© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Did you ever notice how habit-forming eating can be? In my case, I've been doing it at least twice a day for 63 years! I love food, I love preparing food, and I even like grocery shopping. And over the past year, I've found myself thinking often about what I was going to have for my next meal, sometimes even several meals ahead.
My food tastes were established at a very early age, when I was raised in rural South Australia, descended from German-speaking Lutherans from Prussia. Our menus were pretty much built around meat-and-potatoes, and rice was something you ate for dessert! Being farmers, we raised most of our own meat, fowl, fruit, and vegetables. With limited refrigeration and no freezer, we ate what was in season, or what was preserved in jars or smoked.
Like most farmers of German descent, my father could butcher most anything, and I recall from a very early age the story that "the only thing not used when a pig was slaughtered was the squeal it made as it was dying". Imagine my surprise when some 45 years later, an older cousin informed me that, "No, even that was used; it was sent to the state capital where it went into making whistles for referees!"
Once I moved to a large city and then started traveling, my food tastes broadened quite a bit, from pizza to Asian food, from pasta to curry, and ultimately to biscuits and gravy and peanut butter and jelly!
In this essay, I'll mention some of the ordinary and not-so-ordinary things I have eaten, some of my ideal meals, and some things I will not put in my mouth. Bon appétit!
Many meat cultures have their mystery meat product, something made from all those unmentionable offcuts. In South Australia, it was called fritz. In an eastern Australian state, it was called devon. In the US, it's bologna. As a kid, I recall going to the butcher shop, sitting upon the counter eating a slice of fritz while Mom's order was filled. Fritz with tomato sauce (ketchup, that is) rated high in my school lunch sandwiches. These days, however, I rarely eat it.
For five years, I lived on a 4,000-acre farm on which we had many wild kangaroos and emus. From time to time, we'd hunt them, and occasionally we'd grill up some kangaroo steak with bay leaves. I recall it was tasty. Mostly, we cooked the meat and fed it and the soup made from it to the pigs. They also ate raw emu meat. [A few years ago, while touring eastern Germany, I came across a restaurant serving kangaroo. Presumably someone was farming them there, but it just seemed odd. I also saw an emu ranch in west Texas. What will they think of next?]
For more than 30 years, I lived near a 5-star restaurant, at which I ate on very special occasions. One of their specials was game, and I usually had the wild boar. Bison is readily available in my area, but I have yet to try that.
I was raised on a wheat and sheep farm on which two of every five years were droughts. When there was little else to eat, there was always lamb (or mutton), and I ate a lot of it. So much so, that ever since, I don't much care for the taste or even the smell of it cooking. You can have too much of something!
As a kid, I trapped rabbits to sell for meat and skins. Some of them finished up in our kitchen pot, and I have fond memories of braised rabbit with gravy. In my area, rabbit was sometimes referred to as underground mutton!
On a family trip around Finland, I did eat a reindeer burger, and recently, I had braised reindeer in Norway. It's not a taste I care much for.
For some years, I stayed in a B&B in Chiswick, just outside London. One day as I was walking to my meeting place, I saw a sign advertising a new restaurant with a South African theme, so I dropped by to look at the menu. There was ostrich, kudu, buffalo, and zebra, among other exotic things, and all I could think of was how in the dark of night, the kitchen staff must jump the fence at the local zoo to get supplies. As it happened, with the reasonably low cost of air freight, they shipped in 20 kilos of meat from South Africa, twice a week!
One thing I miss about buying quality meat is South Australia's butcher shops, their great sausages, and bacon without all that fat the US seems to insist on having. Also, without all those preservatives. When traveling in Europe, I have been known to drool outside the window of a butcher shop, looking at all those wonderful meat cuts, except perhaps at a Pferdemetzgerei (horse butcher, that is) in Germany.
In my early days, I ate a lot of chicken, and I still do. I also was involved in the production line when we butchered and dressed 20–30 of them at a time.
