Considering the love affair we had with wood paneling and the preponderance of green, yellow, and brown kitchen appliances, it should come as no surprise that food was different back in the Seventies and Eighties. Everyone was still blissfully unaware of the damage processed foods were potentially doing to our bodies. People could still smoke on airplanes and in their office cubicles and fast food was considered a pillar of modern, Western society. Hell, a part of us was still hoping for the advent of those futuristic nourishment cubes that would save us from the chore of eating. Microwaves were all the rage … as an actual cooking appliance. You could even buy a cookbook for yours should you find yourself short on meal ideas.
Food was still much simpler and far less adventurous than now. Ethnic foods were still solely the domain of pizza joints and Chinese takeout. TV Dinners were still a legitimate supper for families to eat. And, let’s face it, even if you wished to eat healthier, the options were pretty limited come wintertime without the global reach of veggies and fruits we have today.
Growing up in a modest, middleclass, Canadian family during these times, we undoubtedly ate some strange things by modern culinary standards. Cheap calories trumped all it would seem, not that I improved much in my teens when I had a bit more control over my diet. Here are nine stalwarts from my childhood that are likely to make you cringe just a little.
- Baked KAM/KLIK/SPAM with Mustard
It was early adulthood before I learned that the infamous SPAM joked about on American television was the same as the KAM or KLIK we ate here in Canada. It was quite a shock to discover this putrid food that everyone made such fun of was something I’d been eating for years. And loved!
For starters, it was fun to open the can. It came in that bizarre rounded-corner rectangular can that required a special “key”, attached to the bottom, to open. Make food fun and kids will eat it!
Once opened, the questionable looking gelatinous meat contents would be cut into 1 cm thick slices, covered with a squeeze of prepared yellow mustard, tossed under the broiler for a few minutes and voila, a meal fit for a King’s jester’s illegitimate son.
- Boiled Bologna – Fried Bologna
Bologna was a big deal back in the 70s/80s. It seemed like every kid’s lunch had a bologna sandwich in it. This was because bologna was cheap and nobody had a damn clue what a Bento Box was or why it would have anything to do with lunch.
As just such a family, we ate a lot of bologna. Regular bologna sandwiches, of course, or even simply on its own; it was ideal for biting smiley faces into. But mom also found other ways to prepare bologna for main dishes. Fried bologna was one such creation. I know others of my vintage savoured this gem of a meal based on various memes I’ve seen circulating around Facebook. Toss a few slices of bologna in a fry pan, allowing it to cook in its own juices (melted pig ass fat, most likely) and be amazed at the subtle infusion of flavour complexity this produces. The colour also changes and the sides curl up a bit so it kind of looks like a really crappy Mother’s Day pottery dish some kid made in Grade 1.
Another delicious option was boiled bologna. This was bologna you purchased in a coiled tube format, far lesser in diameter than the sandwich or frying bologna but greater than a wiener. Mom would buy this delicacy in chunks approximately one foot long and tossed it into boiling water for however long it takes to essentially cook a fat wiener. It went well with buttered noodles. Not likely to be found on the Health Canada food pyramid, though.
- Raw Wieners – Bake Wieners.
Speaking of wieners, these narrow gage bologna impersonators are equally versatile. You’d think nothing of eating a slice of bologna as is (or, OMG I forgot about this, with Kraft cheese slice rolled up inside it) so the concept of eating a raw wiener shouldn’t be so shocking. It was a great after school snack. Well, it was quick at least especially if the wagon wheels were all gone. That said, I still kind of cringe a little bit when I recall doing this. And it was often. My favourite way to eat them was in a corn on the cob fashion, where I’d eat around the entire outside first leaving a long, limp, random-chew-marked wiener skeleton in my hand before completing the feast. This may be the weirdest thing I ever did in my life.
I’m starting to think wieners and bologna held far too prominent a position in the pantheon of my childhood sustenance. Anyway, this here was another oddity involving wieners. My Grandma Schmidt always prepared wieners for me in this way when I was a kid and I’ve never had them this way since. I haven’t the foggiest notion why or where the impetus to cook them this way even came from, but it was a damn near genius method for preparing wieners. Not boiled or barbecued as is commonplace, instead Grandma baked them in the oven in a small, red Pyrex dish. The wieners would come out all wrinkled and cracked much like they do on the BBQ but without the telltale scorch marks. Served with a side of Cheez Whiz this made for a delicious, and special to Grandma’s house, lunch for yours truly.
- Cream Buns with Butter
This was disgusting solely because it was so sinfully scrumptious, though certainly weird. Again, I haven’t the foggiest clue how we learned to do this or why we did but oh my god am I glad we did. What we did was buy a cream bun from the Stone Crock Bakery in my hometown. These were phenomenally good already. The size of robust Kaiser bun, they were filled with a generous portion of rich, creamy filling. Sounds good, don’t it? Well, not good enough! We would open the bun, take a butter knife and move all the cream filling to one half, slather butter onto this freshly vacated half, reassemble the cream bun, and voila, the most indulgent, disgustingly delectable breakfast imaginable. It was perfect with Saturday morning cartoons.
