This all started when the women (whom I shared a new office with) revolted after they caught me eating sardines for lunch one day. “Hell no!” one said as she yanked her collar up over her nose to employ the universally-known grade school stink defense shield. They quickly presented me with rules: I had to close the door to my office; the fish tin could never go in our kitchen garbage; this little fish habit of mine quickly began to feel like our dirty little secret.
I tried in vane to justify my taste. See, I’ve always liked weird, old-man food. Canned fish or pickled herring. Anything pickled really. Aged, smoked or esoteric foreign foods. Anything old fashioned. It’s just the way that I am; not necessarily an old soul, but one with old taste buds perhaps.
After the women gradually came to tolerate my food choices, they then developed an almost voyeuristic fascination with my daily packed lunch. My pickles and beets and hard-boiled eggs frequently reminded them of grandparents and great uncles, and we started sharing stories about the weird things people used to drink and eat; things like elderberry wine or the cannibal sandwich.
It all struck me as poignant that many of us have a few food items like this in our families that somebody makes, and that this somebody is probably very, very old. One of my grandmas still manages to make anise Springerle cookies and the other will sometimes whip up a butterscotch meringue pie that would literally knock your socks off. Where the hell can you even buy a butterscotch pie these days, much less one passed down through the generations?
It’s a worry of mine that the great American family culinary tradition is something that may disappear with the remainder of my grandparents’ generation. Many people today have no idea who James Beard is, much less have they tried a recipe from his masterpiece and anthology, American Cookery. I think that’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity to write about food in a meaningful way that explores our ancient and mysterious family traditions. I hope you’ll join me.