When I started thinking seriously about food in the late 1960s–as opposed to merely eating it seriously, which I’ve done all my life–that was considered a weird thing to do.

A multi-billion-dollar industry and a multitude of its experts had performed miracles of modern science, increasing crop yields, standardization, shelf-life and convenience. North American supermarkets were stocking more and more wonder products, neatly packaged or plastic-wrapped, bringing us the world’s bounty in and out of season. Yet here I was, a stocky adolescent raised in a household where the fridge and pantry were always full, beginning to doubt that “better living through chemistry” (an accepted premise at the time) lived up to its claims.

Real food vs Industrial products

For one thing, in our household when I was a child, meals were still largely home-cooked, and with a European attitude at that. Fruit and vegetables were important, and selecting the best ones from the piles in the store was an essential skill. Supper always began with grapefruit or melon or a nourishing soup. The main course was normally “meat and two veg” (though one of the “veg” was potatoes or rice and the other likely to be canned peas or corn in the winter) but the meat was bought fresh and we owned a meat-grinder rather than trust the prepackaged ground beef.

We loved good cakes and pastries. These were bought at a reliable small bakery or, better still, from a Hungarian lady with a generous hand with the chocolate and hazelnuts. My first effort at cooking all by myself, at the age of ten, was a Linzer torte–a favourite we had never baked at home. Just making our everyday coffee-cake with plums or apples didn’t seem ambitious enough, somehow, even if I needed to follow a recipe in a book to get the proportions right for the torte.
The pastry lattice on top wasn’t as perfect as the picture in the book but it tasted just like the ones from the European bakery.

Most of my schoolmates preferred the store-bought white cake with brightly-coloured, oversweet and shortening-based icing. I loved sweets of all kinds but much preferred the buttery yellow mocha cake with buttercream icing and toasted almond slivers, the apple strudel with raisins and ground walnuts, or the rum-ball made of stale pound cake freshened up with a lot of chocolate and a dash of rum and rolled in chocolate sprinkles. The individually-packaged “snack cakes” were everywhere but they couldn’t hold a candle to the real treats we got at home.

In short, I was raised with a definite bias towards real food as opposed to the industrial version. I didn’t think too much about it. I just enjoyed eating (admittedly too much) and liked fresh Hungarian rye bread with butter or cheese better than sliced white bread with sliced baloney or ham.

By the standards of the time, this was weird behaviour and we were imperfectly-assimilated immigrants. It could be argued we still are: my younger siblings and I have quite different food preferences but, once past childhood caving to advertising and peer pressure, we all choose to eat what is fresh and tasty in preference to the “convenience foods” that still fill most grocery shelves.

Of course, that seems less weird nowadays. The elevation of gourmandise to a sign of high status and the scientific conclusions on what constitutes a healthy diet vindicate those of us who always cared about food. Yes, we ate our share of tartrazine-laden “KD” and cardboardy cornflakes in our youth but that era was short. In maturity, we took to the challenges of arugula and sushi and Berber sauce and pad thai–for reasons of taste, howevermuch we justify our choices as being for reasons of health.

Meanwhile, though we cut back on salt and sugar before it became trendy, it is still hard to eliminate the food preferences from our childhood. That sweet tooth of mine has never been extracted. I rarely use sugar but usually have some hard candy around. And last night, hungry, I yielded to temptation in the form of whole wheat crackers with olive oil and rosemary: I found them incredibly salty (though marked as containing only 4% of recommended daily sodium intake) but still delicious. Somehow, no matter how I prepare them, I can never quite apply that word to turnips or tofu.