Weirdest childhood foods
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While reading your sadly un-updated Taste Test feature I came upon your review of the delicious treat known as Pelucas. While your review was less than stellar (you should know that it’s not real tamarindo, that’s like saying Cheez Whiz is real cheese) it brought back memories of childhood snacks that not every family took part in. I don’t know where I picked it up, but I got hooked on Tang sandwiches (a snack that my friends have called “hobo sandwich”), while my best friend had ketchup sandwiches. Did anybody else have a certain childhood snack that prompts others to cry out in anguish?—Fernando
First, good news: We’ve got a series of new Taste Tests lined up. It’s been a while since we found something worth taste-testing—we tried Dunkin Donuts Pancake Bites and Jones Bacon Soda late last year, but the results were a meh-ish “These are okay” in the first case and “This is kind of bad” in the second case, and we wound up not getting those features together before the holidays. And now, neither of those products is available anymore. But we’ve got a few doozies in hand at the moment, so look for Taste Test to return soon. We even have a very special, very familiar guest lined up. If all goes according to schedule, Taste Test should return a week from today.
Second, to answer your question, my favorite snack when I was about 6 years old was dill pickles wrapped in American cheese. My gag reflex kicked in a little just typing that; I don’t think I’ve had American cheese since shortly after the manufacturers started individually wrapping the slices in plastic, such that they always had plastic-fold imprints and started feeling limp and floppy and tasting vaguely of plastic. And incipient blindness. (Cue Simpsons references.) Maybe modern science has improved American cheese, but I don’t feel any need to find out. I still like dill pickles, though.
I lived the sad life of a kid with a thin mom, so there were rarely treats in the house. Thus I had to come up with my own, and my proudest memory is of mini-choco-pancake rollups. Mom ordered these three-packs of frozen silver-dollar pancakes from the food co-op, which were nothing special on their own, but sometimes, if she was baking something, there’d be chocolate chips in the pantry. Throw the pancakes in the microwave, sprinkle some chips on top, nuke, roll up and enjoy, ideally at a time when no one’s around and it isn’t breakfast time. Suggested side-dish: a generous portion of shame.
I grew up on welfare, so you can just imagine the creative ways we found to stretch the last of the starches every month. My finest creation, as kid-foodstuff and as accidental conceptual art, was butter and sugar sandwiches. Spread the butter thin, keep the sugar low and even—not more than would stick to the butter. (I was a klutz and was always trying to be very careful.) My predilection for minimalism probably begins here.
My mother dieted a lot, and the longest-lasting and most mentally imprinting of these was the popcorn-and-cheese diet: for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, out came the saucepan and a hunk of orange Colby. (This was in the days before anyone even thought of blending cheeses for supermarket purchase, so it was Colby, not Colby-Jack. I rarely see plain Colby in supermarkets anymore.) Gradually, this changed into about two years’ worth of baked cheese popcorn. You pop the corn, spread it on a big cookie sheet, liberally douse with sliced Colby (Mom almost never used the shredder because she hated cleaning it), and the secret touch, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. Yum-yum!
It’s not really weird to eat semisweet chocolate chips straight out of the bag, is it? Or spoonfuls of Nestle Quik? Mmmmm, just thinking about how the Quik became a kind of thick gooey chocolate reduction once you’d primed the spoon with enough saliva makes me want to rush home and pop that lid off the tin. (Mom, I’m sure, was always wondering why the spoons were bent back; it’s because I was using them both as pry-bars for that annoyingly tiny, tight-fitting top and to dig out the sweet powder hiding in the crevices underneath.)
But my favorite idiosyncratic food from my childhood is far less illicit: oven toast. We owned a toaster, but I don’t think it was ever used for anything but the occasional Pop Tart. No, the toast I had almost every school morning was made in the upper oven of our dual-oven setup. Buttered beforehand, and just barely singed brown around the edges, with butter melting and soaking the center into a soft mush. Then a cinnamon-and-sugar mixture sprinkled on from a little plastic bear shaker, melting immediately in its turn. Or honey sometimes, drizzled on with one of those little wooden slotted oval thingies that one sees in every cereal commercial, but seldom in real life. To this day, I can’t figure why anyone would make toast in a toaster and scrape on butter afterward. Defeats the whole purpose.
