M.F.K. Fisher, in her essay, When a Man is Small, wrote “[w]hen a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity that soon dims.” Later she writes, “[S]ome foods are utterly delicious, and he thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.”
This essay got me thinking about the foods I once loved but haven’t eaten in years and, quite frankly, would find revolting if forced to eat them now, even on a deserted island with Kira Knightly. These were foods that I once gobbled up with a mindless intensity, blissfully ignorant of their blandness, chemical notes, or over-processed and over-salted construction. But damn did I love them at the time! While I would like to say that the following chronological list reveals some kind of culinary growth, each one is as banal as the one before it. Here they are: Vienna Sausages, T.V. Dinners, Hostess fried fruit pies, and Hot Pockets (don’t judge!).
OK, let’s start with the Vienna Sausage. That round, little, pale “sausage,” tightly packaged seven to a can. (This was actually a trivia question during trivia night at a local bar recently!). True story: when my twin boys were just starting out on solid foods we gave them cans of what appeared to be Vienna sausages, but which were actually called “meat sticks.” I’m not kidding! I guess this was a marketing improvement?! Well, I had to try one and, “oh my God!” I bleated, “these taste like shit!” Neither I nor my boys have had “meat sticks” since!
Moving up the culinary hierarchy, my next stop is an icon of Mad Men America: the T.V. Dinner! I’m talking about that aluminum, four-sectioned, school-lunch-tray variety of the late 60s and 70s. Damn, did I love T.V. dinners. (When my Mom pulled one from the grocery sack, I got more excited that a senior citizen yelling “bingo!” at Shady Pines nursing home!) My favorite variety was fried chicken, perhaps because I grew up in the South; though this probably irked my Mom—though she didn’t show it—because she made damn good fried chicken. Of course, there was always that mystery desert at 12 O’clock. It was either some kind of chocolate or cherry concoction.
Speaking of cherry concoction, the next item on my list is the Hostess fried fruit pie. I must have eaten one of these every day for lunch for six or seven years. They came in various fruit flavors: cherry, blueberry, apple, and peach. As if the caloric count was not high enough, they also came in cream flavors, such as lemon, chocolate, and vanilla. My favorites, however, were the fruit ones, especially blueberry. Recently, I was in a handy mart getting some water and Gatorade for one of my son’s soccer games, when I spied one of these puppies. Out of curiosity, I flipped it over to take a gander at the calorie count. (We didn’t have these in 1981, or if did, we ignored them!). Holy shit! It was something life 4,235 calories. That’s enough to feed an entire village in the developing world! Hell, that’s enough to feed half of Hollywood!
So, let’s move onto high school and college. Now we’ve come to the Hot Pocket. I have no idea who came up with this concept. And hopefully the person who did has been convicted as a war criminal at The Hague. For those of you who are not familiar with the “Hot Pocket” concept, it is a pastry (almost like an empanada) filled with cheese and some kind of “meat product”—not to be confused with the aforementioned “meat stick”. The Hot Pocket is placed in some kind of sleeve (at least it was) and put in the microwave for a couple of minutes. What comes out is benign looking, but filled with a molten core hotter than Three Mile Island. How I got through 11th and 12th grade and 4 years of college eating these things I do not know. But damn I loved them at the time. The last time I ate one was June 22, 1993, and it made me deathly ill. I’ve not eaten one since. If I’m going to get sick on food now, it better be locally sourced foie gras or P.E.I. oysters.
What I knew now, I didn’t know then. And what I truly enjoyed then, I find vile now. Nonetheless, that doesn’t diminish the apparent joy such food gave me then. Everything is relative. Going back to Fisher’s essay I mentioned above, she wisely, and more eloquently than my oscitant ramblings, captured how our taste in food changes and how food changes us over time:
But we must grow old, and we must eat. It seems far from unreasonable, once these facts are accepted, for a man to set himself the pleasant task of educating his palate so that he can do the former not grudgingly and in spite of the latter, but easily and agreeably because of it.
So the next time you go to the grocery store and take your buggy down those aisles of highly processed exemplars of American industrial acumen, say to yourself: “Wow, I thought the frat parties were bad enough…. !”