In my neck of the woods, ducks, geese, and turkeys were rare things. I probably ate turkey only once or twice in my 25 years in Australia. However, since living in the US, I eat it on a regular basis, not just at Thanksgiving.
In my very early days, we kept homing pigeons, and I remember some of them finishing up in our soup, and not just to swim!
I'm reminded of a story I once read about "How to cook a crow". It involved putting a crow in boiling water, along with a large stone. When the stone was soft, the crow was cooked!
For many years I lived 20–30 miles from a river or body of water, but fish was a rare thing, although we did have cans of sardines and, occasionally, tuna, and jars of fish paste. I do remember trying smoked fish, and I liked it. In fact, a few years ago, I rediscovered it and now have it regularly, especially in the form of salmon.
Now I'm allergic to shellfish, so when I travel to a non-English-speaking country, I try to find out how to communicate that. Several times I've failed, and either got no fish at all, or only shellfish. [As well as my throat constricting, if I touch shellfish and then touch my face near my eyes, my face swells. The doctors say it's to do with iodine, but I've never had any problem with using that directly.]
I quite like the texture of raw fish, and whenever I'm visiting my friends in Japan, we go to a local sushi restaurant. Of course, without shellfish the choices are halved, but there are still plenty of options.
Some years ago, Chilean sea bass started appearing on up-scale menus, and I've eaten it a number of times in Business Class on long-distance flights. It turns out, it's a bit of hoax. According to Wikipedia, "The name "Chilean Seabass" was invented by a fish wholesaler named Lee Lantz in 1977. He was looking for a name that would make it [Patagonian toothfish] attractive to the American market."
Given a choice, I'll put anchovies on my pizza. Unfortunately, where I live, most people don't care for the taste at all, and those pizza parlors that do provide them leave them in a can, so the diner can apply them himself without "polluting" the whole pie.
While I've eaten caviar a few times, I don't understand why people get so excited about it. But then, I don't drink champagne either!
I was raised on potatoes, peas, green beans, carrots, cabbage, onions, and pumpkin. I was probably 25 and living in the US when I ate my first ear of corn. Since then, I look forward to it every season, eating it with butter and black pepper. As a kid, I do recall having canned corn kernels in Mom's tuna mornay. My father banned from the table anything more exotic.
I grew up in an apricot culture: fresh, dried, and as jam. I love peaches, including dried ones, also nectarines, pears, and oranges, both fresh and in juice form. I enjoy an occasional pink grapefruit half for breakfast, covered with sugar and left in the fridge overnight. While vacationing in Mexico some years ago, I rediscovered mangos, and love eating them and their juice. However, I have yet to master peeling one. My long-time Japanese friends introduced me to nashi (Asian pears), which I absolutely love, and often serve for dessert at dinner parties. It tastes like a pear, but has the look and texture of an apple, and doesn't bruise like a pear. I'm a fan of stewed rhubarb with apple, and if there's hot vanilla custard to go with it, that's just fine with me!
I was raised in a culture having what we called savory pastries, such as meat pies, pasties (PAH-sties, that is, not PAY-sties) and sausage rolls. These were the staple offerings at my high school cafeteria, or if one ate at a bakery or deli for lunch. (According to Wikipedia, savoriness is "a culinary term traditionally contrasted with sweetness. Savory foods are flavorful but not sweet".)
Having lived in the US for 37 years, I'm very much aware of the popular American habit of eating sugar-laden, sweet pastries for breakfast. And while I have partaken occasionally over the years, eating a doughnut for breakfast just doesn't seem right.
I love my eggs, but they must have come from a chicken; no duck eggs for me, thank you very much! I prefer them fried "over medium"; that is, flipped with the yolk a bit runny. Now I cannot bear to look at an egg whose white is not completely set. Unfortunately, this is rather a delicacy in Japan where the egg is passed under a flame for only seconds, and is almost entirely clear. Then in Geneva, Switzerland, I ordered a pizza with an egg fried in the center. When it came, the white was hardly set at all, which quite put me off my pizza. [Sadly, some years later, I'd forgotten that, and ordered the same thing again!]
