Currently, the area of the Hudson Valley where I grew up is the darling of the media. It has even been written up in Bon Appetit. I nearly choked on my tea when I read that. There have been James Beard award nominees across several years. My brain couldn’t compute that AT ALL the first time that happened. And it has grown exponentially in cool factor and income levels since I lived there. It’s complicated. The area is filled with farmers, lush landscapes, and beauty, but since all of that has become “cool”, the Hudson Valley has become a bougie enclave with amazing restaurants, independently owned businesses, and the artists and artistry of the area are even more recognized.
To be honest, I hated growing up there; all I ever wanted to do was get the hell out of there. And I did – in spades! And still, after more than 20 years of living elsewhere, when I visited last, I had a negative physical, visceral response to all of it. My allergies flared up, my skin crawled, and I dreaded the possibility of running into the bullies of my youth. I hate reliving my past – Hakuna Matata – and yet, here I am, doing it again to share my relationship with food. It is a complicated relationship. I both love it and loathe it.
We moved from Long Island to the Hudson Valley in 1973. Farms and farming were and are a way of life, not a trend to be embraced. Unlike people who were born there, I don’t look back on it with any special sense of nostalgia or fondness. I have no feelings of belonging or special ties to the community. There is nothing I miss from that area other than the fall foliage (there are people that I miss). I still dislike being there, and only go back rarely to see dear friends. In fact, I think the last time I was there was 13 years ago. But to dig deeper into honesty, upstate New York is where my complicated relationship with food was born, grew into adolescence, and coalesced into something tangible.
Change – Fear
Living on Long Island, in Gram’s house, I never knew we lacked anything. I am sure that we did, but I never KNEW it. There was always food in Gram’s kitchen, I don’t remember ever going hungry. We lived in a little white house on a regular street – Sherman Avenue – with sidewalks, and with cousins nearby and friends on the block. My mom’s high school friends lived nearby, and we were friends with their kids, too. When we moved upstate, that changed. While we waited for the new mobile home to be delivered, we moved into “the cabin” on 20 acres of what is now prime real estate. We had no friends, no sidewalks, and our nearest neighbor was a quarter of a mile down the road. There was no kitchen, just a two-burner hot plate, a sink, and a fridge. For someone who remembers many meals of her past and has “food memories”, I don’t remember eating in “the cabin”; I don’t even remember Mom cooking there. I can’t tell you how long we lived like that, because I don’t know, but I DO remember my mom canning fruit and vegetables on an outdoor firepit made of cinderblocks. There was cruelty in culling poultry, ruthlessness in the tearing out of weeds, and fear of not doing it correctly, and punishment. There was true fear in not knowing what was next. This was the very first time I can remember being afraid of anything or anyone. It was 1973. I was eight.
Shame – Poverty – Need
We lived at the poverty line in upstate New York. If you grow up always in need, you never know any difference. For me it was a LOT more complicated because I DID know differently. My Long Island cousins were in a financially stable home and didn’t need food stamps, free lunch, or hand me downs (as far as I knew). They lived in a house and were never called “trailer trash”, so their life was my barometer of what life could be. KNOWING you are disadvantaged is one thing. Having people ridicule, shame, and embarrass you because of it is something completely different.
As an elementary schooler, having free lunch was no big deal, but high school was where I learned to be ashamed for needing assistance and frankly it is why I have such a hard time asking anyone for help of any kind. You see, back then, you paid for your lunch in cash if you had it. There were yellow cards for reduced price lunch, and red cards for free lunch. My card was red. At first, I was thrilled and grateful because I knew I could HAVE lunch. A lunch that wasn’t a peanut butter and homemade jelly sandwich. That changed less than 6 weeks into the first quarter of my freshman year. A group of “mean girls” who were upper classmen (and yes, I still remember who they are) were behind me in line and made snide comments about “poor kids” and the free lunch program. I knew they were talking about me; they said it loud enough for everyone in line to hear. People laughed at their comments and at me. That was the last time I ate lunch at school. Ever. I would rather be hungry than made fun of or shamed in any way. It was October 1978. I was 13.
