Monday, February 4, 2008

#117 - Barbecued Pennies

Barbecued Pennies

2/4/08 (#117)

"Don't mock him, Kas, he was just raised with a simple palate."

Prior to hearing that phrase, I had never considered that my palate required a modifier, let alone "simple". Sitting there at the white Formica table in Kassie's white Formica kitchen, I thought about the adjective, used in that pre-politically-correct era as a euphemism to describe a person who would repeatedly rotate a balloon in his hands in search of the elusive front. I winced at her easy summarization---after all, I was a teenager, and like all teenagers, my complexity was too vast to be detected by adult methods of measurement.

I can't recall what plated item I had been carefully avoiding to instigate the put-down, but it was probably something pungently unappealing like sauerkraut (which always seems either not yet done cooking or cooked for too long), gorgonzola (a flavor that offended even before I learned about the mold injections) or mushrooms (someone's practical joke that backfired into culinary acceptance.) Kassie's mom often cooked as if she were daring the family to eat it, and while access to Kassie meant spending enough time with her family to prove I wasn't a danger to her either her chastity or her future, I tried to schedule my visits around their appointed dinner hour.

If I had been asked to produce my own descriptive rather than having one assigned to me, I would have claimed to possess a discerning palate: I steadfastly refused to eat anything that a panel of judges would not unanimously define as "food." (Fish got all thumbs-up; potatoes made the cut; Brussels sprouts would have split the panel's votes between vegetable and vampire repellent, so they were off my personal menu.) I didn't subsist on peanut butter and jelly (good thing, as I only liked grape jelly) or grilled cheese (American cheese only, please), and I didn't deserve to be pigeonholed as some gastronomic imbecile just because saffron made me slightly nauseous.

I suspect the comment was an innocent jab at my mother as much as at me, since it would be my mother's fault for not introducing me to the finer nuances of cabbage and for treating Cheddar as an exotic cheese. But I would later learn that my mother's appetites included an array of flavors to which I had never been exposed, and that the lack of international flair in the Reagan household was not a failure of mom's dietary ambition. To illustrate, I present Barbequed Pennies.

It's unlikely that the 1970's will be remembered as a culinary renaissance (despite thorough representation in the Casserole Hall of Fame), a context that is essential to a discussion of Barbecued Pennies. I had three siblings, and while Kassie's mom saw the dinner table as a daily training exercise to prepare her three girls for a future that included snails, seas urchin and ham hocks, my mother wanted to find something that we'd all agree to eat in the present-tense. One of those items was barbecued pennies, a meal that consisted of hot dogs sliced the short way (hence pennies), sautéed in a barbecue-type sauce and served over mashed potatoes. Julia Child might have brushed it off as a meal invented by a cook who was snowed in by a blizzard with a near-empty fridge, but I didn't need Julia Child's approval: My review? "Delicious." 30 years later I still have clear mental images of the red-stained potatoes, the plate looking like the set of a claymation murder/dismemberment scene. ("Officer, the victim seems to have been stabbed repeatedly with a circular cookie cutter.") Barbecued pennies was one of my favorite meals, though at risk of supporting Kassie's Mom's assertion, I enjoyed almost any non-vegetable entrée over mashed potatoes. (Heck, even a few vegetables.)

I did not notice when Mom stopped serving barbecued pennies, and since our plates always had something else in its place (American chop suey, cowboy casserole, shepherds pie, etcetera) no one called attention to the missing entree. Time passed, years even, and one day Mom was making her grocery list and asked if there was anything I'd like for dinner. "Barbecued pennies", I enthusiastically replied, "We haven't had those in forever."

"Yeah, but Dad doesn't like them. Anything else?"

Dad doesn't like them? There were six of us in the house, and his vote alone was enough to make it law? Was this any way to teach one's children about democracy? I offered that Dad could just have the potatoes and vegetables, or Mom could cook his franks and remove them from the pan before adding the sauce. This did not seem to be a complex work-around.

"Well, he doesn't like the smell of them cooking, either. How about fish sticks?"

The smell? It was at that moment that I understood who wielded the scissors that had clipped my culinary wings. How many other entrees had been sacked by the delicate sensibilities of that nose? How many flavors had been forbidden from our refrigerator because they failed to pass muster with one set of Reagan taste buds? (Not that this gastronomic censorship offered no benefits, as I am still grateful for growing up at a dinner table that had never hosted either lutefisk or calamari.) I would have asked him to explain himself, to justify his totalitarian domination of our dinner table options, but I had eaten enough of my Grandmother's cooking to know why he was the way he was: Her cooking skills were culled from a volume apparently called "The Joy of Boiling", a book she likely inherited from her mother. My father and I were products---and victims---of the same meat-and-potatoes lineage. I resigned myself to accept that barbecued pennies were a treat to be enjoyed only when Dad was out of town.

The "simple palate" condemnation stayed with me longer than Kassie did. I became Dicken's Pip to Kassie's Mom's Miss Havisham, vowing to expose my sheltered taste buds to the vast array of flavors that the world had to offer: I embraced the full spectrum of offerings from the local cheese counter; I explored the cuisines of Thailand, India, Jamaica, Latin America and a dozen other pastel-colored nations on the family globe; saffron once made me queasy, now I count scallops and saffron rice among my favorite meals. I have benefited greatly from these explorations, and I sometimes marvel at the impact that one little comment had on my life. I'm sure Kassie's mom had no idea that I would be quoting her over a dinner table 20 years later as I stabbed a tiny fork into my third garlicky escargot.

Of course, while that offhand comment catalyzed a lifetime of expanded menu options, genetics has not completely relinquished its influence: I still wretch at wine vinegar (bleach and sulfar are air fresheners by comparison), sauerkraut (smells too much like vinegar) and mushrooms. (In my own defense, I have genuinely tried to develop a taste for the foul little spores, if only because eating at a vegetarian restaurant and not liking mushrooms eliminates more menu choices than eating at a steak house and not liking beef. Unfortunately, without success.)

These dietary decrees make dinner more enjoyable for me, but they have also instilled a fear of the inevitable, that my daughter will develop a love affair with shitakes, porcinis and morels (oh my!) and question the fairness of the democracy in our house. (I'm certain that my wife, whose courtesy of depriving herself of mushrooms for my benefit is sure to expire eventually, will not defend me with the stealth that my mother showed my dad. In fact, I'm sure she'll offer to script the prosecutorial opening statement.) Will I be forced to acquiesce to the will of the masses and allow the addition of that most-dreaded of pizza toppings? Perhaps---but on that day, I intend to broaden the lessons on democracy by demonstrating another element of the process: "Yes, you do have the votes, Sage. But before you make that victorious call to Nicola's, let's talk about a concept called gridlock."

And on that day, grilled cheese sandwiches it will be. (They can order that pizza when I'm out of town.)

©2008 wpreagan