Now, we've all heard about the dangers of salmonella in food, and one way to contract that is by eating eggs that have not been refrigerated. When I spent two weeks in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1992, and prepared my own meals, I avoided buying eggs out on the street, as I'd seen them delivered there early in the morning, and stand out in the sun all day.
During a recent trip to Beijing, China, I stayed at a hotel that claimed to cater for international guests. However, almost no English was spoken in the dining room. I saw a young man making custom omelets, so I thought I'd try one. However, as best as I could tell, each one contained pieces of dried shrimp, to which I am allergic. Despite my questions to him, and his replying "Yes" to most anything I said, it was clear the omelet option wasn't!
BTW, who was the first person to see a chicken and say, let's eat the next thing that comes out of its butt?
Being a growing lad, I like to consume at least a liter of milk a day, and I'm not talking that non-fat or low-fat crap! I mean whole milk that's come from a real cow, not a test-tube! However, I am not a fan of yogurt. One thing high on my list when I visit South Australia is the local thickened cream (which has no American equivalent). I can make do with clotted cream, but forget about that spray-can stuff served in the US. And I could eat vanilla custard every day.
Although I like a number of cheeses, my tastes are pretty basic; brie and Camembert are about as exotic as I'm prepared to go. In fact, if I find myself in the so-called gourmet-cheese section of a market, I have to hold my nose or detour around that section.
As I travelled around Europe, I learned of cheese made from sheep's milk. Who knew you could milk a sheep!
A favorite of mine when growing up was braised sheep's liver (lamb's fry), served with mashed potato, gravy, and onions. So, imagine my delight when I arrived in the US and saw "liver and onions" on a menu. After one bite, I discovered it was either pig's or calf's liver, and it had a very strong and terrible taste!
I also recall Mom serving up fricasseed sheep's brains. I don't recall if that's after I'd been good or bad!
I don't often get as far as the dessert menu, but I have been known to indulge on occasion. High on the list come stewed fruit with vanilla custard or ice cream (but not just any brand will do). Thickened cream is a nice topping as is passionfruit pulp. A few slices of Asian pears are also fine.
For afternoon tea, I do like British Commonwealth-style buns, preferably buttered, or a slab of coffee cake. My grandmother and one aunt were masters of making what we knew as kuchen, a German cake containing potatoes, topped with streusel.
Many years ago, I was invited to supper with a family in rural Maine. The hostess asked if anyone wanted a slice of rhubarb pie? When several of us replied, "Yes", she put the pie in the oven, so we could eat it hot. When she served it, we found it contained rabbit stew, at which time she remembered just what the large letter R on the pie crust meant!
In 2005, for my mid-life crisis, I decided to walk the 187-mile-long Thames Path in England carrying a backpack. [See my essay A Walk along the River.] One evening, I ate at a delightful pub right on the path. After my main course, I still had room for some dessert, and on offer was hot apple pie with vanilla custard, so I partook and ate outside in the garden. When I returned my empty plate, the young waitress asked, "How was it?" I replied enthusiastically, "It was better than sex, and if you wrote that next to the menu item on the chalkboard, you'll sell all of it." She declined my advice, but on reflection, I don't think I was exaggerating. After all, it was some darned fine pie and custard!
I like plain and flavored teas (but not herbal) and instant coffee, provided sugar (or honey for tea) is available. While people have assured me that, "one can get used to going without sugar," I simply don't want to. When I make coffee for one at home, it's my own version of café-au-lait made entirely with milk.
I drink coffee-flavored milk by the gallon. Really!
When asked as to why I emigrated to the US, I often reply, "Because I don't drink beer or wine, I was not allowed to stay in Australia, so I went to the US, as that country takes refugees escaping all kinds of oppression." That said, I do like a nice glass of port wine. Unfortunately, I measure nice from the liqueur ports that used to be available in South Australia until some 15 years ago. But it appears the cellars have been emptied of them with no suitable replacement made.