Mine’s a combination of coconut and raisins that I thought was delicious until it made me throw up, thus putting me off coconuts and raisins for years. I’m not sure there’s much more to it than that.
At some point in sixth grade, a friend sitting at my lunch table asked what I was eating, because it looked disgusting. I told him it was a cream-cheese-and-black-olive sandwich—which I had been enjoying for about a year at that point. See, in fifth grade, a different so-called “friend” asked the same thing—and had such a tone—about my cream-cheese-and-grape-jelly sandwich. My mom might have made it up, who knows. I loved them, but stopped when I was teased. Cream cheese and black olives was the compromise, but that was the last day I had that delicious combo. Seriously, try it.
So when I was a kid, my mom used to have friends over for these Bible studies that would last most of the afternoon. (I think most of that time was spent talking about raising kids and other stuff, rather than the Bible itself, but I wasn’t exactly there, so who knows?) Anyway, one day, one of these meetings stretched well past 5 p.m., pushing toward dinner time. When I whined about this on behalf of the other kids there (and I was a pretty whiny kid), my mom told me to grab a snack. Instead of getting a snack, however, I decided it was time to make dinner for some reason, despite only being allowed to use the microwave, not the stove. For whatever reason, I got it in my head to make pancakes, so I dumped a bunch of Bisquick, some eggs, and some milk into a giant baking pan, until it mostly filled the pan. Then I put it in the microwave and started cooking it on high. As I recall, it took 20-30 minutes to cook all the way through, and once these pancake bars (as I quickly dubbed them) were done, they were hard as rocks. But I smeared a little grape jelly on them (because, y’know, I couldn’t have just done that with toast), and the other kids seemed reasonably satisfied. After that, I made pancake bars quite a few times, always trying to nail down just the right amount of time to keep them in the microwave before they’d get TOO hard, until one day, my mom told me they didn’t taste very good, and were, indeed, borderline inedible. Well, I liked them. Hey, I think I have some Bisquick right here…
For a hot minute there, I was super into peanut butter, raisin, and applesauce sandwiches, which in theory sounds pretty normal, but in practice is a logistical nightmare. I was eating these on this really thin, Wonder Bread type stuff from Cleveland called Schwebel’s Taliano. (“The bread with the foreign accent!”) The applesauce would soak right through, but if I ate it fast enough, it hit the spot. It’s also only recently struck me as weird that a Peanutburger (a burger with a big ol’ slathering of peanut butter on top) would be considered weird, but it’s a Cleveland classic, and I eat those to this day.
Like Michaelangelo, I grew up on welfare—that is, during those fleeting periods when my mom was sober and lucid enough to actually collect it. Government cheese, rather than being dreaded, was some kind of sick, weird treat for me and my little brother. And don’t get me started on the (admittedly joy-exterminating) joys of powdered milk. Anyway, when not consuming mass quantities of emulsified floor wax, my bro and I ate lots and lots of Chef Boyardee products: Ravioli, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and that most hallowed of pseudo-Italian portmanteau pastas, Beefaroni. By the time I was in middle school, my mom left me in charge of the food stamps, so after a trek to Cub Foods, I’d pair a couple cans of the Chef’s top-shelf, tomato-painted dog food with a 50-cent sack of generic white bread. The result? Beefaroni sandwiches. The recipe is self-explanatory; the flavor is ineffable. There’s just something about the mingling of the two mushiest, gummiest white starches known to man—catalyzed by that metallic-orange Boyardee alchemy (plus a little margarine and potato chips)—that made us feel like we were feasting on the food of the gods. At least that’s what we murmured as we clutched our guts and cried ourselves to sleep. Good times.