Imperatives 2 - (My) Childhood Foods

Here’s what kids do: they categorize meaningful occurrences in terms of extremes: up or down, love or disappointment, sweet treats or disgusting vegetables, the best day ever or the worst day ever. As adults we yen for a return to some of those objects or places or people or foods we’d defined as good stuff back when we were younger. Perhaps the best word in English for this sentiment is “nostalgia” – or maybe a string of words along the lines of “relational food memories of fondness.” I imagine in Russian there must be a single word that expresses it just right. I asked my friend John. He speaks Russian. He said he didn’t know such a word.

I’ve just spent a few minutes sitting still, eyes closed, thinking back to my childhood and trying to recall which food memories have stuck with me through the years. Here is a list of those foods, along with some updates on their status in my rotation:

* Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a fresh onion roll (or toasted whole wheat). While I'd like to relive this sandwich with some frequency, at age 47, with slowing metabolism and concern for overdoing it with saturated fats, I don't have it too often. When I was in my 20s I worked near 23rd & 5th, and this was the breakfast that I rewarded myself with every Friday morning. I picked it up from Eisenberg's – which, by the way, is still there and, I know for a fact, still makes sandwiches (of all sorts) right. Photo above shows my daughter at the Eisenberg's counter having a bacon & egg sandwich (sans cheese) on a non-onion roll, 2013. But yes, Eisenberg's still has onion rolls – and I love that about them!

* Tuna salad sandwich on lightly toasted seeded rye with a piece of lettuce (classic prep = tuna, mayo, celery, pepper, squeeze of lemon, optional chopped pickle or relish). While I still appreciate the simplicity of tuna salad served with few accoutrements - heck, put it on white bread even! - I have graduated from Bumble Bee to fancier tins (or jars) of (superior) Italian tuna packed in olive oil. Also, over the years, I got into making tuna salad with a number of add-ins. The above photo shows Greg & Gary, the "Christmas Twins" of Amsterdam (both now deceased; photo by Bob Bunck). Why this picture? Because I ate at their boutique/coffee shop at Ultrechtsedwarsstraat 67, in 1996, and was blown away by their rendition of the tuna sandwich. The tuna salad itself was spicy (prepared with cayenne pepper, I think), and was served grilled panini-style with slices of prosciutto and some sort of cheese on the inside. Absolutely incredible.

* Breakfast of toast with butter, or butter/jam; or a bagel with butter or cream cheese and sometimes smoked salmon. One of my favorite foods from childhood, toast with butter and jam holds a strong position in my daily eating repertoire (I have it several times a week). Nowadays, as part of my "plan" to eat healthily, I'll often substitute the butter or cream cheese with mashed avocado (to which I add salt, pepper, and a drizzle of good olive oil; it's delicious – and quite filling). But nothing beats butter. A good rule of thumb when shopping for butter is to skip Land O'Lakes or Breakstone's and go European. The best bang for the buck in NYC seems to be Kerrygold. It comes from Ireland and is made from the milk of grass-fed cows. It's great. If you'd rather buy "local" butter, I've found that Vermont Creamery's "Cultured Butter" (it comes in yellow tube-shaped paper wrapping) is also excellent – though it does cost more than Kerrygold. For reasonably-priced jam I recommend the offerings from St. Dalfour, a French brand that instead of sugar uses the juice of grapes and dates for sweetening, and contains fewer grams of sugar per serving (11) than most other jams. I'm fond of their Wild Blueberry (shown above) and Fig flavors.

* My dad’s cheeseburger subs. When I was growing up, my dad didn't cook often. But of the things that he made, his cheeseburger subs stood out as superb. It seems like such an obvious thing, the cheeseburger sub, but I ask you: when's the last time you had one? I can say that in my life, decades went by between the cheeseburger sub nirvana of my childhood and 2014, the year when this food returned to me in the form of an exquisite and urgent food vision. Fortunately, its absence was easy to undo. To keep cheeseburger subs on the "healthy" side, I use turkey instead of beef, but everything else is pretty similar to what my dad did. The process is easy: caramelize onions and cook small burgers in olive oil in a pan; slice bread lengthwise and dig out most of the inside; squiggle ketchup on one half of the bread, mustard on the other; tightly fit burgers onto the bottom half, add a layer of the onions and a liberal amount of shredded cheddar cheese; cook open-faced in oven until the bread's edges are crisp but not dark and the cheese is melted; remove from oven and add cold ingredients (I just use pickles – specifically, BA-TAMPTE Half Sours that I slice by hand – but lettuce and tomato also work); close it up, slice, and serve with hot pepper relish on the side. Note about above photo: behind that nearly-completed cheeseburger sub stands a bowl of homemade oven fries, which I make often. To make them, skin and then cut potatoes to about 1/4" thickness (but into any shape you like), dry them with a towel, hand-toss with salt pepper and olive oil, add to a parchment paper-covered pan in a single layer, and bake at around 425 degrees F. You'll need to turn them half-way through + frequently check their progress, taking care to remove pieces from the oven as they finish (you can add them back to reheat just before serving).

