughts then about becoming a professional food-maker.  Cooking was something I did because I liked eating.  

More to come…

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