Monday, August 10, 2009

What’s in Your Refrigerator?

(A quick note before I begin today's post. I'm traveling thru VT and will be checking in on your comments tomorrow. Internet access is spotty but I'll be sure to respond to your comments as soon as I can. I'm hoping to get my pics up tomorrow as well. Looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks--Jessica)

I’m fascinated by food and how it influences our experience of home. What was your family’s relationship to food? Was your cupboard overflowing or half-empty? What kind of food did your family keep in the refrigerator? Was food accessible?

In our kitchen on 14 Scarsdale Road, we had an open door policy. By this I mean, anyone at anytime could go into the refrigerator for something to eat. I liked it best when my friends felt comfortable enough to open the refrigerator without asking me.

“Sure. Go ahead. Help yourself.”

We had a standard set of items in our refrigerator: pink cans of diet cola (Tab), a bottle of sauerkraut tucked in the refrigerator side door (when all the good stuff was gone, I’d resort to eating this crunchy sweet, pickled shredded cabbage). In the salad bin—iceberg lettuce, a tomato, half a cucumber, a package of carrots, celery stalks. I could depend upon finding sliced American cheese individually wrapped in cellophane, a large jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, and smaller jars of gherkin pickles and strawberry jam. We had eggs, of course, and fruit.

In the summer, Mom bought fresh fruit from a produce truck that came to our street once a week. She chose ripened plums, black cherries that she washed and kept in a bowl, peaches, cantaloupes, honeydew and watermelon. In the freezer, no matter what season, I could always find a box of fudgicles, Swanson TV dinners (sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and peas), and frozen hamburger patties.

Our family loved leftovers. Anything wrapped in tin foil was a promise of something delicious from last night’s dinner. More typically, leftovers didn’t make it to the next day. Someone would nab the last piece of broiled chicken and eat it for a snack before bed.

My mother did her big shop once a week, packing the station wagon with brown bags stuffed with groceries. I loved the sound and smell of those bags as we carried them from the car, hugging them up the steps to the back kitchen door, and plunking them down, one by one, on the white countertops. The spotless kitchen became festive as we unloaded cans of tuna and tomato sauce, peas, soups, loaves of bread, cake mixes, Oriole cookies, graham crackers, sugar, flour, meats, milk, and our favorite cereals (Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops). These items with their multi-colored labels filled the room with fresh, sweet and enticing smells.

“There!” my mother would exclaim. “Don’t tell me we don’t have anything to eat in this house.”

I learned that this same open door policy didn’t preside in every home. When I played with my next door neighbor’s daughter (the family with the instant lawn), we were not allowed to touch their refrigerator. It represented a danger zone that provoked a reprimand if we dared to approach it. Countless days and nights I played at my neighbor’s house; yet I had no idea what they stored in their refrigerator. Maybe it was the mother’s way of keeping her overweight daughter away from food. I don’t know. I guess I learned to accept it.

During the school year, we ate dinner every weeknight in the dining room. The table was covered in a white or blue cloth, and set by one of the girls (me or my two older sisters). Naturally, we had a number of favorite dishes. But, in our house, at the top of the food A-list, tuna casserole ruled. Mom made it about once every ten days. For this dish, she used white Bumblebee tuna in oil that she flaked into a bowl. She added a can of LeSeur peas, a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and tossed all the ingredients together with a box of cooked egg noodles. She topped it with potato chip crumbs, then baked it in the oven for 30 or so minutes until it was steaming hot.

Let me tell you, when the maid placed that yellow casserole bowl onto a hot plate next to my mother, and my mother picked up the big serving spoon, we sat up taller, anticipating a queen’s royal meal. And this was a family that ate baked chicken, hamburger, steak, fish, London broil, even cheese soufflĂ©.

One summer afternoon when I was about twelve, the next-door neighbor’s mother, the one with the closed refrigerator door policy, stopped by. I was in the kitchen.

