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Confessions of a Fussy Eater - Ethnic Food

Chow Mein

Growing up in a German-Irish 3rd generation household in the fifties, our menus were mainly made up of meat, potato and a vegetable. Ethic food was nothing that my mother learned to cook. I remember her drawer of cookbooks. It was mainly cookbooks she received or purchased just after she first married in 1930. She had a Rumford Baking Powder cookbook and another one that I don’t remember who published.

But living in the Central Valley in California, there were multi-cultural groups all around. I remember lots of ‘chop suey’ cafes along the main streets. Most of the dishes were Cantonese. One of our favorite fancy restaurants was On Lock Sam’s where you could go for chow mein, egg foo young, stir fried beef and broccoli and other dishes. Steam table restaurants also became popular including Sampan where it was all you could eat. But my mother never made any of these dishes at home.

Italian was also very popular. There were several Italian restaurants where you could get spaghetti, ravioli, soup and meat main dish. Pesto was unknown. My mother only made one pasta dish. It was a tomato spaghetti dish that I remember having American cheese melted in it. And yes, the green Kraft can of parmesan had a place on the refrigerator shelf.

Things started to change in the Sixties. Maybe it was the influence of cooks like Julia Child or it came from the friends I made in school. Once I entered junior high school, most of my friends were Asian, Mexican or Italian. At our slumber parties, the mothers made fried rice and ramen for breakfast. At parties, there would be teriyaki chicken and pancit. Pizza parlors became our favorite hangouts. My dad loved Mexican food and we would get take out tamales and enchiladas.

My mother also started trying new dishes at home. One of my classmate’s Mexican boyfriend gave her a recipe for enchiladas and she shared it with my mother. It soon became one of our favorites. It used canned Las Palmas enchilada sauce which is still a very good off-the-shelf brand. The process of how to assemble the enchiladas by frying in oil, dipping in the sauce, filling with a mixture of beef, onion, olives, rolling and baking was classic.

I also discovered the public library as a source for cookbooks. I would bring home a wide variety of different cookbooks. I later purchased several to take with me to college and they are still classics in my collection; James Beard's American Cooking, Better Homes & Garden Cookbook, McCall’s Cookbook, Craig Claiborne’s New York Time Cookbook. Their focus was Americana cooking but all had a good mix of different culture dishes. Slowly we expanded our menu.

My mother’s repertoire did not change much. But mine has expanded greatly. In fact, I rarely cook many of the dishes I grew up with. I think it has been over 20 years since I cooked fried chicken. Today my repertoire has a lot of emphasis on Mexican, Italian and some Asian. And there is lots to explore in the future including cuisines of India, Japan and Korea.

What are your memories of food growing up?

Here are a couple of my previous posts on food I ate growing up:

Comments (1)

Amy:

I remember a lot of baked chicken, vegetables from a can, and baked potato dinners. In the late 60's, my mother had a fling with Chinese food, largely starring lashings of soy sauce and canned water chestnuts. Our Ethnic was Eastern-European jewish food--matzoh balls in chicken soup, gefilte fish on holidays, bagels and lox on weekends. And the ultimate old-school Jewish at certain relatives's homes, largely after funerals-- Stuffed Derma. Don't ask.

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