After whole milk, fruit juice is king; orange, peach, mango, and occasionally pear are my favorites, and once in a blue moon, some pineapple. But never banana.
As I travel around the world, I don't mind buying street food, so long as I know it doesn't contain shellfish. I also enjoy walking through fresh fruit and vegetable markets and supermarkets. At a glance, everything looks the same as back at home, but on closer inspection, many things really are different.
Now the Koreans think they have pretty good BBQ, but then they probably haven't been to an Australian or Texan BBQ. Quite frankly, they have no idea!
For my first adventure trip, I went into the jungles of the northern Amazon. On one hike, our guide took us to a native village to meet the chief where we drank some of the local homebrew with him. It turned out that it was from the root of some plant that was chewed by women who then spat the juice into a bowl where it fermented. Only the women's saliva would work. I haven't been back for seconds since, however. Back in our camp, the local native cooks fed us mystery meat that was so heavily smoked, one couldn't tell what it was.
Ramen noodle houses are big business in Japan, and the highlight of eating in one, is that one can make as much noise as one likes slurping the soup. My young son was delighted at that custom.
When my wife and I arrived in Singapore in 1979, we heard about The Satay Club, which sounded to us like an upscale dining place. Imagine our surprise when our trishaw driver dropped us at a park where grandfathers cooked satays over charcoal fires while their grandsons served food and drinks to patrons who ate at picnic tables. It was great; I love spicy peanut sauce on meat. Unfortunately, the "club" no longer exists.
We found a Chinese restaurant in a small village near Munich, Germany. When the food was served, I wanted chopsticks, but the staff spoke no English and my small German dictionary didn't have the word. After some miming, I finally got a pair, but as I started to eat with them, I felt this strange sensation. All the Germans in the room were watching this European-looking guy eat with sticks. How Barbarian! [BTW, the German word is Essstäbchen, the French word is baguettes Chinois (literally, Chinese sticks), and the Japanese is hashi.]
I was in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where I had two weeks of private Spanish tutoring. Each night, I ate at the same restaurant where I was served by the same waitress. She tolerated my poor Spanish and I tipped her well. Ordinarily, I don't eat big meals, but one night, I had room for dessert, so I asked her if she had any cake. She looked blankly at me, but didn't try to figure out what I was saying. After a number of attempts, I got annoyed. I was thinking to myself, "Darn it woman, don't you understand Spanish?" Several days later, I was clear across the country riding a bus when it occurred to me what I'd been asking for. I had the right word but the wrong language. Cake in French is gateaux, which is what I had asked for, but it came across as gato, which in Spanish means cat. So, it was no surprise I didn't get my dessert!
It was Todo Santo (All Saints Day), a big event on the Catholic calendar, and there I was as a lunch guest at a family in rural Mexico. From time to time, different people tried to get me involved in their (Spanish-language) conversation by asking me questions. I started talking about what I thought was His Holiness the Pope, but it soon became obvious that no one was following. As it turned out, I was using the feminine la papa, which means potato, when I should have been using the masculine el papa, the Pope. Potato, Pope; hey what's the big deal, right? [It occurred to me later that perhaps The Devil made me do it!]
While staying with a host family in Japan, I offered to cook them a Mexican dinner. However, finding all the ingredients in the local supermarket was a challenge. After lots of searching, I found an aisle of "obscure foreign stuff", and right there were the familiar yellow-and-orange boxes of Old El Paso Mexican food containing all one needed; YES!
I discovered empanadas when I first travelled to Central America, and I loved them! However, early on as I was chowing down on one fresh out of the oven, I bit into a whole olive that was inside the pastry. Not being a fan of olives, I quickly spat that out into the gutter. For all future purchases, I checked first to see if an olive was inside, and if it was, I squeezed it out before I started eating, so it wouldn't pollute the ham and cheese filling.
