Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.
There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.
The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?
Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.
We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.
Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.
My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.
Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.
Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.
Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).
This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.
Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.
Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.