“I don’t have anything for dinner,” she said. “How do you make that casserole you love? I need something easy, something quick.” She was a pretty woman who wore crimson lipstick. She stood in the middle of the room, waiting.

“It’s really easy. All you need is a can of peas—“

“I don’t have any peas. Never mind.” She made a motion to leave. She had lively, dark eyes, a trim figure, and spoke in a condescending way, annunciating her words with a clipped flair as if she expected attention (and got it), yet I liked her. She let me call her by her first name.

“Samantha, Wait! I’m sure we do.” I hurried to the cupboard, anxious and excited about sharing my favorite meal. “See?” I handed her a can of LeSeur peas.

“Okay. Now what?” She attacked the word, what.

“One can of tuna. White tuna. Do you have cream of mushroom soup?” Then I explained about the cooked noodles.

“Okay. That’s it? I’ll try it,” she said. “This better be good.” Off she went out the front door with an entertainer’s flourish.

“You’re gonna love it, Samantha!” I called to her.

The next day, she didn’t hurry over raving, full of thanks and gratitude. Maybe she decided not to make it. The day after, I saw her outside in her driveway. “Did you make the tuna casserole?”

“The what?” she said. “That tuna dish? It was terrible! Awful.”

“What?” I was crushed. Did I just hear her say she didn’t like it? How was this possible? “You didn’t like it?” I said.

“I’m never making that dish again.” She hinted a smile but I knew she meant it.

Even though she had banished my favorite dish to her garbage pit of kitchen hell, I liked her for another reason. Samantha was an adult who didn’t pretend. She told me her truth.

“Are you sure you made it right?” I asked.

“I did exactly what you told me.”

“You used white tuna fish?” White tuna was a key ingredient. Dark tuna would have ruined it.

“Yes. It was terrible. I threw half of it out.”

I have since discovered that many people despise tuna fish casserole. My brother adores it, but his wife refuses to make it. Mention tuna casserole to my husband and his face turns into a battered-looking sponge.

These days, I don’t eat much processed foods, so even I’ve stopped lusting for it. I guess change, except for what we preserve in memory, is imminent.

# # #

For fun, name four foods that were staples in your childhood refrigerator.


  1. 1) Canned peaches
    2) Swiss cheese
    3) Dr. Pepper (only my mother liked it)
    4) Empress raspberry jam

  2. Amy-Dr. Pepper! Funny. I could never drink that stuff. Thanks for the list.


  3. I'm including the freezer and pantry, just because.

    1) Pizza rolls (LOVED them, haven't had any in ages)
    2) Pickles and olives, yum. Love vinegar, tangy tastes still.
    3) Thin Mints, which taste awesome with peanut butter on them. My daughter is allergic to peanuts, so we don't even have PB in the house these days
    4) Instant mashed potatoes, which I loathed then and still do!

    My mother used to put bags of chocolate chips in the freezer for later use, only sometimes she'd open the bag and snitch a few, and then my sister and I would snitch some, and before you know it, that bag was useless for cookies.

    If you've never had freezer-cold bittersweet chocolate chips, you're missing out.

  4. I can only remember the things I didn't like:

    Orange-pineapple juice (mixed from concentrate) instead of orange juice.

    Dream-whip instead of mayonnaise.

    Margarine instead of butter.

  5. My mom was (and is) a fabulous cook, and we all grew up non-picky, and fed well with balanced meals. I am grateful nearly every day that I turned out to be a really good cook that knows how to prepare her own meals; that's all down to my mother.

    My fridge always had sandwich materials - various lunch meat, cheese, condiments; and we always had pickles and olives, and about 20-30 (no exaggeration) bottles of various *things* depending on what phase my mother was going through experimenting with new dishes. Any given day would turn up mirin, an array of wine vinegars, capers, pimentos, minced garlic in oil, and so on. The entire door was jam packed with anything you'd ever need to serve hors d'oeuvres to 50 people.

    To echo Jennifer above me, I more strongly remember what I didn't like, which was frozen, chopped spinach, and watermelon. (Not bad for a 6 year old, eh?) I love spinach now, but never came around on the watermelon. Blech.

  6. We had seltzer delivered in old-fashioned glass bottles with steel levers and gas canisters inside them. They would be delivered (no doubt by a Jewish man from Brooklyn) and always appear at our back door just before we ran out. It was virtually all we drank. There were also always cut up veggies for snacking and some kind of store-bought cookies for after school cravings.

  7. Kristina,
    Thin mints--the kind that came like a deck of cards in a long, oblong box? I know what you mean about freezer burned choc chip cookies, but I don't think the taste appealed to me as it did you!

    Love hearing about your kitchen.


  8. Jennifer--Interesting that you only remember what you didn't like. For me, it's the opposite. Though I don't think my tastes are sophisticated. I liked hospital food.


  9. Krebiz-I envy you. My mom was also a good cook but I don't enjoy cooking. I like to cook certain foods, however, I find it's not a natural talent. Baking is something that I do for fun. Cooking is something I think I need to and should do. I'm trying to change that.

  10. Amy,
    I bet you were one of the few in the neighborhood who had their selzer delivered or am I wrong? What a sophisticated family habit.

  11. one else ate tuna fish casserole?

  12. Hellman's mayo

    Oscar Meyer bologna

    Cream of Wheat

    seasonal fruits/veggies (we tended to eat a lot of greens)

    I remember favorite family meals as much as I remember favorite stock items...

    Friday nights my mom made what we called "the tray" - it had chips, dips, little sausages, pickles, olives, cheese and crackers, deviled ham with little dots of mustard. We ate "the tray" while watching our favorite Friday night TV show - Lost in Space, then The Monkees, then the Brady Bunch.

    On Saturdays someone always went to the local fish market and bought fresh fish for a fish fry. We always had fish, oysters, and shrimp, hush puppies and cole slaw that was made a certain way - vinegary instead of creamy.

    Sundays we always had a "Sunday dinner," which was oftentimes chicken breasts wrapped in bacon and baked in a cream of mushroom sauce, with several vegetable casseroles to go with.

    One special Christmas dish we always had, but haven't had in many years now, was a congealed salad made with lime jello, cream cheese, celery, and pecans. I'm not sure why in my memory the taste of it is comforting - we only had it once a year - but right this moment I can taste it and I feel so calm and good.

    Your tuna casserole sounds pretty yummy to me - we never had it when I was young but I've ordered it at cafeterias with great delight. :)

  13. Hi, Billie.
    Good 'ol Cream of Wheat. Did you load it up with butter, milk and sugar? I think that's a Northerner's version of grits (assuming you're from the North).

    I see how these items represent rituals as well as emotional touchpoints--good and bad.

    Do you still keep Cr.of Wheat in your house?

  14. Jessica--my mom made tuna casserole too--and I loved it. The crunchiness of the potato chips was important. :)
    My kid's babysitter used to make a quickie skillet version. (Does anyone make casseroles anymore?) She cooked Kraft Mac & Cheese, then mixed and heated it up in the skillet with tuna and hot pepper flakes. Pretty good--but it needed chips!

  15. Funny, Jessica - we always made our Cream of Wheat with butter and salt/pepper - the same way as grits, which we also had.

    I don't keep Cream of Wheat on a regular basis, but every now and then I buy a box and always use it up.

  16. Tuna casserole was not done in my house. We had a few processed items like that, but tuna was more likely to appear in a tuna melt, or a steak done on the grill with sesame oil. Hehehe, I guess I'm elitist.

    Every now and again we'd get "Shake n' Bake," one of those horrible things that kids love and parents tolerate for the sake of a happy meal time.

  17. Jennifer- I love how our foods date us just like remembering what songs were playing on the radio.

    Krebiz--we never had Shake n Bake but I wanted to.

    Billie--you see? I knew there was something Southern tucked in there.

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