I Am What I Ate: Foods from My Childhood
creative nonfiction by Kevin Brown
Not surprisingly, Armour developed Treet in 1939, near what would become the end of the Great Depression. They knew that people needed a cheap meat product, so they delivered one. They needed to compete with Hormel, who had released Spam in 1937. When people ask me what Treet is, a question I get every time—and I do mean every time—I mention it, I explain that it’s ten cents cheaper than Spam. The description on the can advertises Treet as “luncheon loaf with chicken and pork, smoke flavor added”; the other description on the front of the can says that it has “traditional baked ham taste.” The vague wording is a sure sign that there is much in Treet that they don’t want diners to think about. For example, after listing the chicken and pork in the ingredients, there follows a list of additives: “food starch-modified, brown sugar, soybean oil, hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat proteins, barley malt flour, natural flavorings, sodium nitrite, smoke flavoring.” I don’t know what most of those are.
Treet was one of the staples of my childhood, as we had it roughly every other week, always with pork n’beans, box macaroni and cheese, and white bread. My parents would often combine these into a sort of open-faced sandwich, with the bread on the bottom, layers of treet, covered in pork n’beans; I’m not sure where the macaroni and cheese went, but I believe it was on the side. When I told a young woman I was trying to date about this meal, she asked me if I was white trash. I had never thought of this meal or any meal I ate as a commentary on my socioeconomic class. I had never thought about the fact that nobody else in our neighborhood ate this meal, at least that I knew of. When I was younger, it was just a meal in our rotation of meals. When I got older and broadened my tastes, I thought my parents served it because it was cheap, and we needed cheap meals that could feed a family of five, that it was a necessity. When I moved into middle age, I realized my parents ate this meal because it was what they liked. The choice of this meal made sense to me on a socioeconomic level, but not when it came to taste; I understood I had become like that young woman from several decades before. I’m trying to come to a different understanding now.
While pork n’beans was a standard side dish whenever we had Treet, we also had it with other meals, especially when we would grill hamburgers, for some reason. We would certainly eat potato chips or some other chip product, but our other side dish was pork n’beans rather than potato salad or cole slaw or other traditional sides for grilling out. While everything else about that meal was made outside or already made, there would always be a small pot of pork n’beans on the stove inside that my mother would have to watch. I learned the hard way about watching pork n’beans, as it was part of one of the first meals I ever tried to cook. I hate to use the word cook when it comes to something that comes from a can and just needs to be heated, but I was around twelve years old, so warming up pork n’beans counted as cooking. I only knew one way to cook anything like beans, which was to turn the eye on all the way to high until it was steadily boiling. Needless to say, I burned the beans, as I was also managing the Treet and macaroni and cheese. I had to start over with another can.
As an adult, I still eat pork n’beans on occasion, sometimes with a burger; however, I’ve spent more time wondering what pork n’beans actually is. The description of both parts—pork and beans—is so vague to be unhelpful. The name doesn’t tell what part of the pig the meat (and there is usually almost no meat in a can of pork n’beans) comes from, nor does it tell what kind of beans are in the can. Most companies use white beans in some sort of tomato sauce, while their description of the pork in the ingredient list is simply pork, still not helpful. Recipes for homemade pork and beans—something I never even knew existed, as everybody I’ve ever known who ate pork and beans bought them in a can—suggest bacon or salt pork or even pancetta, while the beans are usually navy or cannellini beans. Such a concoction sounds radically different from what I ate as a child. It might even pair well with Treet or a hamburger.
box macaroni and cheese
Like many children of the 1970s and 1980s, I grew up eating macaroni and cheese from a box on a regular basis. It served as the side dish for a wide variety of foods, ranging from Treet to fish sticks to corn dogs. Once, while eating it with fish sticks, I accidentally got some ketchup on the macaroni and cheese. I wasn’t a child who liked foods to mix, but I really wanted to eat all of the macaroni and cheese, so I went ahead and ate it with the ketchup on it. I liked it. However, I was too embarrassed to put ketchup on my macaroni and cheese from then on, so I would just accidentally allow the ketchup from whatever else we were eating to get on the macaroni and cheese, pretending it was a problem, but then eat it and enjoy it. I never told my family or friends about this behavior, as it seemed too weird to discuss.
