Learning to Eat

“Food is to be feared” is the mantra I absorbed as a child. Though my mom never said those exact words aloud, nearly every meal we consumed screamed “Caution!” or “Are you really sure about that?”

Salad dressing of all kinds – forget the varieties in which it came — was disgusting and never to touch a leaf of my lettuce. And that salad? Don’t even think of mixing anything more wild and flavorful than Iceberg in there.  Sandwiches, hamburgers, and pasta ordered in restaurants were all carefully inspected, layers separated and noodles pulled back and apart, before even a single bite could be taken. I’m not sure a tangy drop of mustard even crossed my lips until I was in college.

My mom has particular tastes – aversions really – and as a kid who didn’t know any better, I followed my mom’s lead. I figured she’d been around the food block and knew how to sort the good from the bad. No mayo, mustard, or dressing of any kind. No basil, parsley, or any other visible herb or spice.  Forget about olive oil. Her dislike of beans and rice meant no ethnic food save for the occasional visit to the most American of Chinese restaurants (a real tragedy growing up in Seattle) where she ordered cashew chicken for us both. I mimicked her careful sorting of the chicken pieces and cashews from the dish, leaving islands of onions (terrible, ruin everything), peppers (too spicy), and other wan vegetables in an oily clear ocean of sauce. Our mounded bowl of white rice grew cold with our neglect and disdain.

In high school, a revolution occurred: I began eating dinner at friends’ houses. Worried about the food potentially served but also too shy to make a scene, I ate my first tentative bites of Caesar salad. I didn’t die. Not only did I not die, I actually liked it. Glistening Romaine lettuce, damp with dressing was actually good, delicious even. Soon, I had pesto, sweet potatoes, and carrots dressed with a white sauce that my friend’s mom called “company carrots.”

Over the next few years, I began trying all kinds of foods I’d always thought must be avoided at all costs. And I loved nearly all of them. For the first time, eating out wasn’t fraught with peril and caution. Dish dissections occurred only to add more mustard or to straighten a tomato threatening to slither out from between my bread slices.

By the time I graduated from college and moved 2,000 miles away from home, I finally understood those photos I’d seen in magazines of people, families, laughing and smiling as they passed mysterious steaming bowls around a table. I could see myself in those photos now, and I wanted to know what was in those bowls not to request that something be removed but to savor each bite. It was corny but the power of food to bring people together in shared enjoyment – rather than suspicion – at last made sense.


An Apple for Teacher

When did we start giving teachers apples as a way of thanks or appreciation or, perhaps more likely, sucking up? And why apples?

After the Garden of Eden, apples came to be associated with knowledge and information. Early Christian scholars depicted the fateful tree, known as the Tree of Knowledge, as an apple tree early on. Apples grew well in Europe and were a popular fruit so it made sense to them that the tree in question was an apple… even if it didn’t really make sense climactically since apples wouldn’t grow well in the Middle East. But that’s a story for another day.

In the 18th century, poor families in Scandinavia paid for their children’s schooling with a basket of apples. They may not have had money but they had plenty of apples to share. Over time, the amount of apples given decreased to one since apples tended to spoil quickly.

Americans picked up on the tradition during the Great Depression in the 20th century. Farm kids brought apples for their teachers to keep them satiated and in good spirits so they would keep doling out good grades.

The practice stuck and so, too, the association of apples with teachers. It’s hard to walk into any academic supply store (my mom was a teacher – I spent hours of my childhood in Academic Aids in Bellevue, WA) and not see dozens of apple posters, stickers, borders, erasers, and just about anything else you could imagine adorned with apples.

Chinese Apples

Regionalisms, like regional foods, are everywhere. Even in our constantly connected and commercialized world, linguistic variations persist in communities around the country. There’s something heartening to me about the idea of the persistence of language idiosyncrasies in the face of so many leveling forces.

Last week, I learned a few new ones while visiting New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Speaking at the New York Public Library about my new book Apple: A Global History, a woman asked me why pomegranates are sometimes called “Chinese apples.” Beats me. I’d never heard that before! It turns out it’s a regionalism, fairly specific to the New York City/New Jersey area. It turns out the Chinese apple = pomegranate lobby even has a Facebook group devoted to it. Pomegranates are from Asia originally so that’s probably where the name originated, but that name didn’t seem to spread outside the northeast.