- Maple Tree Sap Straight from the Bucket
This is about as Canadian as it gets. At least that’s what I thought when I was young. Then I grew up and learned that they make Maple Syrup in strange, foreign places with names like Maine. Then I grew up further, moved West, and learned the shocking truth that Canada is not covered from coast to coast in Sugar Maple trees. But before all that growing up, I enjoyed this very cool, though slightly gross, delicacy.
Who doesn’t love Maple Syrup? Well, you might be surprised to hear that the raw material from which it’s made, Sugar Maple sap, is equally delicious. The consistency and clarity of water, tree sap is a sweet, refreshing treat when drunk straight from the collection buckets hanging from the trees in March.
There is a Mennonite sugar bush back behind my parents’ home and each March, when the pitch black smoke of burning tires started billowing from the sugar shack, my sister and I would race to the bush to see the golden syrup being made. We were unofficial taste testers for the syrup, sampling it straight out of the boilers. I’m sure the deformed serving spoon we ate with still resides in that shack to this very day. We’d also follow the farmer around while collecting sap in his horse-drawn wagon. It was the most exciting two weeks of winter.
But when the farmers weren’t working we’d also sneak into the bush and drink the raw sap right out of the buckets. Using your teeth to strain out the foliage and insect debris, the swallowed cool, clear, sweet liquid was pure heaven. I can’t believe nobody has thought to carbonate it and bottle it!
- Cinnamon Toast
There’s a cereal based on this breakfast treat so I suppose it can’t really be a rare or bizarre thing to eat. That said, it’s very makeup still gives it a bit of gross factor especially if you care about dental health or are, say, diabetes. A piece of buttered bread, covered in packed brown sugar, sprinkled with cinnamon, and then stuffed under the broiler for a couple minutes to “toast”. That’s a quality way to crank up the energy in the kids before shipping them off to school to be the teacher’s problem for the day. Oh, it’s fantastic to eat, hence the cereal, but it’s unconscionable from a nutrition perspective. Not many low carb, gluten free moms serving this anymore.
- Graham Crackers as Cereal
There is a definite trend happening here. Breakfast appears to have been the most adventurous meal of the day in my parents’ home while also showcasing the very depths of first world depravity when it comes to sugar consumption. Here’s a certain favourite of mine. Graham wafers typically have only two worthy uses; s’mores and the base for squares. This is a third option and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a cereal based on this one too (Golden Grahams). This was undoubtedly contrived out of desperate necessity one morning when the pantry cupboard was opened and revealed no cereal left in the house. Break up some graham crackers, pour in the milk and enjoy a sweet homemade cereal. Just eat it quickly. Unlike its namesake actual cereal, this version gets soggy fast. Like instantaneously. And don’t calculate the calories. Just, don’t.
- Puffed Wheat with Powdered Skim Milk
Breakfast in the Schmidt House wasn’t all sugar and fat. There were also far too many mornings of this unfortunate and genuinely gross breakfast. Unlike the other foods on this list, I did not eat this one with pleasure nor did I ever request this disgusting combination of bland and blech. But it belongs here without reservation.
I should be more sympathetic towards this meal. Like the others, it was a meal created out of budgetary necessity but with the attempt of healthiness. Money was tight for my parents and keeping a lid of food spending was a priority. Edible packaging material combined with solidified dairy liquids certainly fit that cost savings bill.
It was also a truly vile gastronomic experience, exacerbated by the fact that the milk inevitably ran out just before I needed some. There was absolutely no way to make a new batch of powdered milk that was anywhere near refrigerator cold. Our well water might have been refreshing after an hour of mowing lawn in the hot sun, but when mixed with skim milk powder first thing in the morning it was as about as tasty as wallpaper paste.
Thankfully this experiment only lasted a year or so. I think my parents even grew tired of this shit and couldn’t justify forcing my sister and I to eat it anymore. There are limits to any principal and I think avoiding puffed wheat and powdered milk is a valid sword on which to go bankrupt upon.
- Plain Big Macs
I’ll admit it. I was a picky eater as a kid. To some degree I remain so, but by comparison to my youth I’m now as adventurous as a contestant on Fear Factor. You’ll note that even a list of weird stuff I ate as a kid is filled with fairly tame offerings. No bugs or exotic ethnic dishes, the odd ladybug slipping through my tooth sap strainer notwithstanding.
Without a doubt, the most prominent expression of my pickiness was my absolute aversion to condiments. This was especially true when it came to hamburgers. I loved Cheez Whiz and put that shit on everything, but fast food restaurants were not Cheez Whiz friendly. So on the rare, and I do mean rare, occasion that our family went to one of the big burger chains, I inevitably requested a plain hamburger, much to my father’s chagrin.
My demand for plain burgers was especially galling at McDonald’s where I always requested a plain Big Mac, which to you Big Mac lovers out there, is bordering on heresy. It seems the special sauce is the whole point of the Big Mac. Keep in mind oo that this is the early Eighties we’re talking about here. Custom orders were not viewed upon kindly in those days. Harvey’s exists for that very reason. The sign at McDonalds says 99 million served but if you look closely there is a line beneath stating 6 jackasses served custom orders. 5 of them were me.
And there you have it, some more of the strange, often disgusting, always delicious but rarely eaten now foods of my youth. Combined with the high quality diet I adopted in my teens, the section of my blog devoted to the chronic health problems of my adulthood is surely no surprise. Enjoy … but take proper heed.
Cream bun picture by Karl Norling on Flickr