I attended college just a few miles from where I grew up, so while I lived on campus for my first three years, I could go home and eat dinner whenever I wanted. During my sophomore year, I took my roommate Scott over to the house, probably to do laundry, but he ended up staying for supper. I don’t remember any part of that meal, save for the macaroni and cheese, and I only remember that because Scott couldn’t stop talking about it when we got back to school. He told everybody about that macaroni and cheese. It wasn’t just that it was macaroni and cheese from a box, the kind we all ate in college, but it was that we added not just milk to the mixture, but two slices of American cheese. Seemingly, not every family made this addition, which I had always assumed was part of the process of making macaroni and cheese. Even when growing up relatively poor, I had taken a luxury for granted.
Growing up, I ate large quantities of American cheese, or, as it’s officially known, “American pasteurized process cheese food.” That description makes it sound much worse than it is. For the FDA to allow a product to describe itself as cheese, it must have at least 51% of its makeup from cheese curds. American cheese doesn’t, though it does contain real cheese, almost always cheddar and sometimes a mixture of that and Colby. Despite the stereotype of this American cheese being lesser than other cheeses, it’s important to note that the process to create American cheese comes from Switzerland; James Kraft simply perfected the process, which is why most American cheese comes from Kraft. Even we who usually bought generic or store brand products ate Kraft cheese unless there was an equivalent cheaper product, which there often wasn’t.
Not only did we eat American cheese on hamburgers or added to boxes of macaroni and cheese, but it was also one of our frequent snacks. If we came in from school or playing outside complaining that we were hungry, our parents would tell us to eat a piece of cheese or two. It was better than eating something sweet, as it gave us protein that should help keep us full until supper, and it was relatively cheap. I ate it so often, I found ways to try to make eating it as a snack more interesting. I would fold the piece of cheese into sections that would break apart, ultimately trying to make small enough pieces that I could swallow without chewing. I was partially mimicking my father here, as he broke his slices into four pieces by folding it, given that he usually ate his cheese on saltine crackers, often with chili. I’ve absorbed the stereotype of American cheese as an adult, unfortunately, and the only time I eat it now is on the rare occasions when I crave a hamburger from a place that doesn’t offer cheese alternatives. The golden glow still reminds me of summer afternoons when I came inside from a day of playing, complaining I was hungry.
When I was in late elementary school, moving into middle school, I started preparing more of my lunches during the summer, as both of my parents either worked or had obligations that kept them busy. Many of those lunches were nothing more than sandwiches—for me, that was often two pieces of American cheese on white bread, as I was a rather picky eater—and chips. However, as I got older, I started “cooking” my lunches, both because I wanted something hot and different and because I wanted to see myself as the type of person who could cook. As with everything else I “cooked” during this time, I only knew one way to do it: turn the burner all the way to high, stir madly as it began boiling, then turn it off and dump it into a bowl to eat. While I certainly burned other items this way, I don’t ever remember burning a can of anything by Chef Boyardee.
For some reason, I primarily ate only two different versions of Chef Boyardee products: Beefaroni and Roller Coasters. They’re essentially the same product with different marketing, as it’s just the shape of the noodles and beef that are different. Even though I loved spaghetti and lasagna, I never went for those versions. What these cans offered was convenience and satiety—as I, as a pre-teen could make them, and they filled me up for several hours—plus affordability, which satisfied my parents. They weren’t great meals, as I went most of the day without eating any fruits or vegetables because I ate cans of Chef Boyardee meals without any healthy sides, but they provided what I needed and what my parents needed. I still love pasta in almost any form, whether it looks like an amusement park ride or not, but I’ve learned enough by now to know that I need something more natural to go with it.
We never bought brand-name products if there was a generic or store brand option. One seeming exception was in soft drinks. While we didn’t buy Coke or Pepsi products, I grew up drinking Shasta colas. And when I say I grew up drinking Shasta colas, I mean that I had multiple cans a day. I took them to the pool in the summers, to school whenever I packed a lunch, or in a sack lunch whenever a group of us would go on a hike somewhere, wrapping the cans in aluminum foil to keep them cool throughout the morning. While we would often have a variety in the house, I focused on the basic cola and the orange.
I didn’t know that the reason we bought them was because they were the cheapest option Food City offered at the time. While Shasta has been making soft drinks since the 1930s, it wasn’t a well-known brand east of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, I’m still not sure why a Food City in Northeast Tennessee carried that brand, save that it was the only significant option besides the better-known brands. Seemingly, Food City hadn’t developed their Food Club brand of drinks yet, or I’m sure I would have grown up on those instead. Today, well-known grocery stores, such as Food City or Kroger, don’t even carry Shasta, as they’ve moved to stores known for bargain products, such as Big Lots! or Costco or Dollar Tree or IGA. For me, though, Shasta helped me feel like I was drinking something more than a store brand, a product all the way from California—the cans I remember most even had an outline of Mount Shasta on them—something more than most kids in rural Tennessee had.
