I never thought of it as particularly special that I grew up with parents who took me not only to seafood restaurants and barbecue restaurants and the obligatory post-church cafeterias but also to Mexican restaurants and Italian restaurants and Chinese restaurants.
Houston, where we lived in the 1960s, even had a Jewish delicatessen, and San Antonio, where we lived in the 70s, had a couple of German restaurants, and Mama and Daddy took me there, too.
Still further, they let me order off of the grown-up parts of the menus. Long before I could reach the gas pedal on Mama’s ’73 Capri I knew a chalupa from a cheese blintz from egg foo yung.
We were hardly what you’d call well off. Daddy was an accountant and Mama was a schoolteacher. To a certain extent I believe our dining excursions were more a matter of Mama’s simple fatigue at the end of long days surrounded by noisy schoolkids than of pure culinary adventure. “Let’s go out,” she’d say.
But for me, the result was the same. I got to eat a lot in restaurants.
I long ago realized how good I had it as a kid where eating was concerned, but I have come to appreciate my mom and dad’s efforts even more in the couple of years since I moved to small-town Mississippi, where all the food is tan.
The regional specialties hereabouts are fried catfish, fried okra, hush puppies, biscuits, and po-boys filled with fried things. That’s a lot of tan.
Chinese buffets include fried catfish, Mexican menus include pulled pork burritos, and the Japanese place in town even deep-fries its sushi. Tan, tan, tan.
There is a very sweet lady in my office who, when she sees me walk in carrying a paper sack, asks, “Whatcha got?” And I’ll tell her.
“Leftover pad thai,” I’ll say. Or, “Fettuccine alfredo for lunch.”
Sweet Lady’s response, more often than not, is, “Eww! I just like fried chicken.”
She’ll walk past my desk as I’m noshing on enchiladas, then look at my lunch and squinch up her face as if she were smelling ammonia. How sad, I’ve thought, that this person has led such a food-sheltered life.
But it’s not just her. People are comfortable with what they know, and it’s hard to criticize my coworker’s squinchy-face response to food that she considers exotic. Her experience is as real and valid as my own. The bigger question is whether any of this matters beyond the point of amusement.
“Oh my gosh!” I’ll say at work. “You really don’t know what a fajita is?”
“Show me some fried chicken,” my colleague will say.
Does it matter?
Mississippi is the third most obese state in America. It ranks first for diabetes and first for mortality by heart disease.
Is diet a part of that math? Of course it is.
My point here isn’t to scold but rather to point out that diet is a choice. It’s a habit but it’s also a choice. When we see a chicken salad on the fast-food menu, what’s to lose in ordering it now and then?
When our coworker says he’s eating pad thai, why not ask, “What’s that?” And when you find out it’s really just noodles with shrimp, why not say, “I’ll try it!”
I was lucky with my food-adventurous parents. Maybe everybody isn’t. But we all have a choice.