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.

3 Comments

  1. I wish you could talk to the owner of Awe Baby Cajun restaurant in McComb MS. Its an awesome place and the owner Lisa Deer is full of so much history. She is also on Facebook.

  2. I totally agree with you. I moved from small town Mississippi around age 20 to larger city Alexandria LA, and fell into a world of choices. Choices where to have lunch , or dinner. I embraced those choices like a thirsty woman emerging from the desert. I’m now back in small town Mississippi . I’ve never liked, or eaten fried chicken. My mom swears I’m not adopted!! I was determined that my 12 yr old little girl have choices. I thought of everything as deep fried or too spicy , not properly spicy,seasoned, not tan. Tan is a great word for the food around here if you dine out, as a rule. Back to my 12 year old. I was determined she not eat ‘ tan’ ! So I’ve made sure she’s esten food that originated from different countries, vegetables not boiled to an early and painful death and frying ? A medium sized bottle of cooking oil normally gets thrown out due to the expiration date. I buy it , I keep it under the counter , very rarely I use it. Mainly I buy it just to have. Because everyone here has one , like a bicycle, here. I don’t ride it but I have one. In case. Btw, the bicycle I SHOULD use. Back to the food and the 12 yr old little girl. I’d like to tie them together a little. One word , Munchies 2. Well, 2 words. I agree that a lot of the food can be fried. Deep deep fried. However, you can get it baked also. Or it comes prepared neither way. The main thing at Munchies is
    ….. COLOR !!!!! Vibrant, bright, beautiful colors , skillfully arranged to appeal to most any palate . Or possibly not, but it should. People should give this beautiful food a chance even if it frightens them. It’s pretty much American fare. Delectable sweet dishes , not healthy but for every once in a while, as they should be eaten anyway.
    That’s it. I read your article and I was so excited to see someone shared my feelings on how the food looks and is prepared in almost every establishment in this state , and got a little over excited! I don’t think I added any thing much of not eating fried food so much, but a very good idea on where to find delicious colorful food, that is different in many ways.
    I’ll be watching you on your food journey! Keep us posted on anything and everything different. My little girl absolutely loves different !!!!!! Mission accomplished!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *