American Gourmet

rice packageWalking through the ethnic food aisle (yes, an entire aisle) in my local supermarket, I reflected on how things have changed since I was growing up. Back then Connecticut was considered ethnically diverse with Irish, Russians, Poles, Puerto Ricans and Italians living among the descendents of English settlers. Even so, except for Italian food and bastardized Chinese food (remember chow mein and chop suey?), there were very few ethnic restaurants and almost no ethnic foods in supermarkets.

Today, I can get the ingredients for authentic Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Mexican food in the supermarket and ethnic markets provide anything missing for those cuisines and Vietnamese, South American, African and Middle Eastern dishes as well. Even if you live in a more homogenous area of the country, you have access to ethnic chefs on TV, ingredients over the internet and bookstores stocked with cookbooks on every imaginable subject and cuisine so that you can become a true gourmet chef if you so desire.

Beside ethnic food, we have progressed beyond imagination from the 1950’s when anything made with Campbell’s soup was a gourmet dish. Tuna noodle casserole was ubiquitous and you were considered creative if you added something daring like peas to the mix or topped it with something other than crushed potato chips. But what could be expected from a generation that embraced Swanson TV dinners and peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiche?

I have to say that our family’s cuisine was decidedly more varied. My grandparents were Russian immigrants and my parents lived through the depression, so our meals reflected those life experiences. Certainly none of my school friends ate boiled potatoes and sour cream and tomato herring for dinner or tongue sandwiches for lunch. One thing those Russian peasants knew how to do was to cook well with cheap ingredients. Of course their heritage also provided excellent dishes like brisket, stuffed cabbage, noodle pudding and blintzes when time and funds allowed. brazilian soupFortunately, my mother was a very good cook and was interested in trying other cuisines so we also ate traditional American fare and Italian and French dishes.

I wish I had appreciated all the fish dinners we consumed when I was young. In those days fish was not valued for its healthy qualities or when cooked correctly its wonderful flavor. Fish was cheap. We had fillet of sole, cod, halibut and blue fish on a regular basis. My father even had a friend who had lobster traps in Maine so we occasionally had lobster when he had too many for his own family. Can you imagine too many lobsters? My Catholic friends not only did not appreciate fish, they endured, with much complaint, the obligatory fish on Fridays when meat was not allowed (no vegetarian menus in those days).

Today when we are again facing a difficult financial situation, we can at least look to other cultures for cheap, tasty dishes that enhance our meals and our wallets.

Susan Harrison is an attorney by training, home remodeler by accident, and a writer by choice.

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