I ate a number of foods that came from a can or a box when I was a child. One side dish that never did, though, was cornbread. My mother always made cornbread from scratch, and, when I was younger and there were five of us eating dinner, she always made it in a cast iron skillet. For the early part of my childhood, I only thought cornbread came in a circle because that was the only way I saw it. Our family would eat over half of the cornbread with many of us going back for seconds, leaving one or two pieces for somebody to eat as leftovers later in the week, possibly with pinto beans or a glass of milk.
I actually didn’t much like cornbread when I was growing up, though. My mother made it as most Southerners do—with very little sugar, if any—and I prefer my cornbread to have some sweetness in it. Thus, I ate cornbread the same way I ate anything I could add margarine to, in that I slathered the margarine over every inch of cornbread, often with so much that it was hanging out of the side when I put it back together to help the margarine melt. I sometimes ate it in pinto beans, but the mushiness would eventually begin to bother me. Essentially, I was a Southern boy who ate a Southern staple, but who didn’t like it nearly as much as I let on. Cornbread serves as a metaphor for my growing up in the South, in that I had many of the trappings of being Southern, especially when I was younger, but I never truly felt I belonged in ways that mattered.
Chef Boyardee pizza
Though I don’t know if it happened every Sunday night, there was at least a period of my childhood where it felt like we had pizza on that rotation. There was a rhythm to the Sundays where that happened. During the second NFL game, the one that began at four in the Eastern time zone, sometime in the first quarter, my mother would stop whatever she was doing and mix the dough for the crust. Then, at halftime, my father would put the pizza together. The timing always worked out so the dough would have risen enough to be ready for my father by the time the first half ended. As with our Christmas breakfasts, this meal was one that my father put together. What’s odd to me about this distribution of work is that there’s no reason he couldn’t have mixed the dough, as well, even doing so between the first and second quarters, so he didn’t have to miss any football. There’s also no reason my mother couldn’t have finished making the meal, perhaps even on a different schedule, so we could come and make our plates during halftime. Given the way they did it, we usually came during a commercial, or, for my brother and sister, who weren’t much interested in the game, whenever it finished cooking.
My parents also used a box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix for the meal rather than buying pizza sauce separately and mixing the dough from scratch, which I imagine would have been cheaper. The kit included cheese, as well, but it was a mixture of parmesan and Romano, not any mozzarella; thus, we bought that separately, then added it ourselves. We also bought pepperoni in addition to the mix, so it seems that it was only the convenience of the pre-made dough that encouraged my parents to buy and make pizza from a box. For much of my childhood, I thought pizza should taste like Chef Boyardee pizza, complete with the undercurrent of parmesan and Romano that was underneath the mozzarella and the tangy sweetness of the sauce. Once my parents were making more money and my siblings were moving out of the house, we started eating pizza out or picking one up from Pizza Hut on the way home. I still add parmesan to my pizza, though.
I grew up believing shelly beans were a mixture of green and pinto beans. In some parts of the country, that’s exactly what they are, so that’s what I ate and what I called them. More precisely, shelly beans are one of any variety of beans that need to be shelled (thus the name). In some places in the north, people eat them with olive oil, garlic, and sage, sometimes adding pasta or greens. They might even use them in a salad. Essentially, there’s no agreement on what a shelly bean is or should be called or how it should be eaten beyond the fact that it’s a bean that one needs to shell.
As a child, I was amazed by what we called shelly beans, this wonderous mixture of two different types of beans. I wasn’t a child who liked food to mix, but I made an exception for this side dish. We didn’t have it often, so it seemed like a treat when we did. It took two ordinary side dishes that we ate almost every week but made it into something new. It never felt like a mixture of two different leftovers, which it might very well have been, but some delightful Frankenstein’s monster of a side dish. As far as taste went, I actually didn’t enjoy it all that much, as I would focus on the green beans, which I much preferred to the pintos, but the existence of such a dish was what mattered. As long as it was in the world, anything could exist. Combinations I couldn’t even begin to imagine might be somewhere else, on somebody else’s plate, in somebody else’s life, and that mattered more than the flavor.
Whenever we had green beans, one of the few green vegetables I would eat, my parents flavored them with fatback. Some people in the South use bacon or olive oil to provide some flavoring, while people in the North and West tend to eat green beans quite differently, usually eating the longer beans, sometimes boiling them, but often sautéing them instead. Essentially, fatback is a layer of fat from the back of the pig, a hard fat that people can chop or even grind. Southerners are known for making use of every bit of a pig, given that many of them grew up poor and needed to find nutrients wherever they could.