Pride – Skills – Farming
My life was irrevocably changed in every possible way when we moved upstate, but I will focus on food here because that is complicated enough. In the Hudson Valley, I learned how to work a garden, tend chickens, feed horses, and so many other farming tasks, including culling and cleaning poultry (a skill I used a couple of years ago to help friend Kim). I also learned how to identify trees, plants, and edibles in nature. (I am nowhere near as good as THIS GAL, but I wouldn’t starve if I had to fend for myself.)
Because my stepfather was a butcher, I learned what that looked like, learned to freezer wrap a butchered deer in 15 minutes, and I truly understood where my food came from for the first time. My Long Island cousins never had those experiences. The children of my mom’s high school friends never learned those skills. Our friends from Sherman Avenue had no concept of any of that. Even my stepfather’s children knew nothing of “country” living. I’d wager a good chunk of cash that the townies never learned any of that either. I was now “other”. I love the fact that I had those experiences and learned those skills, but I also loathe the fact that I HAD to. Complicated.
What many people don’t know about the brutality of the food chain, food processing, and farming is astonishing to me. They watch one documentary or read an article or a book and think they KNOW. You don’t know, but I do. And I kinda liked the brutality of it and that I was part of that brutality, and I was shocked that the brutality didn’t bother me. Really complicated. While studying biology with Ma Russell and covering anatomy, I thought nothing of bringing in a deer heart or kidney from an improperly “dressed” carcass to show other students what REAL organs looked like. I couldn’t understand why some of the students were stunned and shied away. I didn’t understand why some people were freaked out. To me it was just part of life, death, and food. They looked at me like I was some strange little axe murderer, bringing “trophies” in for show & tell. It was November 1979. I was 14. Ya see? Complicated.
Desire – Longing – Happiness
Mom worked full time nearly all my life. I can’t recall her NOT working or going to school. She would call me from work after I got home from school and tell me, “Turn the oven on to 350. Do you remember how to do the Shake & Bake chicken? Great! Can you get that started for me?” and other simple tasks that put me on the path of learning to cook starting in the 5th grade. I remember making pancakes and eggs for dinner because we had laying chickens and “complete” pancake mix that only required water. In my child brain, it was ultimately cool to eat breakfast for dinner. As an adult, I know it’s because that was all we had. I still love breakfast for dinner. Complicated.
Learning early on that people love to eat, I taught myself how to cook more things so people would like me and want to spend time with me. The desire for friendship, praise, and acknowledgement was a living being inside me, clawing at my chest to be let out. The recipes were simple things at first. Pasta salad. Deviled eggs. Baked ziti. Tuna casserole. You know, all the things you can bring to a potluck. Of course, I fucked up stuff while I was learning, as we all do, but when anyone complimented me on anything I had made I was truly happy. I found happiness in the kitchen, not when I was eating, but when I was working. Then I found out about the CIA – The Culinary Institute of America. It was only 45 minutes away! I could go to school there! It’s expensive. Could I get a scholarship? I could cook every damn day…and be happy! When I broached this subject with my folks, I was told I was “too smart” to do that. Why don’t you go to regular college? Maybe med school? You are so smart; it would be a shame to waste it in a restaurant. It was 1981. I was 16.
Jealousy – Learning – Yearning
Like all good girls, I graduated High School with a smile on my face. Posed for pictures in my stupid white dress and awful white shoes, and pretended I liked it and that I was happy. I had received a partial scholarship to the state university, so that was where I went. Even though I was accepted at Princeton. Even though I had received a full ride to the community college (remember, all I wanted to do was leave). And yet, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was doing what was expected of me. I was jealous of my classmates who knew what they wanted. I kept learning, and yearning for more. But what does a gal who loves to cook do when she is living in the dorms? She drops out.
Next up? My recent past and more about my complicated relationship.