The 1950s: The food is salty, starchy, soothing. Milk arrives in glass bottles; eggs are delivered by a farmer. We can our own tomatoes and fruit. Frozen food is too expensive. I feed sugar cubes to the junkman’s horse.
The 1960s: College food is salty, starchy, and much less soothing. My roommate and I supplement with Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and jam. She sneers at my store-brand label. The word “foodie” hasn’t been invented. I go to France to study. I marvel at the quality of dining-hall food. I discover cheese that is not Velveeta. I eat cow stomach, calf brain, beef liver, and chou, a vegetable whose name is a term of endearment that doesn’t translate. I gain fifteen pounds. I cut out the after-class visits to the pâtisserie. Returning stateside, I find that yogurt has not crossed the Atlantic. In grad school, I notice that more undergrads attend demonstrations against lousy cafeteria food than against the war in Vietnam. They burn their cafeteria cards. My own meals consist of cream of mushroom soup, canned tuna, canned peas, and rice. At the end of the decade, a boyfriend in New York prepares fresh green beans for me. Another serves me a salad of raw mushrooms and spinach. These are not Proustian moments; more like entering Narnia through the wardrobe, to a world of real food. And in this world, men know how to prepare it. Michael Harrington’s Other America sparks a War on Poverty. Edward R. Murrow’s CBS special on “Hunger in America” shocks, shocks the nation.
The 1970s: My welfare rights auxiliary group promotes living on a welfare diet for a week. I am glad when the week ends and the headaches go away. My commune joins a food co-op. We discuss whether dessert is necessary at every meal and whether those of us who want it have the right to supplement from our own pockets. Later, after the commune is in the dustbin of history, I read Diet for a Small Planet and expand my newfound culinary skills to non-meat-centric dishes. I no longer dismiss vegetarians as people in denial of their true carnivore nature.
The 1980s: I am too old to revert to the Atkins diet whenever I need to drop ten pounds. I have to eat rationally and healthfully. Pregnancy gives me a reprieve on the rationality, I think, and I am disheartened to learn that Chinese takeout, even if mainly vegetarian, is not considered healthy by my midwife. I stop drinking caffeine because I don’t want a jumpy child. Later, I don’t want to be a jumpy mom. At a birthday party in East Harlem, a twenty-year-old with four children admires my rotund four-month-old, who weighs more than her one-year-old. I remember that welfare diet. A few years later, the elfin director of our progressive day care center gives us a book that claims that children know what is good for their bodies and will eat a healthy diet if presented with good choices. We embrace this idea. We do not yet know abou...
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