The Foods We Hate, The Memories That Cling

In family-history discussions we often talk about the power beloved family recipes can exert in bringing warm, vivid memories to life.

Not long ago, I got an unexpected reminder that bad food memories also pack a punch. One of my favorite non-genealogy reads is David Lebovitz’s beguiling blog about cooking, eating and living in Paris. My epiphany there came in the comments section of a recent post on French charcuterie.

As you might imagine, one reader’s ick is another’s addiction, especially when it comes to charcuterie. So the comments inevitably turned to the question of foods people absolutely Will Not Eat, and why entire cultures sometimes put certain foods on the Will Not Eat List.

For instance, David speculated that the reason rabbits remain off-limits to many people might be that “perhaps they are associated with hard times.”

One of his readers from the U.S. chimed in to agree, saying he had once encountered an elderly neighbor who wouldn’t touch rabbit for very specific, personal reasons. For years during the Depression, this woman’s enterprising mother raised rabbits in backyard hutches, bartering them for goods and services and, of course, putting them in the stewpot nearly every day.

My mother, on the other hand, hated lentils. Lentil soup was on the menu every single Friday night of every year she spent growing up in her parents’ strictly Catholic home, in the days when all Fridays were meatless.

And my mother-in-law cannot stand spaghetti.  This is because her Great Depression was spent in a small farming community in South Dakota, where spaghetti was the only reliable entrée for weeks on end, during a particularly desperate stretch. So desperate did this stretch get, that there was actually a food drop from an airplane bearing government-surplus supplies. My mother-in-law and all the other children scrambled out to the field, excited beyond belief at what might be there.

“And what do you think they dropped?” she asked. “Spaghetti!”

The bitterness in her voice was still sharp after more than six decades.

Or consider the case of a gentleman from Rostock, Germany who finally decided to open and taste a 64-year-old can of lard he’d been saving “for emergencies” ever since he acquired it in an aid package in the devastation of postwar Germany. (The verdict? “Gritty and tasteless,” but edible.)

Bad eats can be a potent catalyst for memories, just like good eats. And the stories are just as absorbing.