By Dee Thompson
I honestly think there should be a 12 step program for people like me who are Recovering Food Snobs.
I can picture all of us sitting in a meeting, munching on store-bought donuts and drinking bad coffee. One by one we would stand up.
“Hi, my name is Dee and I am a Recovering Food Snob. I realized that my food snobbery was making my life unmanageable, but now, with the help of a Higher Power, I can admit I have a problem.”
I used to look down my nose on a lot of folks — people who didn’t cook “from scratch” dinners every night; anyone who ate out or ate takeout food every night; women who fed fast food to their kids in the car on the way to soccer practice; daddies who thought buying a hot dog at Quik Trip was an acceptable way to feed their children. I looked down my nose at them all, inwardly sneering.
Recently, I have had two revelations, and I have been forced to re-examine my own prejudices. One, I discovered that I really like the fried chicken sold at Publix. It has a great crunch and great flavor. Two, I love Costco lasagna.
I can now admit that I have a problem.
There is good convenience food out there. I do not have to make everything from scratch to please my family.
I come by my food snobbery honestly. My great-grandmother Beulah Phillips Butler was married to a wealthy guy. I never met her but Granny Butler was well-known as a snob about just about everything. Food. Clothes. Family pedigree.
Granny Butler taught her seven daughters, including my grandmother Wilma Butler Hasty (aka “Memaw” to her grandchildren), to be a snob. One of the ugliest things Memaw would say, almost hissing with disdain, was, “She is just common.” Another put-down was “They’re new rich.” Both insults implied that the person she was talking about was lower than a snake’s belly.
My mother, who is still going strong at 84, was heavily influenced by Granny and Memaw, but she is a Recovering Food Snob, like me.
Here’s a good example. Years ago, Mama learned how to make wonderful homemade biscuits. They were renowned for their lightness, their melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I’ve watched her make them a thousand times. The secret is not to overwork the dough. My mom has tiny hands but they are skilled in the art of biscuit making – or were, I should note. Now, arthritis has claimed Mama’s hands and they are too shaky for cooking.
I have tried to make Mama’s biscuits. I have had her standing there coaching me, and I’ve still screwed up the biscuits. I’ve made biscuits that the dog wouldn’t eat. I’ve made biscuits that were the consistency of well-chewed chewing gum. I’ve made biscuits that were just a few molecules away from a doorstop. I have made biscuits that looked good but tasted like paper. Finally, after years of trying, I gave up.
Now I buy Pillsbury frozen biscuits. Don’t judge. They come out of the bag frozen solid, and could likely be used as building materials or to inflict blunt-force trauma to a trespasser, but I slap them on a cookie sheet and stick them in the oven, and 25 minutes later they are about 90 percent as good as Mama or Memaw’s biscuits.
Put enough butter and honey on one of those, and wash it down with a nice glass of sweet tea, wine, or bourbon, and you would swear those were actually made by somebody’s memaw.
Mama likes those frozen biscuits, too.
Hear that weird sound, that whooshing? That high-pitched other-worldly caterwauling? Yep. That’s Memaw and Granny flipping over in their graves because I have admitted publicly that I cannot make decent biscuits.
I also gave up on making fried chicken. Decades ago, I gave up.
There again, Mama tried to teach me. It didn’t take. Maybe it’s because I didn’t use a cast-iron skillet or even an electric skillet. Maybe it’s because I don’t like burning my hands throwing pieces of flour-coated dead bird into boiling hot Crisco. Maybe it’s because I prefer boneless filets. Who knows.
I just know if genetics were any use at all, I would be as good a cook as Granny, Memaw, and Mama, and there would be justice in the world.
However, I might weigh 400 lbs.
My mother’s evolution as a cook is a story unto itself. In 1957 she married my father, at age 23, and she couldn’t cook. Memaw had never taught her. Mom got married having never lived alone or even with roommates. Memaw was unwilling to teach Mama how to cook, probably because she worked a lot and just didn’t want to take the time to teach Mama.
Somehow, Mama learned to make tuna salad and fudge, before she married. That took care of one night’s dinner. (A weird dinner, but edible.)
Oddly enough, Mama’s first cooking teacher was Dad. After they married, Dad taught her how to make spaghetti. A friend of his in college was an Italian guy from up north and he had taught Dad to make authentic Italian spaghetti. After my parents had been married a while they “owed” a meal to a number of friends and relatives who had invited them to dinner. So they had everyone over to their tiny apartment and Dad made spaghetti.
At some point early in their marriage, Mother realized that when going to get-togethers with the larger family she would need to take fried chicken, to uphold the family honor. Also, Dad always insisted they take fried chicken. So Mama called Memaw, who talked her through the process of making fried chicken. Mom made a batch and took it to a family gathering. “It looked pretty but it was awful,” she remembered, almost 60 years later.
For years, Mama made fried chicken that looked delicious and tasted awful. My great uncle Jake, who always went with Mom and Dad to any family reunion, would memorize which platter of fried chicken was made by my Mama, and avoid it like the plague.
