Nigel Slater recently made a literary splash this year with the release of Toast, the story of his childhood as told through memories of food. Like Ruth Reichl, Slater defines his growing up years via primal food mileposts as rice pudding and canned ham. It seems that every few years someone comes out with a best-seller detailing how a side of creamed spinach set off a harrowing descent into adolescent angst. So why should I be different? While Proust had his madeleines and Ruth her apple dumplings, and I had my–
Chicken gizzards and collard greens simmered in shoyu and sugar??
Yup. That in a nutshell pretty much defines my culinary upbringing. While most kids in the mid-sixties grew up on American cheese sandwiches or Pop-Tarts, I tottered off to school with a ume musubi so huge it took up most of the space in my plaid Aladdin lunchbox (I was a classicist in those days). Other kids started their days with large, satisfying bowls of Sugar Frosted Flakes–I wasn’t allowed to leave the house unless I finished my fried-egg and baloney sandwich slathered in Miracle Whip and encased in soft, squishy white bread. (The egg was fried so hard it looked like one of the flying parasites from a Star Trek episode. And the baloney had to be fried so long that it cupped into a perfect semi-circle) In short, I grew up on what I call White Trash/Occupation Cooking, of which my mother was the ultimate (and to my knowledge, sole) practitioner.
Simply put, the basic tenet of WT/OC is whatever white trash recipe you have, it can always be improved with at least a half-cup of soy sauce. For instance: green beans? Fry ’em in bacon grease, then add soy sauce. Okra? Easy–pour in soy sauce while simmering and stir until it turns into a nice sticky sludge. Even French Dressing got a boost from a hit o’ Kikkoman. (Ever eat a salad at a Japanese restaurant? That’s the dressing.) Our family used so much soy sauce we bought it in five-gallon cans, the same size as those old gasoline cans used to fill lawn mowers. The only thing we didn’t pour soy sauce on was white rice alone–that, to my mother, was an abomination. (So was rice pudding, which to today makes me a little green thinking about it.)
How did my mother come to this type of cooking? I don’t know, other than the vague notion that my father tried to teach my mother American cooking after they married. Judging from the meals he made for us as children, I guessing that’s where the white trash element was introduced. I’m sure to a Japanese woman who barely spoke English, Dad’s cooking seemed pretty exotic. But even at seven or eight, I sensed she was tiring of the bacon-fat/cream-of-mushroom routine….
(To be continued…..I promise!)
What I’m Listening To: My old copy of Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that several cuts from the album was featured in Elf. I still feel bad I fell asleep right in front of him during his show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in the late seventies. (Hey–I had to get up really early to slice hot dog buns in those days…)