The food I was served growing up was not gourmet. We had never heard of arugula. Parmesan cheese came in green cans exclusively. Party food was cheese and crackers and summer sausage; maybe cocktail wieners in the crockpot, dressed in a mixture of ketchup and grape jelly (much better than it sounds, actually.). I recall the excitement generated at one memorable Ohio State vs. Michigan football party when my fifth-grade teacher (aka Grandma’s next door neighbor and wife of my mother’s first kiss) brought Hawaiian wings. The soy! The pineapple! The daring juxtaposition!
My dad’s side of the family was more daring—an uncle once brought stuffed grape leaves, and no one in my mom’s family believed me when I told them—but that brought its own set of problems. My parents were divorced, and my sister was one of those kids who tried to control her surroundings by controlling what she ate. The list of unacceptable foods is vast and multi-layered; some items are OK raw but not cooked, or vice versa; some solo but not as an ingredient; sometimes only a certain brand is acceptable and everything else is anathema. I’d say I couldn’t possibly explain them all, but the truth is that after a lifetime of study, I could. I was her royal taster, charged with protecting her from verboten items. Was there sour cream in the mashed potatoes? I would taste first and feign delight, asking, Aunt so-and-so, how did you make these? They’re so good! I can spot cream cheese icing at twenty paces, and my sister and I became masters of non-verbal communication; I’d shake my head or nod as each item was passed to her.