I grew up with a dairy allergy, a hardcore vegetarian/raw food advocate mom who juiced her own wheatgrass and fermented her own probiotic drinks, and no TV. Books, cats, the outdoors, an occasional friend who didn’t think I was too weird, and an overactive imagination were my entertainment. Once a week, mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all. I’d lie around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks. I ate soy cheese, Rice Dream, unstirred no-sugar peanut butter/honey/banana sandwiches, tofu, and granola with orange juice on it. But this nerdy only-child hippie kid was perfectly content, man, because most weekends I went to Grandma’s house. Grandma’s: where I could count on the fridge being well-stocked with a veritable plethora of meats, and the never-deviating placement of a hazy crystal bowl of candy near the record cabinet.
My grandma Ruth had everything my child’s mind deemed to be most important in life: Dr. Seuss books, a pool table, an eclectic collection of old country and trucker songs on 45′s (relics from my great-grandfather’s jukebox distribution business), and a TV. She would fry up kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausage), give me liverwurst for lunch, and serve me pot roast for dinner. Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it, the davenport – and watch the tube, my scrawny bag of flesh exhausted from digesting so much animal protein in such a short amount of time. I’m not certain how aware my mom was of this carnivorous debauchery. I think she knew, and allowed it, because she realized her little son was in dire need of some surf-and-turf (or as my uncle calls it, bait-and-bovine). Mom eventually began taking me out for an occasional hamburger, no doubt a result of my grandmother’s persuasion.
Grandma Ruth always had a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step. She’d fix herself a martini, dance around in her robe to old records, and school me at billiards. ”Not enough,” she’d typically comment, referring to my heinous lack of English applied to the cue ball. Every so often I’d make a damn good shot, and she’d say “here’s lookin’ at you, kid”, calling me Straight Shooter McGee and other nonsensical nicknames. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot. There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash in the shape of a candy bar that said “Baby Ruth” on it. Sometimes she’d drink half a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, her snores rattling the walls. When she glimpsed a mole in her yard she threw open the closet door and pulled out her shotgun. When contestants got greedy on Wheel of Fortune and then hit bankrupt, she’d say “serves you right, you dirty rat fink”.
Grandma would usually cook me an enormous Sunday breakfast and then drive me home in the yellow Porsche, stopping for hot chocolate on the way. And so I’d return to my meatless, T.V.less abode. I didn’t mind though. I loved my mom hugely; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair. Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes. I guess I didn’t exactly hate being the only hippie kid in a rinky-dink three-classroom rural school where the other boys’ idea of fun was to shove a firecracker up a dead gopher’s ass and then light it, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it was just downright irritating.
Growing up with such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “food taster”. One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I found myself home alone with it. I methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care. Boy was I wrong. Not to mention I puked on a shrub outside and it never grew back.