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Food For Thought

A good many years ago (I’ve truly forgotten just how many), this was a food column. I hesitate to call it a cooking column because it was more about the history and enjoyment of food than about specific recipes or cooking techniques. We called it “The Good Cook” for a long time, and I intended that to refer to the reader, the one in every family who makes the meals day after day, year in and year out. My intention was to encourage people to have fun cooking, to take the uptight out of it for the less confident and less experienced, and to offer some fresh ideas to the long-time cook who found it all too routine and repetitive. There was quite a bit of my family life thrown in, hints about shortcuts and variations on the same old meals. Somehow, my notion that the column was dedicated to the reader– the good cook that everybody took for granted– didn’t stick and most people thought it referred to myself. The idea that I considered myself to be the good cook was a misunderstanding, and I regretted the name I’d chosen for the column. It seemed pretty arrogant.
Many of those food columns didn’t contain recipes at all. I recall that one time I wanted to write about shrimp and started out by looking up shrimp in the encyclopedia rather than a cookbook. There are so many different kinds of shrimp and most of them are fascinating. I seem to remember that I ended up writing three entire columns about shrimp and there was not one recipe in sight. I also discovered that food, like music, has the power to evoke vivid memories and my own reminiscences and personal opinions began to find their way into the weekly soup. It wasn’t long before Brian, then the publisher, said I didn’t have to write exclusively about food, that readers had told him they liked my comments and anecdotes more than the information about cooking. We decided it was time to change the name of the column. As a transitional title, I decided on “Food For Thought,” thinking people would see the connection between cooking and my other musings. Not a very original title, it has been used by many columnists and can’t be copyrighted because it is one of those phrases so common it is considered to be in public domain. Somehow, we never got around to a more fitting title, mostly because I’ve never been able to think up a more appropriate one.
Every week when I type “Food For Thought” at the beginning of this column, I think about what that actually means. I try to stick to the point by raising questions or making remarks that will set you to thinking about something that is either, enlightening, interesting or enriching in some way. There are so many things in life that we take for granted, that we just accept as being there; and never think about their role in our lives or their worth to the world in general. Even things that we are powerless to control, to improve, or to object to need to be brought to the surface and examined from time to time. Nothing is too trivial or colorless that it never needs considering. I’ve often said that I could be blindfolded and point at anything in the Sears and Roebuck catalog and then, if I chew on it long enough, I’d be able to write seven or eight hundred words about it, or at least connected to it or inspired by it as a jumping off point.
Back in those early days, I started a list of expressions we use that include the names of foods but which aren’t really about food. For instance, something that is too unmanageable to take on (too hot to handle) is referred to as a hot potato. Something so insignificant that it doesn’t deserve our attention we call small potatoes (this was clarified further recently when a friend commented that her gardening grandmother sorted out the tiny potatoes from the harvest and fed them to the chickens.) Over the years, that list has grown to nearly one hundred fifty terms, ranging from the apple of one’s eye, to walking on eggshells. Old standbys like ham actor and bringing home the bacon are joined by more modern references such as mushroom cloud and SPAM.
Food words are used to describe a wide range of things from politics (cracker barrel and pork barrel) to musical instruments (licorice stick and sweet potato.) We use food words to describe people (carrot top, butterfingers, slow as molasses in January, salt of the earth or a real peach.) A guy can be a beefcake, bald as an egg, a bean counter or a tall drink of water. We can noodle around on the piano, pepper somebody with questions, get lost in a pea soup fog, smell something fishy and salt away a nest egg. Yes, no matter how you slice it, there are words to cover just about everything from soup to nuts.