I was talking with my sister Maria recently and she reminded me of a restaurant we used to go to as kids in Annapolis, The Little Campus. We went there for birthdays and special occasions—Maria said, “I remember wearing my long dress there.” (Remember when a “long dress” was the height of glamour and formality?) I couldn’t tell you anything about the food, except that we always got to have Shirley Temples, and they had this roll-up cake that we always got for dessert. It was chocolate cake with either white frosting or ice cream, all rolled up like a Ho-Ho. I Googled the restaurant, and it appears, sadly, to have been replaced by an Irish bar. Don’t get me wrong—I like an Irish bar as much as the next person—but it was kind of sad to realize that a piece of my childhood was gone.
Our conversation got me thinking, though, about other food memories of my childhood. We went on a lot of summer car trips as a family, mostly driving up the East Coast to Maine or to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Ohio. Dad usually wanted to get started early in the morning, so we would head out right around dawn. The trade-off for this was that we would get donuts for breakfast. I’m not really a fan of the donut now, but as a kid it was a special treat—a decadent change from the usual breakfast of Product 19 (remember that cereal? No? Just me? Carry on.) or Cracklin’ Oat Bran. We’d drive for several hours, and we three girls in the back of the Volvo would bicker and color or do needlepoint (shut up, it was the 70s), and Mom would occasionally pass back a roll of Lifesavers. Everybody wanted the cherry one, of course. And when Lifesaver Lollypops made their debut—oh boy, was that a great day for candy-dom! (My dad the scientist told us about the Wint-o-Green trick—how, if you bit down on one in a dark room, green sparks would come out of your mouth. Then he told us why, but we didn’t care about that. I still don't. If you really want to know, look it up.)
If it was a summer trip, we’d stop around lunchtime at a rest stop, and Dad would pull out the big, clunky turquoise Coleman cooler with the squeaky latch, and the red jug of lemonade. (We had Kool-Aid extremely rarely, so sometimes Mom would surprise us with that.) Our picnics didn’t consist of pre-made sandwiches. We had whole loaves of Italian or sourdough bread, logs of baloney or salami, and hunks of cheddar and jack cheese. Dad would slice the meat and the cheese, and we’d rip off hunks of bread to make sandwiches. You could chase me down the street with baloney these days, but some taste and texture memory still lingers of those roadside sandwiches.
Eventually we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn, which was exciting enough for a kid. Hotels meant swimming pools, watching TV in a big bed, Pepsodent toothpaste (which I loved the taste of, and no, I don’t know why we only used it when travelling), doing the Wint-o-Green trick, and eating in a restaurant. I loved eating in restaurants. (Harbinger of things to come, maybe?) There was so much choice and possibility, and they did things so differently than at home! They filled your milk glass all the way up to the tippy top, which for some reason I found fascinating. If you got chocolate pudding for dessert, it came in a fancy glass dish with a little blob of whipped cream on top. And everybody could have something different for dinner. Maria told me recently that she remembers always ordering chopped sirloin, because it made her feel “so grown-up.” I went through a period of only ordering fried shrimp, French fries, and Orange Crush. (I guess I wanted all my food to be the same color or something.) In my mind I did that for years, but it was probably only for a few weeks in Maine.
Trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s for holidays were even more wonderful, food-wise (although maybe not as exciting). We would get to their house in the afternoon and sit around talking and catching up while drinking Teem or strawberry soda (the height of exotic beverages, to my eight-year-old palate) from aluminum glasses and eating those rippled potato chips that came in the big can (Maria, brand, please?). I remember being so excited to go to Ohio for Thanksgiving because it meant we got to have “lumpy mashed potatoes!” What I didn’t realize then was that those were real potatoes, mashed by hand—we had instant “mashed potatoes” at home. I hope I didn’t offend my grandmother too much by pointing out the lumps. Breakfast (brunch, really) was a massive, extended affair, with Grandma’s cream coffee cake, pecan rolls, homemade bread, orange and applesauce donuts, eggs, sausages, actual butter, homemade jam—all the fixings of a good Midwest brunch. Grandma had these awesome glasses commemorating the Apollo missions, and I always tried to get the milk lined up with the top edge of the blue flag graphic. (I was utterly thrilled to find the same glasses in an antique store years ago. I have one in my bathroom right now.)
Looking back, even though I guess we probably didn’t have a lot of money, and Mom wasn’t exactly a gourmand, we were always well-fed on pretty normal food, like any normal family. But it was the special times—rolled-up cake, grenadine “cocktails,” fresh bread in fresh air, sparkly red soda, homemade apple dumplings and ice cream—that probably made me start appreciating food. And for that, I thank my family.