Monday, March 22, 2010

Nostalgic Snacking (or, I Was A Teenaged Card Sharp)

I categorize my teenaged self thus because the term 'card blunt' does not exist.  I played a lot of cards, but that doesn't mean I was any good.

I am sitting here on this drizzly proto-spring morning getting caught up on work and, until I ran out of salsa, snacking on Pace mild salsa, Finn Crisp fiber crackers, and Chobani 2% Greek yogurt.  This, I realize, looks foul on paper but in reality it is divine.  Pace mild salsa is everything an American-style salsa should be: chunky, tangy, a hint of sweetness, peppery bitterness, the merest hint of heat, good balance of liquid to solid.  Chobani 2% Greek yogurt is the closest thing to sour cream that gets brought into our house anymore.  It is unctuous, not overly starchy (that extra 1% of fat makes a big difference), and not horribly grainy and soupy like most yogurts I know.  Finn Crisp crackers are the best cracker in the world (and here I need to apologize to my friend Geoff, with whom I shared a passion for AkMak Armenian whole wheat crackers for many years, but Geoff, the times they are a-changin').  Finn Crisps are long and rectangular and satisfyingly rigid (all the better for scooping up heavy dips), possessed of a wonderful rough texture, tangy with rye and crammed with fiber and whole grains, and low in calories.  They snap gratifyingly, like a tortilla chip, but are not deep fried.

When I was a young 'un, living in the pre-renovation Keep Cottage co-op at Oberlin College, I discovered the joy of Hearts (or was it Spades?) and we played it for hour upon hour.  In fact, if memory serves me, there was a brief period where one could leave for class, hand off one's cards to a bystander, return two hours later, and assume the cards of some other departing person.  At our elbows, always always, were bowls of real sour cream, bags of crispy corn tortilla chips, and jar after jar of Pace salsa. Usually the salsa and sour cream were stirred together to make a chunky, tangy, pink ambrosia.  I hadn't eaten this combination in years, and when I popped it into my mouth this morning my head swam, instantly full of memories of friends, crappy plumbing, many delicious meals shared, many more horrible ones shared (two words: undercooked beans), and card games that seemed to last weeks on end.

Other snacks that trigger my Pavlovian response system:

- Graham crackers and apple juice.  I defy anyone who attended pre-school in the United States to not sigh contentedly while consuming this combination.

-  Nacho Cheese Doritos and Coke.  The junior high slumber party staple.  Just the memory of this combination jets me back to Melanie Nezer's rumpus room.

- Thick slabs of toast, made from freshly-baked, still-warm whole wheat bread, slathered with butter.  In my neighborhood growing up there was a family, the O'Connors, whose father worked at the King Arthur Flour company.  To earn pocket money, the O'Connor kids would bake loaves of the most gorgeous whole wheat or white bread, and deliver them to neighbors while the loaves were still warm.  This bread was (and still is) a revelation.  Faintly sweet, lofty and tender yet substantive, with a bottom crust that became shatteringly crunchy when toasted.  Since the kids baked after school, this meant hot toast with fresh bread when WE got home from school, and it was heaven.

- Chewy slices of Syrian dried apricot paste.  When I was a very small kid, my mom used to give us this gorgeous sweet (which we simply referred to as "apricot") as a special treat.  It came--and still comes--in about 10" wide, 20" long sheets, about 1/3" thick, folded over three times, wrapped in plastic wrap then bright orange cellophane, and adorned with a beautiful, colorful label in bright blue, orange, and yellow.  I swear, they still use the same label today as they did when I was a child.  It is very dense, very chewy, sticky like caramel, and (if you're an apricot freak like me) a wonderful smack-upside-the-head of apricoty goodness.  A footnote to this snack:  years later, pregnant with my son Charlie, I discovered a middle eastern food shop on the road to my obstetrician's office.  I stopped in and asked if they carried "apricot".  He said yes and produced a packet.  Delighted, I told him I used to get it as a special treat when I was a kid and I loved tearing off pieces to snack on.  He looked at me like I was crazy.  Apparently, in Syria it's dissolved in water and used to make an apricot nectar drink.  They do not eat it like candy.  I guess my usage is to them a bit like enjoying a heaping bowlful of orange juice concentrate.  Oh well... live and learn.

- Canned peaches.  My sister in law remarked once that she had never met anyone as crazy for canned fruit and vegetables as my brother and I.  I'm sure whenever the greater population hears the canned food industry's proclamations ("It's as healthy as fresh fruit, perhaps even more so!  The fruit tastes better because it's allowed to ripen more before picking!") it collectively rolls its eyes and say "yeah, yeah, methinks thou doth protest too much".  However, with God as my witness, I tell you it's true.  No, canned peaches do not have the same texture and exact taste as their fresh counterparts.  Come on now.  But they are lovely and springy and peachy, delightfully slippery, great in desserts, and a heck of a lot better than the cottony orange croquet balls my grocery store sells year-round.  They were absolutely a snacking mainstay of my childhood, no doubt because of my mom who grew up in midwestern Canada, where the peach growing season... well, what peach growing season?  They knew from their canned foods, and as a result, so do I.  Oh, and of course, I love canned apricots equaly.

And I'll have you know I didn't mention Proust even once during this post.  Okay, just that once.


  1. Brava Janna.

    I remember distinctly being asked, by another Foodie as it happened, why I teared up upon eating a particular dish. I simply couldn't make someone else understand the power of aroma, taste, and texture to key a particular memory. Very individual stuff. But incredibly powerful.

    The dish in question was Blinis Demidoff, but I can be taken back three decades by:

    A combination of Hebrew National Franks and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - summer nights, outside, playing badminton with my parents in Maryland

    The strawberry shortcake that used to be delivered to the house by a retired baker who seemed a combination of every little old man stereotype I knew as a boy.

    The milk that used to come to the insulated galvanized steel box on the back porch. It had a paper cap and, yes, came in a bottle.

    The chocolate pound cake my grandmother created every summer. To this day, I continue to try and re-create it.

    And for some reason, the combination of long island iced tea as an accompaniment to clam chowder at the Cottage Inn in Ann Arbor. I can't think of a better midnight weekend meal.

    And yes, were I to tally up the number of hours spent playing Hearts with Marty and Cherie Van Maanen, Melissa Givens, Josh Hood, and the rest of the Interlochen/Rice crew, I certain I would shudder.

    Thanks for the memory trip this afternoon.



  2. Janna, I have the same opinion of frozen peas that you do about canned peaches. Growing up in FL and then TX, the weather was never cool enough to grow peas (and my family wasn't one for gardening in any case), so my only exposure to peas were the frozen and canned kinds. Canned peas are blasphemy in vegetable form as far as I'm concerned, but I loooooved frozen peas. They were sweet, had that satisfying pop/cruch when you bit into them, and when tossed with a bit of butter and salt they made the best after-school snack I could think of.