My food journey through life: From biscuits and gravy to pho soup
By Ken Root
Some people eat to live, poor souls, but others, like me, live to eat. I immensely enjoy food. I love breakfast, gain satisfaction and sustenance from lunch and especially love a robust meal in the evening.
If I can keep my exercise level up and reduce my portion size, I hope to enjoy food to my last day on this earth. Few people eat as well as farmers so I have many pleasant memories of the foods of my youth. But my tastes are not stuck in the past as I am now finding some new foods that are quite tasty with spices and flavors that are exceptional.
If you grew up on meat and potatoes, those are likely to be your favorite foods for life. My mother cooked with lard and we ate everything fried. She made biscuits and gravy to die for and her deep dish apple cobbler was the most satisfying dessert I will ever consume.
Although my family had Depression era stories of eating Crowder peas all winter and having to boil meat and store it imbedded in lard because they had no refrigeration, I was born post war, at a time when the quality of our diet was improving. It seems natural to me that any civilization wants to have abundant, wholesome and tasty food. It is also logical that people make the most of what they have and rather than diminish their minimal diet, they expand it with flavors and preparation that brings a few moments of joy each time they sit down to dine. But every culture wants a better diet and it is the first indication of a rising standard of living. China, as a poor country, had a diet primarily of rice, vegetables and pork but now it has expanded to fish, beef and a much larger quantity of vegetable protein.
In the United States, rural people weathered the Depression of the 1930s with minimal food stuffs available. At a time when you really could starve to death, it became a challenge to lay in enough food for a family and to harvest what the land offered. Eating squirrels, raccoons, turtles and possum sounds awful today, but I've had fried squirrel with gravy and it's not bad.
World War II broke the cycle of poverty and also became our greatest cultural exchange. At the end of the war, soldiers had eaten foods from other countries and had a flavor for some and a great dislike for others. As we moved into the 1950s, the average American had some jingle in his pocket and a taste for a higher quality diet. We ate more meals away from home and that gave a great boost to ethnic foods that were quickly Americanized.
I was in high school when I ate my first real pizza. It was at a Jack Sussy's restaurant in Oklahoma City. The thin baked dough and Italian sauce was unlike anything I've ever tasted. I loved my mother's cooking but this stuff was outstanding.
In the 1970s, as I traveled in larger circles as a young broadcaster, the industry receptions started serving shrimp. Most rural folks would tell you they didn't like seafood but shrimp was a different story. People would gorge on it to the point that you'd have to push them out of line to get a second helping.
Mexican restaurants became incorporated into our diet as did Chinese buffets. I assumed all this food was exactly the same as was prepared in originating country until I traveled to China and sat down to a traditional meal. The agricultural heritage of China is so much longer than ours that we have no real way to compare it. The scarcity of food and the many mouths to feed caused them to find ways to eat the entire animal. Duck feet and pig tongues fit right into the range of dishes on their tables.
In the go-go years of the 1990s, Americans consumed larger quantities of our traditional foods. "Super-sized" meals were offered by hamburger chains as well as restaurants and buffets that became the standard for many diners.
As my parents' generation faded away and most women held a job outside the home, the creativity of cooking seemed to decline in favor of home delivery and dining out. Rural America hasn't bucked this trend, as Casey's is the fifth largest pizza maker in the country.
So in the 21st century, I started tasting foods that are becoming more popular in urban areas, especially where ethnic populations have a strong influence. I had been "lunch deprived" during most of my broadcasting career as I worked through the noon hour and dashed for food or ate from a machine. About three years ago, I had the chance to eat lunch at noon so I made the most of it.
My first find was a small Vietnamese restaurant called Pho All Seasons. I had no idea what they served but I saw that the lunch crowd was equally split between business people and the ethnic Vietnamese. That told me the food was good and safe. So I asked the owner's bilingual daughter to bring me a different dish each day so I could sample their fare. It was great fun and I settled on a soup that is out of this world.
It is called Pho (pronounced fa). It is a popular Vietnamese noodle soup served with either beef or chicken. It includes noodles made from rice flour and is often served with Asian basil, cilantro, thinly sliced green onion, lime juice, and bean sprouts on the side to be added by the diner to suit their taste. They bring you a bowl big enough to bathe in and you break up and add the spices and vegetables. I like to eat with chopsticks and a spoon. The beef is thinly sliced roast that is cooked to medium with sliced meat balls as well. The broth is excellent and not overly spicy.
My next goal in cuisine is Indian food. So far, there are only a few restaurants in the Midwest. It is spicy but very satisfying. I can't pronounce anything but the fried bread, "Naan," which they bring for you to sop up the sauces. Eating without utensils is acceptable if you use the bread. They have a "butter chicken" that is very good but stay away from the goat if you are going to be in a confined space over the next six hours.
"Living to eat" may become my new motto. Maybe I'll become a food critic. Enjoying foods from here and there can bring adventure to your life every day.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.