Uncle Jake, who was the produce manager for a grocery store, would often come to visit with a huge mess of collards, and he taught Mama how to cook collards.
For years, though, Mama couldn’t figure out why her fried chicken was so flavorless. Finally, one of her aunts was talking through the recipe on the phone, and she said “Now, after it’s salted –“ and Mama said “Wait. You have to SALT it?” Aunt Hazel was horrified that Mama had been skipping that step. It never occurred to her Mama wouldn’t know something so basic as the importance of salting the meat. However, after that Mama always salted it carefully, so the chicken problem was solved.
My father was old-fashioned and right after the honeymoon he informed Mom he wanted a big breakfast every day – fried eggs, grits, bacon, toast. Mom would get up an hour before he did and experiment, trying to figure out how to cook it all. When she screwed up, she would open the back door to the apartment and throw out the ruined food. Neighborhood dogs soon learned to gather there, every morning.
It was 1957. There were very few “convenience” foods. Or leash laws.
The genetic line of food snobs started to change with Mama. She was happy to find shortcuts, as long as she could produce tasty food. One of our “company” dishes for years was a “seafood casserole” made with canned crabmeat. She was not above using canned biscuits, either. Mama made a heavenly homemade chocolate layer cake that had homemade icing but she used a boxed cake mix – which I didn’t learn until I was grown. One of my favorite meals was chipped beef on toast [or “shit on a shingle” as my dad referred to it, laughingly, remembering his Army days]. It was made with Armour dried beef that came in a jar. Mom chipped it up and threw it into a basic white sauce, and served it over toast. I loved it. Dad ate it, always acknowledging it was far better than what he had eaten in the Army.
Mom hated that her early days of marriage were nerve-wracking because she couldn’t cook, and so my instruction began early. By the time I was five I could make tuna salad and jello. By age ten I was making cakes. By age thirteen or so I could make an entire meal for the family. By the time I was in college and got my first little apartment I would often invite friends over and cook things like eggplant parmesan and shrimp creole.
Mama’s efforts to school me in the art of from-scratch cooking to please a husband and family went un-needed for twenty years. I have never married and never lived with a boyfriend. Before I became a Mom my solitary dinner was often something like a can of soup or a bag of popcorn. However, the cooking lessons weren’t wasted.
I adopted two children [ages 10 and 13] when I was in my early 40s and suddenly I had to do real cooking, most nights. I learned to make a fried chicken my kids liked, which involves soaking the chicken in ranch dressing, then rolling it in panko bread crumbs and frying it in olive oil, or sometimes baking it in the oven. Easy and tasty. I would often fix Pillsbury frozen biscuits to accompany said chicken.
Stouffer’s Spinach Souffle is one of my favorite vegetables. Takes eight minutes in the microwave.
I didn’t realize what a food snob I was, though, until recently. One of my friends sent over Publix chicken when I wasn’t feeling well. Another friend (another busy working mom) sent me some Costco lasagna recently when Mama (who now lives with me) was ill and I was too tired to cook. I have thanked them both profusely.
I am so happy to have reformed my life and my attitudes. I make no apologies for enjoying Publix fried chicken, or Costco lasagna, or Hickory House barbeque sandwiches, or takeout Mexican food.
I have a lot of friends who, like me, have grown kids, and they just don’t cook any more. There’s no need, because so many convenience foods are delicious. Even if you’re dieting, you can stop by Chick fil-A and get a salad, or run to Whole Foods and make a salad.
I still cook from scratch at least a couple of times a week, and occasionally make something special, like homemade lasagna or country-fried steak, but I don’t feel compelled to cook like that every night.
Most importantly, I don’t judge anyone else who chooses not to cook, or relies on convenience foods to feed their family. Everybody has to figure out what works for them.
I never mastered fried chicken, and I don’t lose any sleep over it. Long ago I did all the steps – salted and peppered the chicken, let it sit for 30 minutes, threw it in a paper bag filled with flour, shaking the bag to coat each piece, then frying it in piping hot Crisco oil. I had watched Mama and Memaw fix chicken like that my whole life. My chicken was never as good, though.
Now, when I crave fried chicken I hop in the car and head to Publix or Zaxby’s or Chick fil-A. Mama quit eating fried chicken decades ago and makes no apologies for it. She usually gets a roast beef sandwich.
Sorry to disappoint y’all, Granny and Memaw.
Although I was raised right, I am not the perfect southern lady. I don’t wear makeup or get my hair styled every week. I pump my own gas. I rarely go to church. I haven’t put on a girdle in more than thirty years and I almost never wear a dress. Maybe in my forebears’ eyes I am a disgrace, but it’s the twenty-first century, after all. (I do have good manners and I take care of my mama.)
To recap: My name is Dee, and I’m a Recovering Food Snob.
Please pass me one of those delicious frozen biscuits, y’all.