As I sit waiting to see who Gordon Ramsay will reduce to tears on Hell's Kitchen tonight, I contemplate my culinary history and its standing in the grand scheme of things. The early years consisted of what I might euphemistically describe as honest cooking with simple ingredients with an eye toward economy, but that's like dumping a can of Durkee's over a vat of condensed cream of mushroom soup and calling it cuisine. More accurately, it was midwestern non-ethnic white people food.
I did not encounter a taco until I was ten years old and living in the relatively teeming metropolis of South Bend, Indiana.
Before that it was a trailer park next to a lake outside a small town in southern Illinois. My mom was never big on cooking and didn't pick up the wide range of American standards her own mother put on the table on a regular basis. My grandparents fed me a steady stream of roast beef with noodles, chicken and dumplings, pork chops and scalloped potatoes, turkey and dressing.
Mom's repertoire was a bit more limited, but I didn't notice or mind at all. I'm sure we must have eaten more than four dishes on a rotating basis, but my memories of early childhood meals feature only these: Sweet Sue chicken and dumplings from the can (still available online! I swoon!), pizza (Jiffy crust mix from the box, slathered with tomato paste straight from the can, sprinkled with dried basil and oregano, topped with browned hamburger and mozzarella), beef Stroganoff (noodles. lots and lots of noodles), and the absolute star of the kitchen and highlight of any given gustatory week: Spanish Noodles.
I do not pretend to know why anyone thought this dish had anything to do with Spain, although the "noodles" bit of the title is accurate enough. The recipe: brown ground beef, drain, add can of tomato sauce (or was it ketchup?), squirt of mustard, and several slices of American cheese, stir until melty, dump over cooked egg noodles, stir around into a giant glob, serve.
Horrifying! And so delicious and toothsome! Did I mention this was in a trailer park?
My move to South Bend at age 9 opened up culinary worlds I had no idea existed before. Alien foods called "enchiladas" and "hong sue chicken" blew my hick tastebuds straight into stunned wakefulness. Thank you, Happy House. I would find your Cantonese fare way too tame to be happy there now--amazing egg rolls aside--but you served your purpose, even if your odd choice of house accompaniments (pull-apart rolls served with every dish!) led me to ask really inappropriate questions the first time I went to a Thai restaurant in Evanston (you want bread? are you out of your mind?) As did you, Hacienda, and your wonderful--if unfortunately named--smothered burritos. And you, Al's Anchor Inn, with your homemade pierogi and frog legs on Friday nights.
Then I went away to college in Chicagoland, within a 45 minute train ride of pretty much any cuisine on the planet, and never looked back. Thai, Szechuan, Italian, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Mexican, Peruvian. And trips back home to southern Illinois had their high points--breaded tenderloin sandwiches from the bar in Sullivan, Indiana (a hop, skip, and jump away); tacos on Tuesday nights at the Town House Tavern in Lawrenceville (a hop away) that were shredded beef cooked with onions and green chiles topped with "sweet sauce," otherwise known as pureed jalapenos, wrapped in delightfully blistered and flaky tiny flour tortillas (where the hell did those come from?); and the ever-reliable Big Murt burger and chocolate shakes from Hovey's on Main Street in Olney.
What a wonderful world to live in, with such wonderful things to eat.