A few more, though, not necessarily food – or even apple – related:

  • What I call a roundabout or a traffic circle (perhaps I’m unsure myself) is a “rotary” in Massachusetts
  • Water fountains are supposedly “bubblers” in Massachusetts, just as they are in Wisconsin, though I never heard anyone reference this
  • Hero is a sandwich in New York City
  • A milkshake is a “cabinet” in Rhode Island and a frappe in Massachusetts (wish I’d had one but my desire to try things outmatches the number of meals in the day and room in my stomach)

What other food-related regionalisms do you know? Any other apple-related ones?



Dead People’s Houses

I love to haunt the homes of the dead, especially those of the famous and notable. Now before you think me profane, let me explain.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved visiting historic homes. Family vacations always involved at least one stop at a house museum and more likely, several. I can honestly say I’ve been in hundreds of historic homes, from General Ulysses S. Grant’s house in Galena, Illinois, and Rutherford B. Hayes’s home in Fremont, Ohio, to the homes of Susan B. Anthony, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and lesser figures who just happened to have beautiful old homes in states across the country. I thrilled at walking the same floors as President James Monroe, and tried to imagine the lives of the people who lived in these spaces decades and even centuries ago. It made history seem real and tangible (it’s the historic corollary to celebrity magazines that show celebrities doing normal things like grocery shopping. Thomas Jefferson sleeps in a bed, just like me!) and is probably largely responsible for my love of history today.

Cut to a few years ago when I met my now husband. “You want to visit a dead person’s house for what reason?” he asked. “You know they’re dead, right?”

The question left me speechless. “Of course I know that,” I snapped. “But aren’t you curious how they lived? Where they lived? Some of these homes are just so beautiful.”

He still hasn’t come around to my view. But he’s happy to come along and wait outside while I continue my tour of the homes of dead people in American history.

Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT - the latest stop on my tour of dead people's homes



Apples on the Radio

Apples are on the minds of the folks at the public radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” where I recently spoke with Anne Strainchamps about the history of apples.

Check out the story of the Rambo apple on “Wisconsin Life,” too.

Ghosts of my Ancestors

Growing up, I never knew much about my family or its history. Family trees for school projects were always hasty, improvised affairs that rarely extended beyond my grandparents no matter how much I badgered my parents for information. Somehow, it never seemed strange at the time that my parents sometimes couldn’t even tell me the names of my great-grandparents – their own grandparents! I knew immigration was somehow involved but I wasn’t sure of the countries or even when it happened.

Last weekend I walked the streets of Bolan, Iowa, my great-grandfather’s birthplace for the first time. The town is a single street set amidst fields of corn rich with stands of electricity-generating windmills. It’s a small town – currently a population of 9 – and probably always has been. My great-great-grandparents came to Bolan from Sweden, Scandinavians drawn to the Midwest like so many before them.

I never met my great-grandfather but visiting his town made me feel like I had. The street, buildings, and landscape made this long unknown part of my history tangible, more real than I ever thought possible. Bolan was somehow my hometown, too.

It’s a funny thing for someone like me who writes about history and cares deeply about the past to know so little of my own story. There’s a deep connection that comes from understanding history and the forces that shaped a time and a place. It’s a feeling that once found is hard to shake. When I talk to people about history and why it matters, I often say that you can’t know where you are until you know where you’ve been.

I’m just now figuring out where I’ve been.

Probably the cutest museum ever






Ultimate Hitchhikers

Last week, I had the great honor of having my apple book excerpted on Salon.com. They took a portion of the first chapter, which explores how apples made it from Kazakhstan to your backyard (or somewhere near it at least). It’s a pretty neat trick.

Apples are perhaps the world’s greatest hitchhikers, seducing you to pull over with a flash of their sweet and delicious flesh. They stole a ride in your bag or rode along in the stomach of your horse, traveling dozens of miles by dint of their captivating taste and aroma.

They don’t just travel well.  Apples also tend to make themselves at home almost anywhere, insinuating themselves into the local culture and never leaving. It’s why we think of apples as very American fruit despite their origins in a place about as far away as you can imagine.

Apples produce offspring that can vary quite dramatically from their parents. Each seed contains the genetic material for a whole other kind of apple that can taste and look radically different than the parent fruit. Every apple has several seeds and every tree has hundreds of apples so one of these seeds is bound to have the street smarts to survive in their new home.

Thankfully for us and the fruit, apples taste pretty good so we don’t mind that they tend to stick around uninvited.