* Clam Chowder, Baked Stuffed Shrimp, and the whole rest of the menu at Crisfield’s, a restaurant in Silver Spring, MD. Crisfield's is a classic seafood restaurant that has been making signature dishes from the Chesapeake canon of cooking since 1945. Whenever we ate there when I was a kid, everyone did their own thing for the first course (that said, most of us gravitated toward the clam chowder, steamed clams, crabmeat cocktail, or oysters on the half-shell). But when it came to the main course, we all ordered the same thing: "Baked Stuffed Shrimp," which is a trio of large butterflied shrimps broiled with "crabmeat imperial" and breadcrumbs on top. There might have been six of us eating together at once and it was always the same: when the main course arrived, it was six orders of Baked Stuffed Shrimp. Though I may try to prepare this myself some day, the first item from Crisfield's that I have attempted in my effort to relive childhood from my home kitchen in Brooklyn is their clam chowder. It's New England-style, but it's unlike any New England clam chowder that I've had anywhere. It's made without milk or cream (which, in my opinion, usually take over the flavor of a chowder a little too much) and is quite peppery. (Instead of cream, owner Bonnie Swanson once confided in me, they incorporate mashed-up potato for thickening.) The above photo shows Crisfield's clam chowder, which I brought back up to New York at the end of Thanksgiving weekend last year. Roll over it to see a bowl of my homemade stuff. Mine's more yellow because I used Yukon Gold potatoes. 

* Steamed crabs (Old Bay) Opening these crabs and finding the meat is certainly not child's play – it's best accomplished with a sharp knife and a wood mallet. Plus, the crabs themselves have sharp points that can definitely cut you. But I know for certain that as soon as I had them for the first time (probably at around age 7), I was hooked. Because they're not easy to eat and because there's a low yield of crabmeat relative to the effort required to retrieve it, crabs work great as a party food. Here's how it went whenever I threw "crab feast" parties in New York: dozens of friends and strangers sat together at long tables and spent a good hour or two just eating (and drinking). People with crab experience helped those who hadn't a clue. Unfortunately, the price for these crabs (you should only use male Blue Crabs) has gone up, up, and up – so I don't eat them too often. Do you see the flecks of spice on the crabs in the above photo? That's Old Bay Seasoning, an iconic spice blend known to anyone from the Maryland-Viginia-DC area. It's made of celery salt, red and black pepper, and paprika. Even people who don't eat crabs can enjoy Old Bay by purchasing a bag of "Crab Chips," which are Old Bay-seasoned potato chips made by Utz (available only regionally, I think). One time, when I was watching "The Wire," one of the characters went into a store to pick up a bag of "Crab Chips." I immediately wanted some.

* Shrimp cocktail When we went out to dinner to a nicer restaurant to celebrate a birthday, shrimp cocktail was usually on the menu – and I often ordered it. The shrimp of a shrimp cocktail need to be cold, crunchy, and not too small. And oh, cocktail sauce matters a lot. Even the child version of me was unfond of sickenly-sweet renditions of cocktail sauce. Luckily, there's a simple fix that usually works: add horseradish. The above photo shows the prominence of shrimp cocktail in our family's Thanksgiving buffet of appetizers. My uncle, who used to own restaurants in the DC area, began the tradition years ago, and it's been integral to our family feast ever since. (Why is a woman in the photo wearing black tie? I'll get to that in the next installment of the "Food Imperatives" series.)

* Pizza, in particular the white & red renditions at the Pines of Rome, a restaurant in Bethesda, MD If there is one restaurant that epitomizes food's impact on me during childhood, it is the Pines of Rome. The Pines will be the subject of an entire installment in the Food Imperatives series, so for now I'll just say that the white pizza (shown above) stands out as unique. Unlike the white pizza of New York pizzerias – which is usually made with ricotta and/or mozzarella – the Pines of Rome uses fontina. It's incredible. And the red pizza at the Pines is also excellent: it's thin with a crispy edge and bottom, and it's made with the tomatoes on top of the cheese. Though New York beats DC hands-down for the quantity of good pizza places and the range of styles available, I have devoted an illogical amount of time searching for Pines of Rome-type pizza in New York. The closest specimen I found was at Cristardi’s — a small place without a sign that was on a residential street a near where I live in Brooklyn. (Cristardi's closed. Read about it – and other defunct pizzerias – in this Pizzacentric story.) Cristardi's pizza was, by appearances, entirely different from that served at the Pines of Rome. But one minor detail was enough to bring me back. In this case, it had something to do with the tomatoes, which appeared as small bits within a sauce that poked through the cheese. So yes, I'm often all about pizza and yes, that love of pizza comes from within me. But I credit the Pines of Rome with having gotten this whole thing started. And I continue, whenever I visit DC, to pick up several whole pies from the Pines to transport back to my freezer. Then, on special occasions (or simply because I feel I deserve a treat), I heat some up and have it. It's instant-childhood-revisited. In fact, I have some in my freezer now. Hmmmmmmmm...