I can’t argue that I ate fatback because of any kind of nutrients, though it would have provided some protein and a good deal of fat, obviously, in the midst of vegetables. Instead, I would dig through the green beans and find the largest pieces of fatback to include in my servings of beans. While I wouldn’t eat the fatback straight, I would eat chunks of it with only a few green beans, while the rest of my family avoided it and focused on the beans themselves. Part of this approach comes from my being a child who didn’t eat many vegetables, as many children don’t unless made to. Part of it comes from the fact that I tend to focus on salty foods, and green beans are notoriously bland unless whoever prepares them finds a way to season them. Our main seasoning was fatback, and it clearly didn’t provide enough seasoning on its own, at least not for me. For most of my life, I haven’t felt particularly Southern, as I didn’t and don’t measure up to a wide variety of stereotypes from the region, but eating fatback always made me feel more so. Once I understood the background of fatback, I became proud of the ingenuity of those who used one more part of the pig to provide what people needed. I now eat my green beans with bacon, but I still fish out every piece we use for flavoring and eat them with a few green beans.
I have no idea how my mother made the chili I ate growing up. I do know she used pinto beans rather than kidney beans, only because I asked her at some point when I was an adult. I had been using kidney beans, then switched to pinto after that conversation; that switch only lasted one or two batches. I also know that the chili she made didn’t have large chunks of tomato in it because I would never have eaten such a chili when I was a child, given how picky I was, especially regarding what I referred to as “chunky” food, a description that also went for how most people made their spaghetti sauce. We had chili on Super Bowl Sunday every year, one of the few traditions we had. We always ate it with saltine crackers and American cheese, dividing the slice of cheese into four pieces that fit perfectly on the crackers.
Whenever I have had student groups over to our house for dinner in the winter, I try to make chili, despite my wife’s request that we make something different. It’s easy to make for a large group, and the students always enjoy it. Chili seems to be a comfort food for them, and it seems fitting at the end of a semester. I had a student stop me in our student union one year, as she wanted to talk to me about the chili, which she greatly enjoyed. She even asked if she could have the recipe. I was rather sheepish, but I told her it was simply the recipe on the back of the seasoning packet. She seemed to think it was an elaborate, perhaps family, recipe. Students often feel that way, given that most of them don’t cook, much like me in college. Thus, even a simple pot of chili made by following a pre-fab recipe becomes a meaningful meal. I should have already known that from the years I spent watching the Steelers or the Cowboys win one more football game.
Little Debbie snack cakes
My father had a sweet tooth. Not like most people, though, as he wasn’t prone to want pieces of cake or pie, nor did we have dessert with dinner. Instead, he always had something small and sweet around the house. Every night, around eight o’clock, usually when there was a break in whatever sporting event he was watching, he would come upstairs from the den and announce that it was time for dessert. He would get a few store-bought cookies, maybe a bit of banana pudding he had made, but not much more than that. In the afternoons, he often had a Little Debbie snack cake, as would I, though it wasn’t something we ate together. He preferred oatmeal crème pies, which I found too much like healthy food, not sweet enough, perhaps because of the word oatmeal in the description. Instead, I would eat fudge rounds or Swiss cake rolls, something chocolate, something super sweet.
For two decades, I lived about thirty minutes from Collegedale, Tennessee, where they make Little Debbie snack cakes. Oddly enough, the company that produces them is from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a church that believes in healthy bodies, as exemplified through a vegetarian diet and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. Anyone in our area knows that, if you want fresh, healthy food, go to a restaurant or store the Adventists run. However, Little Debbie snack cakes are not only not healthy, they’re not real food. I had a friend who worked for the company, and he would often announce this fact. His favorite example was the Nutty Buddy, a combination of chocolate and peanut butter, but, as he commented, there was no real peanut butter and no real chocolate. In their defense, their ingredient list does list peanut butter as the second ingredient, though cocoa is near the end; dextrose, a simple sugar, is first. I’ve always found this contrast between the Adventist approach to how they eat and the food an Adventist-owned company produces for others to eat interesting. It would be easy to write it off as hypocritical, but I grew up eating Little Debbie snack cakes, but I would have said that I was trying to take care of my body, to get in good shape for the various sports I played. My father not only had played college sports, but he continued to play basketball against college students when he was in his fifties. Perhaps Little Debbie snack cakes were the perfect snack for us; perhaps they’re the quintessential snack for America, in general.
Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels.