Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

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