* Peking duck with pancakes, scallion, and hoisin sauce If you're a person who eats duck, then I think you'll agree that there's nothing more gratifying than the combined flavors and textures contained in a pancake rolled with Peking duck, scallion, and hoisin sauce. In case you don't know, the duck has two parts – skin and meat. Together, they contribute chewiness and crunch. Hoisin sauce, I don't even know what it is. But combined with the richness of the duck and the freshness of the scallion, well altogether there's a lot of balance going on (in texture and in flavor). There was a span of time when I was a kid when we did Sunday night dinners at Tony Cheng's Szechuan restaurant in DC's (small) Chinatown. I don't think we got Peking Duck every time we ate there. It was (and remains) more of a special occasion thing. Thus, every time I walk through Chinatown in New York and pass windows filled with beautifully lacquered ducks hanging from hooks, I crave Peking Duck but, in general, I don't stop in.

* Waffles for breakfast Obviously, there’s not much good to say about Aunt Jemima. The blueberry waffles are meh and, like all of the other commercial syrup products out there, the syrup has no real maple. And yet these were the waffles that I ate as a kid – and I liked them. Fast forward to adulthood. Honestly speaking, I don’t eat waffles too often. They make for a pretty heavy breakfast. But when I do have them (which usually occurs when my daughter has had a friend sleep over), I make them homemade and I use the recipe that I thought had come from my friend Emily’s grandma, but apparently (I've recently learned) did not. The procedure involves separating eggs, beating the whites until they form peaks, and folding them into the rest of the batter. And oh, real maple syrup is without question worth the splurge. It lasts for a long time in the fridge, it’s totally natural, and it’s delicious. Purchase it at Trader Joe’s for a gentler price than what you’ll find at a conventional grocery store. (The recipe for (Not) Emily’s Grandma’s Waffles is posted here. Give it a try – they come out amazing.)

* Fried chicken from Roy Rogers or Popeye’s A couple weeks ago I grabbed a wing from a Popeye's on the NJ Turnpike (see photo above). It was just awful. Either Popeye's has gotten worse or I've become less forgiving of fried chicken since childhood. There was barely any chicken to the thing, and I don't see a reason – since these days I try to keep my eating of unhealthy foods to a minimum – to involve myself in making a meal or a snack of fried batter. If I'm gonna have chicken nowadays, it'll have to be from a restaurant that's known for good fried chicken like Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken, or Bonchon for deep-fried – or, the excellent pan-fried chicken that my friend Chris makes.

Among the other items I've thought of that I'm not writing about in detail here are: 

* Old diners with luncheonette counters with stools

* Steak, fries, and sauce from Le Steak, a restaurant in Georgetown, DC. It was all about the sauce.

* My mom’s salmon cakes with applesauce on the side

*“Toll House” chocolate chip cookies made with crispy edges and chewy interiors

* Fried mozzarella with “anchovy butter” at Geppetto, a restaurant formerly in Georgetown, DC


I listed the above foods in no particular order. Obviously (since this is Pizzacentric), I would make pizza from the Pines of Rome my top choice. The reason I've avoided a hierarchical listing is that each of these foods holds a place in my heart and each has become a part of my adult psyche – which is a complicated thing that I'm not qualified to decipher. Also, I hate "Best of..." lists. Sufficed to say, whether it's pizza or shrimp cocktail or plain old toast, every time I reëncounter these foods as an adult I am brought back to childhood – and I feel happy.

Here's something interesting. Apparently, there's a special connection between the pizza of one’s early childhood and one's personal definition of what pizza is. I just did a search for “Pizza Cognition Theory,” a real thing invented by Sam Sifton. It proposes that “the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes … becomes, for him (or her), pizza.” I wouldn’t know how to psychoanalyze people’s pizza preferences, but I think it’s fair to deduce that Sifton is onto something important here (the search on Google compiles 3,980,000 results, so obviously others give the theory credence too — and, obviously, pizza is important to many people). 

I’d like to add to it though, because (1) I honestly don’t think that one’s childhood pizza stands alone as the standard-bearer throughout a person’s life (in all of its variations (just talking cheese and tomato pizza here), pizza can be so different — yet at the same time, one minor similarity can suffice as a way-back machine for returning to that euphoria delivered by pizza during childhood). But also, (2) that you could say the same thing about all other foods. If I loved hot dogs a lot, shouldn't there be a "Hot Dog Cognition Theory" that explains why the style of hot dog that's most idyllic to me stems from my earliest hot dog-eating experience? And the same could go for granola and frog's legs and chocolate chip cookies and french fries and peaches canned vs. fresh. So perhaps a better theory title would be something along the lines of: "The Each to His (or Her) Own Food Preference Theory."