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The gourmet on the floor

Nell Zink looks back on the pre-packaged food of her childhood

Nell Zink | November/December 2015

One of the beauties of America is that nearly any legal immigrant who stays for three years out of five can be naturalised. Along with economic growth and broken English, immigration – especially from rural areas of the developing world – brings the steady stream of unfamiliar traditional foods and ingredients that keeps American cuisine rooted, yet adventurous.

To say I am American is an understatement. My father’s family landed in the 1850s, and my mother’s traces its lineage to the first English settlers. So if you cast around in our family for a tradition of authentic, delicious ethnic foods, you might be casting for a long time. The only recipe handed down through the ages was for fig pudding. I don’t have it, because it was a blob of seeds and suet fit for woodpeckers. Compounding matters, my mother was raised middle class, with a cook. I remember how proud she was of her first béchamel (white) sauce. I think she was 70.

Well wrapped: the author in California in the late 1960s – the days when kibble was kibble and dinner came pre-packaged 

My family’s traditional staple foods included Spam, Cheerios and Hydrox (an obsolete form of cookie). I estimate my own make-up – if humans are 65% water – at a full 33% Cheerios. Our sauces came from packets. Spaghetti sauce was McCormick’s, a blend of sugar and salt designed for combination with dilute tomato paste. Its mushrooms were vestiges – quarter-inch black flecks, perfectly square. Our chilli recipe required three cans and a certain bland pre-packaged cheddar cheese.

It was a diet quite to the taste of children. I remember one poor woman, an accomplished cook, who made the mistake of asking my mother the secret of her fried chicken. Her son had praised it, and she wanted the recipe. My mother told her: “Shake ’n Bake barbecue flavour!” The woman went home visibly shaken.

“Molecular gastronomy” is hot right now. But to my mind, American cookery has always trusted to food chemists. Say you’re making the classic American dish “nachos” – would you buy no-name canned chilli, corn chips you’ve never heard of, random salsa? What could possibly go wrong? Americans know: everything. There’s no bottom. You might as well make Mock Apple Pie with saltines. As any great chef can tell you, the key to a gourmet experience is exclusive reliance on only the finest ingredients.

While processed foods are very stable in themselves, sourcing and manufacturing can change over time. Cost pressures, I suppose. For example, since my youth, a once-cherished brand of corned-beef hash has mutated from something that seemed to involve meat into something that seems a finely ground mixture of lungs and bronchi. An American can’t go home again. Unrelenting dynamism means that each of us grew up in a country that no longer exists, a bit like the Soviet Union. The only foods immune to change are one-ingredient products (my family’s pumpkin-pie recipe is still right there on the Libby’s canned pumpkin label!) and products that can’t sink any lower, because there were never any corners to cut.

And so to my life’s Proustian moment.

I was living in Richmond, Virginia, with my first husband. Walking back to the car from ultimate Frisbee practice in Byrd Park, we heard mewing from a tree. A little kitten! Ben climbed the tree and retrieved it, saying it was our kitten now, since nobody who lets a kitten get stuck up a tree deserves to have such a wonderful kitten. And off I went to buy cat food while he entertained the kitten at home. I bought the brand I knew: Friskies.

As a small child I lived in southern California, where we had a succession of cats. When we moved to Virginia, my mother said she had no desire to watch cats kill the beautiful birds at our feeder, and we switched to dogs. So it had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavour. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink X shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks…I knew the brand very, very intimately.

That was in 1990. It couldn’t happen now. Today’s kibble is rounded, so it goes down without chewing.

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