Spice of Life by
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Prompted By Acquired Tastes

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My father was always a bit of a food adventurist.  He liked vinegar on broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach, and potato salad with vinegar and onions instead of mayonnaise—maybe acquired from his mother’s German roots . When he was drafted into the army and sent to language school, he took day trips into New York City where he was introduced to “pizza pie”, forever after recalled as a moment of gustatory revelation.  He would now try anything.

My father was always a bit of a food adventurist.  He liked vinegar on broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach, and potato salad with vinegar and onions instead of mayonnaise.

When he was stationed in post-war Japan, he appreciated many things about the culture, especially the local food.  Raw fish and seaweed—no problem. Later, he obtained a job in China and got a taste for the food there, especially the spicier Northern fare.  Ginger, garlic, hot pepper, vinegar—all good.  He met and married my mother in Peking, and they brought home a cookbook written by a Westerner who lived in China that had some pretty authentic recipes, and it would get pulled out periodically for special meals.

As their children, living then in the Midwest, our usual meals were not so exotic—cereal, eggs and toast, sandwiches and soup, casseroles and occasional chicken or hamburger, frozen vegetables.  But we got the occasional teriyaki or Chinese dish and were encouraged to try new foods.  We knew that our father would.

My father was not above using his reputation for food experimentation to advantage though.  For years, he would gallantly allow the rest of the family to enjoy the chicken legs, wings and thighs while he would sacrifice and take the unpleasant breast meat.  One day I innocently pointed to a piece of meat on the platter I would like to have and it was served up without comment.  That tasted great!  What was it?  Sheepishly honest, he had to admit it was of course the breast.

When we decamped for tours abroad to Vietnam and to East Pakistan, we had more food opportunities, from pho to spring rolls with nuoc mam, to curries of many spices–always championed by my father, who could take them hotter and stronger than the rest of us.  He raved about his Burmese friends’ kao shue and so they invited us over for special meals for years.

There were occasional unintended consequences.  My older sister remembers a meal at a restaurant with friends where my younger sister proclaimed loudly that she had gotten a rotten egg since it was dark on the inside. Of course, the other sisters started questioning our food too, which mortified our parents, and we later got a talking-to about being polite, trying new things and just putting aside any food we didn’t want to eat. Later on, we were all invited to a farewell luncheon where my younger sister started enthusiastically eating water cress despite my mother’s prior warnings about eating uncooked food and the risk of dysentery. Although she tried to gently dissuade my sister, my mother had to sit by in a mild panic as she kept saying how much she liked the cress and the hosts kept giving her more and there was no way to intervene without being rude.   Maybe my mother saw it as justifiable payback for having come down on us so hard for the rotten egg episode.

After he retired, my father took to cooking and developed a sizeable library of cookbooks from around the world, though he always favored Chinese.  I think his food-curious approach reflected the openness with which he approached the rest of life, traveling and working with people from around the world.  Though he is now gone, he remains an inspiration–and I still keep the little vinegar pitcher he used to flavor the Brussels sprouts.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Interesting – one CAN tell a lot about from the eating tastes of others.

  2. Khati, thanx for your lovely story.
    Altho seemingly about adventurous eating and exotic foods – it’s much more than that – a sweet reminiscence of your dad..

  3. Ah, Khati, another artifact in the vast array of your youthful adventures! And a sweet homage to your father. You left me hanging with the watercress, though. Did little sister suffer any consequences from her watercress debauchery?

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Good to see you still lurking out there! I don’t think there were any notable sequelae from the watercress, at least nothing I remember that interrupted our plans. Although various members, me included, did have amoebic dysentery while overseas, and round worms. And my older sister was ill during travels back to the States—so trepidation was reasonable with fresh greens! As it still is, depending on where and how you travel.

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