Things Not on my Menu
There are more than a few things I do not care for or can't imagine putting in my mouth. They include the following: haggis; tripe; cold, boiled rice with raw egg mixed in, for breakfast (Japan); boiled eggs, black from pickling in vinegar (Korea); kimchi (Korea); pig's feet (trotters); the eyes from any animal; animal tongue; kidneys; duck; goose; pickled cucumber or cauliflower; raw beef; horseradish (except very mild wasabi on mashed potatoes); capers; many cheeses; qwark and other bacteria-laden things; buttermilk; any milk less than whole; blood sausages; Rocky Mountain oysters; olives; green tea; poi; and blood (ala the Maasai tribe's cattle herders). I'm sure there are many others, most of which I've tried very hard to forget over the years.
So, Just What do I Love to Eat?
Off the top of my head, here are some ideal things I might have in-between snacks:
Breakfast: cornflakes with fruit; sausage or thick, slab bacon with little fat; eggs fried (over medium); crisp, shredded hash-brown potatoes with sausage gravy; wheat toast with strawberry jam or perhaps some orange marmalade; a large mug of steaming café au lait or hot chocolate (but without the girly-man whipped cream). And, yes, ketchup does go on eggs! And my home-made stewed tomato and onions goes well over sausage and eggs.
Lunch: A pasty (or maybe a meat pie) with ketchup, buttered finger bun (with a small amount of frosting and coconut), and a carton of iced coffee (made entirely with milk, as God intended, not like that watery crap sold in the US!) On a cold day, a bowl of soup just-like-grandma-used-to-make hits the spot. Now while chicken noodle soup is a good standby, I'm partial to tomato and basil with a freshly buttered bread roll on the side, and I make a wonderful hot-and-sour soup laden with soyed chicken, carrots, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
Dinner: Bangers and mash with onions and gravy; medium-hot curried chicken and vegetables over steamed rice; a simple tuna or ham salad with cucumber, pickled beets (only certain brands will do!), lettuce, grated cheese, and 1000-Island dressing. Oh, and a few garlic-flavored croutons. And, for afters, some stewed apricots smothered with hot, vanilla custard, or a bowl of truly ripe fresh strawberries with French vanilla ice cream.
Anytime: Whole milk (but not too creamy;4% fat is adequate); passionfruit-flavored anything; mango juice; German mettwurst (preferably with garlic) from South Australia, on its own or in a sandwich of very fresh bread with butter. Stir-fried vegetables with peanuts, coconut milk, and some spicy sauce, optionally with meat.
I do love plenty of chopped parsley on everything except maybe cereal and dessert, and of course, a good dose of ground, black pepper. (Don't you just hate that when the waiter stops grinding over your food after just a few turns of the pepper mill? Did I say, "Stop"?)
And I have been known to eat a pound or three of milk chocolate with hazelnuts!
One strong bit of evidence that there is a coordinated international conspiracy against me, is that all too often, when I go to a restaurant, the vegetable of the day is broccoli! Who was it that said, "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get me!"?
Bottom line: I like my food "regular"; you know, from a menu that has pictures, and is served on a placemat that has kids puzzles and drawings to color in. None of that exotic stuff for moi, thank you very much! As such, I chose not to eat in swank places. In fact, my most common up-scale dining experiences have usually been while flying in International Business Class (and on rare occasions, in First Class). Then, the selection process is usually by elimination: no shellfish, no duck, nothing I need a dictionary to figure out, and preferably not pasta. Fancy restaurants even find ways to ruin a perfectly good salad! Who stole my lettuce and replaced it with some wild rocket/arugula crap!
I'll leave you with some bits of food-related advice: not all cornflakes around the world are created equal; potato chips are not food, but they can be a food-delivery vehicle; it is okay to fry an egg on a pizza or to put pineapple pieces on it; it is possible to have too much Worcestershire sauce; breaking up chocolate or cookies does not let the calories escape; and not all red sauces are ketchup! Oh, and by the way, there is a big difference between using a capful and a cupful, especially when it comes to measuring vinegar.