Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NY Times Gets It Wrong

I just read a puzzling article in the New York Times. I haven't read all of the comments, but I did note that some people reacted the same way I did. They found the writer arrogant and annoying.

The writer is describing the differences in the way her parents eat versus the way she and her siblings eat. That's fine. I get that there can be differences. I remember the first time I took my mother to an Ethiopian restaurant close to 35 years ago. She liked the food--she's always been an adventurous eater, as was my father, and so were all of us kids--but she couldn't deal with the community platter and eating with her hands. It made me giggle.

What had me metaphorically hitting the roof was her assertion that her "baby boomer parents" served slop and glop starch, just like their frugal parents had done in the depression. Whoa!

I'm a baby boomer. I sure didn't eat that way as an adult. My parents were children during the depression, but that's not the way they ate either, and it sure as hell wasn't the way my grandparents ate. Just because your parents had no skills in the kitchen is not a reason to make ignorant sweeping generalities about other people of their age. It just shows that you don't know what you are talking about. Hence, an arrogant and annoying writer.

I grew up in an Italian-American family, with a little Czech thrown in on my father's side. My grandparents kept gardens and used wild foods like greens in their cooking. My Czech grandmother could stretch a strudel dough by hand. My Italian great-grandmother made wine in the unheated back room of the house. My father hunted and fished, and there was often venison on the table in the winter, trout in the summer.

Food was a great celebration and a lot of the convenience foods of the 1950s were banned from our household. We never had frozen dinners. My father specifically refused to have Chef Boiardi canned goods in the larder. There was less objection to Campbell's soup, but mac and cheese was made from dried pasta, not Kraft, and tuna noodle casserole was regular home made fare on meatless Fridays. My mother baked, I learned to bake. I started pouring over her cookbooks by the time I was about 10, teaching myself how to make doughnuts and pizza. It was a time when there was still required Home Ec in junior high, and even then I couldn't understand why boys weren't required to take it as well.

Sunday meals were filled with extended family and always included a pasta dish in addition to a main course. Often my grandmother would make the pasta by hand. As I have written elsewhere, the smell of flour and eggs always accompanies my thoughts of her. She died in 1962, and my mother still complains that her own stuffing or tomato sauce does not taste like her mother's.

Eating out was a challenge because options were limited to us near home. I came from a truly small town of about 4,000 people. There was a coffee shop for breakfast after church on Sundays (we collected the little containers that had jam to use as doll dishes), there was a "nicer" restaurant for special occassions, but the nearest pizza place was 30 miles away until after I went to college. I am now under the impression that having a pizza place nearby was pretty unusual until the 1960s, but that was not my experience. If my parents really wanted to celebrate, we'd go to Binghamton and eat at the Little Venice, which, contrary to its name, actually served southern Italian food. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, no one knew what northern Italian food was.

My parents had met through mutual friends who were Greek-Americana, which introduced us to a different kind of ethnic cooking at an early age. I first learned how to make Greek food to impress a college beau, and it remains one of my favorite cuisines, along with its close relations in middle-eastern foods.

When I went to college on Long Island, and then, like the writer of the article, moved to New York City after college, the vast array of world cuisines was suddenly available to me. As an editorial assistant, my lunch generally alternated between the $1.50 lunch specials at Shalimar (Indian) and Cedars of Lebanon, each around different corners of my office. There was a Spanish (not Mexican) restaurant a few block from my apartment where I once saw Norman Mailer having dinner. Ararat was a special-occasion Turkish place, memorable for its sweet, thick coffee. I had my first experience with sushi and shabu-shabu because a photographer friend loved all things Japanese (I now have a son with the same obsession.) As everybody should, I have a story about the Russian Tea Room. New York has perhaps the greatest variety of food in the world (even when I lived there), which is probably far different from San Antonio of the Times writer's childhood. (It's been about 15 years since I visited San Antonio, and I had some terrific meals along the waterway.)

I too lived briefly in the San Francisco area, and there's still not pizza that compares with what you can get on any street in New York. But I was blown away by the Chinese restaurants, not limited to the Cantonese fare of the New York of my youth. I first had potstickers and hot and sour soup at a cooking demonstration at the Lou Henry Hoover House at Stanford. I was taken to Sam Woo's and entertained by the legendary Edsel Ford Fong and had noodles I've never found anywhere else.

So, Amy Chozick, as a friend of mine said, you are a food snob, and your premise, blaming the uninspired food of your childhood on your baby-boomer parents being raised by Depression-era survivors is wrong. Let me suggest a few other things: your grandmother, like my late ex-mother-in-law, was raised by someone from a white-bread culture who never learned to cook interesting food or was limited by the foods available in their area. I have found that many of my friends, whose families' time in this county greatly exceed the 100-125 that my families have been here, were raised on food that reflects that of your child hood. More recent immigrants are more likely to serve ethnic fare. Maybe your mother learned to cook in a Home Ec class, which had cookbooks provided by the gas or electric company and was heavy on the frozen or convenience foods of the 1950s and 1960s, or maybe, like a number of the well-educated, full-time working women I met when I lived in Washington, she just never learned.

What does the well-educated woman make for dinner? Reservations. Perhaps that wasn't practical for your mother, with a growing family in a pre-foodie-culture city. I raised my son, whom I suspect is around the same age as Ms. Chozick, to be an adventurous eater. He grew up eating sushi, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Mexican and Italian foods. That was easily accomplished in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of the 1980s.

I cannot tell you how many women I've known who were amazed that I did all of my dinner party cooking myself. I still meet contemporaries who marvel that I enjoy cooking. There is a crowd of people at my dinner table most Sunday nights who love the way this baby boomer cooks. So the problem, Ms. Chozick, isn't the baby boomers. I suggest you eat a little crow for your next meal and be nicer to your parents.