“There would be an army of fried chickens, Virginia hams, potato salad, blackberry pies, huckleberry pies, vanilla puddings, devil’s food cakes, angel food cakes–in the matter of cakes a general ratio of one cake per person seemed to have been aimed at, and arrived at too, for that matter, and everything was fried in butter or fat and (my wife says) had sugar poured all over it. Such cooking ruins country people’s palates forever, I suppose. I have absolutely no taste for fine food. The best French restaurants in the world are wasted on me. All I want is a few ham hocks fried in bacon grease, a little mess of turnips with sowbelly in it, and a hunk of corn bread, and I’m happy.”
That wonderful prose was written by a man who would be known today as Anderson Cooper’s father. When he wrote those words in 1974 in his book “Families A Memoir and a Celebration,” (page 9) he was known as Gloria Vanderbilt’s fourth husband. His name was Wyatt Cooper and he died in 1978 at age 50. His book is an absolute treasure.
I like to think that my palette is not ruined, but I completely empathize with Wyatt Cooper with regard to food. I fantasize that I can enjoy a nice glass of wine, but the allure of fine food escapes me. To put this another way: I eat to live, I don’t live to eat.
Wyatt Cooper grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in Texas eating almost everything my mother put in front of me. I think of her as a good cook, but certainly not a fancy one. In south Texas we ate plenty of meat, such as steak and hamburgers, pinto beans, fried okra, and Mexican food. Other things like mashed potatoes, occasionally squash, beans, green beans, cabbage, corn on the cob and fried chicken come to mind. At Thanksgiving Mama made cornbread dressing, which I have come to regard as a southern delicacy. In the north people think stuffing is good, but they have never eaten or even heard of cornbread dressing.
One of Mama’s specialties was pecan pie, the pecan being the state tree of Texas. The pecans were bought from a stand out in the country, brought home, and shelled while watching a football game. Mama’s pie crustswere homemade, and she used white Karo syrup in her pie filling. In the north people don’t even know how to say the word “pecan,” much less make a pecan pie.
In 1983 I was dating a girl from Ohio. We went to a restaurant and saw green cardboard hanging from its ceiling. The place was having an asparagus festival. I had never eaten asparagus, so my girlfriend proceeded to try to educate me. I countered her futile efforts by extolling the fine qualities of fried okra. Naturally she had never tasted one bite of that southern gem. To this day when I see asparagus in a grocery store or on a restaurant menu, I think of that girl. I wonder if she ever sees okra and thinks of me.
My Aunt Selma made the most wonderful, mouth-watering bread every day at seemingly every meal. I have absolutely no idea how she did it, but that is one of the things I recall about her.
So this is what food is for me: A trigger of memories, but not a present preoccupation. I had a bit of breakfast this morning, but for the only other meal I will eat today I will eat stop by a salad bar at a restaurant. I’ll take my plate and read while I am eating. A waitress will bring me iced tea, which I drank every day while growing up.
Perhaps eating is like sleeping for me. Life calls for both. I wish I could appreciate fine food, but come to think of it, I have never been a sound sleeper either. Let’s go talk about books and music.