My mom called it “gravy meat,” which is pretty much exactly what it was. It began with a pound of ground beef, as inexpensive as ol’ Mom could find, browned in a pan on a gas range in our tiny, mousey — literally, with mice — galley kitchen in our central Delaware home.
A little salt. A little pepper. Some water to make it look like it was really more than it was. Let it simmer awhile. Then pour the whole mess, grease and all, over a pile of rice.
Mom and Dad at the end of the table. Seven hungry, snarling kids with forks and fingers ready.
This was my food experience growing up. Gravy meat nights. Waffle nights. Pancake nights. Bacon and eggs any time of the day. (We kept hens, for awhile, in an outbuilding in our back yard.) Bacon grease in a can on the back of the stove. White toast. Grilled cheese. Burgers. Spaghetti.
We had bigger, fancier meals, sure. Turkey for Thanksgiving. Occasionally, Mom made a mean chicken cacciatore from a recipe she pulled from Good Housekeeping. I remember some pot roasts. When she got creative (and we had the money), Mom would whip up a moussaka in a big ceramic pan. Potatoes and beef and cheese … good stuff.
Once, in a memorable burst of healthy cooking (before eating healthy was cool or deemed necessary), Mom made a batch of rose petal fritters from a bush that grew wild in our front yard. The fritters didn’t go over so well. We ate them.
But when you have to feed a family of nine on a salary of, I’m guessing, $15K a year, your choices run on the limited end. The basic question that had to be answered for every meal that Mom made and we snarfed down with rarely a thanks: What is simple, cheap, quick and will feed everybody?
Fried potatoes were a common side dish — a pan with onions, one without (for my pop). Potato chips. Vegetables, in-season, from a half-acre garden that we all had to chip in to weed. Corn. Tomatoes.
We’d plop down every night — families did such a thing back then — on benches at a big wooden picnic table in our skinny dining room in the old house, between that step-down kitchen and the side room full of junk that, someday, was going to be our fancy new kitchen. (It never was.)
We’d talk. Laugh. Argue. Shove down food as fast as we could. Usually all at the same time.
When we ate out — and we did, somehow, from time to time — it was subs or fried chicken or pizza. We didn’t do Chinese. Or Japanese. We didn’t do Mediterranean. I’m not sure we knew what Mediterranean was.
There was one Mexican food place in Dover, as I remember: Tippy’s Taco House. Never set foot in the place. By the time I left home for college, I had never eaten Mexican food. The first time I dove into a plate of nachos, at a place called the Dash Inn on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, Arizona, I felt like suing my parents. Quesadillas. Tacos. Refried beans, for God’s sake. Cheese enchiladas. (And margaritas, of course.) It opened up a whole new world of eating for me.
From Arizona, I inhaled plate lunches of laulau or kalua pork while living for a year in Hawaii, red rice and chicken kelaguen in Guam, Cajun seafood along the Gulf Coast in Pensacola, Florida and even — some people hate this dish — Cincinnati chili. Luke and I have a heaping plate of that cheesy, saucy stuff every time we go back.
Atlanta does not have, I think, a signature dish. But in the 20+ years we’ve been here, I’ve had barbecue and grits and biscuits and something I never had before: Collard greens. I could devour a plate of them every night.
I write all this as I’m thinking of Anthony Bourdain, the TV chef and inveterate traveler who died tragically last week. Since his death, at 61, I’ve been dipping (not exactly bingeing) on his show, “Parts Unknown.” (So good. The best thing on CNN. They’re on Netflix now. Even for non-foodies, they’re worth the watching.)
Bourdain either traveled the world to eat or ate as an excuse for traveling. Maybe both. It was never clear. And it didn’t much matter. He discovered a little of every place he visited on the plates he ate and the company he kept. He was utterly comfortable at both a Waffle House — that’s the South; Luke and I will go smothered, covered, chunked and diced every few weeks — and in front a fine course of caviar and truffles in a swanky Vegas hotel.
When we were in Vegas recently, we ate and In-N-Out. Don’t judge:
The lesson in Bourdain’s stories — and he was fearless in offering up his thoughts — goes well beyond food. The lesson is to try new things, to experience, to share and, ultimately, to accept. It’s a simple lesson but one, I think, that too many people just don’t get. They go with the safe, the easy, the familiar. We all do it at times. It’s understandable. But it’s limiting in so many ways.
In an excellent episode from London, shortly after Brexit, Bourdain bellies up to a bar (Bourdain liked his drink, too) for a pint and some perfect British snacks that many of us — me, probably, included — would need a couple of pints to really think of eating: “Tiny, baby herring, lightly battered whole and fried, tossed with a little bit of lemon juice and salt — the perfect bar food.” The little bready (and I assume bony) fish were served up inside a paper roll, like fancy French fries at some swanky-trying burger joint.
Later in that episode he gushed over a pig’s head pie. In other episodes, he savored things like tripe and bone marrow, all legitimate dishes in the places he visited.
Bourdain did have a hard time with this:
But he tried. He was open to the experience. And in being so, he connected with others.
I’m fairly certain that I’ll never have a chance to do warthog parts or pig’s head pie. But I’d like to think that, if it’s ever plopped before me, I’d at least consider stuff like that. As long as someone else was there to give it a go with me.
It’s not fine eating, like gravy meat. But that’s not a bad thing.