by Leah Bakst
Note: Last week I was chatting with my daughter Leah and somehow the subject of the first time we tried new foods came up. I’m not sure what brought it up, but Leah explained that she had particularly vivid memories of some of her experiences. The conversation took an interesting turn.
“If that were me, it might be a blog post,” I commented
“Are you asking me to write a blog post?” She knows her mother well.
“Would you?” I asked, not managing to conceal my hope.
“I’ll think about it.”
A couple of days later, during our next conversation, Leah reported, “I wrote something. I couldn’t sleep, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I thought I would make use of the time.”
While I was sorry that she had a poor night’s sleep, I was delighted with the product. I think you will be, too.
Growing up keeping kosher, there were things my family would never eat. Then there were other completely unrelated foods we’d never eat strictly due to family idiosyncrasies. As an example, my father considers green peppers spectacularly offensive and calls them ‘vile fruit.’ It’s a pretty great name, but an unconventional take on a fairly standard vegetable. Given these family proclivities, there were a number of common foods I had never tried as I approached adulthood. Maybe it was all the anticipation, maybe it was just being a bit older, but I have several particularly strong memories of some of my “food firsts.” I thought I’d share a few.
I don’t think there’s a deeper meaning or some lesson here (other than the fact that I really love food). But newness can make even the most mundane things an event. What are some memorable food firsts for you? I know my mom and I would both love to hear.
The thing about a ham and cheese sandwich is that when done right it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I love that. It’s so American.
In high school I’d have them at friends’ houses. I might get offered some snack options: “We could have cereal, or chips, or we could make a sandwich…”
“Oh. Hmm. A sandwich? Yeah I guess I could go for that.” As if I hadn’t been mentally preparing my ham and cheese already.
Every time I ate one, I’d have to surreptitiously insert a finger into my mouth to dislodge the gummy amalgam that collected at the roof of my mouth. It was at once gross and wonderful.
And somehow every household had the same ingredients, as if they had all gotten some goy instructional booklet. Thinly sliced ham and white American cheese, each in their own clear plastic zip bag with that deli paper around it. In my mind, it was magic.
I didn’t realize that actual regular people ate their eggs with runny yolks until college. Before then I thought “sunny side up” was just something characters ordered in the movies. I pictured Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” feigning an orgasm in the middle of a crowded diner. “That’s the kind of person who gets runny eggs,” I thought. Wild, brazen.
“Over medium” eggs were my gateway. I progressed from there. Perhaps my father – with his protective and slightly dogmatic tendencies – would not approve of my current predilection for soft-boiled eggs. (Seven minutes and forty-five seconds at a brisk boil.) But every morning I get a little thrill as I fork open my egg and the sumptuous golden yolk seeps onto the toast and greens. It’s rich on my tongue, and I’m willing to take my chances.
Oysters are not only unkosher, on their face they’re incredibly unappetizing. The outside looks like a barnacle suctioned to some long-lost shipwreck; rough and knobby, cold and wet. Inside, they look mucosal.
It was a gray day on the Washington coast when I had my first. A group of us combed the shore, bedecked in colorful rain gear. I found a promising shell and bounded over to a friend to show off my bounty. As she confirmed that I had indeed found an excellent oyster, it dawned on me that I was expected to eat the thing. This wasn’t fishing; no one catches and releases an oyster!
She instructed me to insert the shucking knife near the hinge, and with a twist I revealed my mucosal snack. There was no backing down now.
I ate the oyster in one gulp. It was bright and briny. Salty and slick, but gritty with sand from a poor shuck job. It was as primal and energizing as the ocean itself.
I’m not sure I even liked that first oyster. Or my second or third for that matter, though I like them now. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I felt brave and capable and sublimely connected to our vital, living world.
One note: Many of my adult food firsts are definitionally unkosher because I grew up in a kosher household. This brings up some complicated feelings, and for me, this meditation on new food experiences would be incomplete without recognizing that fact.
You never forget which foods are unkosher. Before each carnitas burrito, each cheeseburger, each cup of New England clam chowder, there’s a tiny moment when your breath catches in your chest, and you renew your decision to step away from your ancestors. At least that’s how it feels to me.
I feel guilty every time. But I also can’t imagine going back. If I did keep kosher, it would assuredly be for my father. (Frankly, there are worse reasons to do something.) But I don’t believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in a spirit, a soul, a metaphysical anything. I certainly don’t believe there is a moral mandate to eat or not eat certain foods based on the laws of kashruth – if there were a god, I cannot believe they would care one iota about which foods I consume.
If my family is disappointed I’m not keeping kosher, I can’t imagine my lack of belief in a higher power is any kind of salve. Is this just adding insult to injury? I honestly don’t know.
I do know that it has taken years of wrestling with what I owe my heritage and what I owe myself to arrive at a tenuous equilibrium. Perhaps time will grant me more clarity. For now, I will at least be sure to savor all of the wonderous things I am lucky enough to experience, and cherish the strong ties to my heritage I am lucky enough to have.
3 thoughts on “Food Firsts”
I read this post with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is tough knowing that you have made different choices than I have and on the other hand, I would expect no less of you.
Part of it is an automatic revulsion to foods I do not eat-and, to be fair, some of your descriptions of them. Yuck!
Of course, I am the opposite of your adventurousness when it comes to food. I was thinking about the last time I tried something new and I could come up with nothing. Once, I was in a rush and I got my plain bagel and plain cream cheese without toasting the bagel. I won’t make that mistake again. What a disaster!
Oh, and I think you are more than considerate when it comes to your family and our customs. Thank you for the excellent blog post.
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Very nice blog. This got me thinking about foods that I used to like but no longer do and vice versa or foods that I never had, thought I would not like, then when I tried it, I did like it. To the latter Cold Borscht soup. The thought of beets always turned me off until one day somewhere in my late thirties my mother offered me Cold Borscht on a hot summer afternoon and what a surprise on how good it tasted. This got me to rethink my dislike of beets to which now I order a beet salad many times at restaurants and enjoy this root vegetable in other recipes.
Another food taste change, when I was young and well into my adult age I disliked meatloaf. Just didn’t like the way it look with all the ingredients mashed together. Yet a few years back I tried it after not having it for years and low and behold I enjoyed it.
How about Guacamole? I used to like all sorts of Guacamole dishes. Now I don’t like the texture and blandness of it. Now unless it has lots of other ingredients in it that masks the texture and blandness I don’t enjoy it.
Our tastes do change through the years. This was a fun a read. Thanks.
I remember my first lobster with Gary (my husband, not Linda’s!) I was using my hands to break off the tail, and the lobster body flew into the air and dropped onto another customer’s dinner plate. Although an embarrassing start to the meal, the lobster dipped in butter was delicious, and it remains one of my favorite foods. The other food memory I have has to do with my brothers. They loved to bake cookies like snickerdoodles and chocolate chip, but they didn’t like to share them with the family. Unfortunately for them, you couldn’t hide the smell of their baking. Laura and I would find their cookies, eat a few, and then hide them in a new place. Those were the best cookies I ever tasted!