The sixties were the harbinger of change on many fronts, including our eating habits. Our palates became more discriminating and adventurous, as we moved from place to place during those years.
The New Haven Years
We left Miami, Florida in the late 1960’s to move to New Haven, Connecticut, stronghold of the apizza. Here, we found pizza unlike any previous American variation that we’d encountered. Intensely hot, coal-fired stone ovens produced a charred thin crust with a distinctive taste. Mozzarella needed to be requested as a specific topping. Not essential for purists, but homemade and outstanding if you are a fan of mozzarella.
We often stood in line for a long time just to get into the old-time establishments in downtown New Haven, Sally’s and Pepe’s . These pizza restaurants set a standard of excellence that’s never been topped for us. Did I mention the wonder of the white clam pizza? The Daily Meal claimed that out of 101 pizzas throughout America, Frank Pepe’s of New Haven, CT White Clam Pizza is #1 in America. Made with fresh shucked clams, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese on a “charcoal colored crust.”
Some Italian restaurants in New Haven were notoriously difficult if you dared to complain. Out to dinner with friends one night, my friend complained that her meal did not taste right. She requested that it be replaced. The waiter disappeared and was replaced by the officious manager who was outraged at the request. “How can we take it back? You’ve already tasted it and we can’t sell it again!”
And that’s what I Like about the South
In the early 1970’s, we moved to Athens, Georgia. Our snotty Northeastern friends could not understand how we could move to the South. I thought any place that had fields of flowers in early March was good enough for me. We found an eating culture that was quite unfamiliar to us, some of it delicious, none of it particularly healthy.
There was a farmer’s market of sorts in the city of Athens. It was a very large shed, with just a few products. I saw no customers and not much to buy. A few heavy set farmers in bib overalls sat around peeling black eyed peas.
I got excited when I saw a large bin of large ears of corn. I’d been schooled in New England to look for small ears of corn with small kernels. This was not that, but undeterred, I purchased several ears for our family supper. The farmer who sold it to me looked at me rather oddly when I bought it, but then a lot of people looked at me oddly in Georgia because I represented “other” and sounded like a Yankee.
I also had been taught to cook corn quickly. Unfortunately, the “bring it back to a boil” directions did not work with this Georgia corn. It was as hard and tasteless as cardboard when we bit into it. I put it back in water for a few more minutes, tasted it, then put it back in again, but it never became edible and I finally gave up. The mystery became clear when I was informed that I had most likely bought field corn for pigs. Fresh sweet corn as I knew it, was not available.
Think loaves of white sliced bread, endless glasses of sweetened iced tea, fried chicken served with honey, grits, catfish, vegetables cooked to death, decent bar-b que, and delicious biscuits. Going out to eat might mean a huge meal served family-style. The fried chicken was always the highlight and the prices were reasonable. We could not eat this kind of dinner too often.
We resorted to giving a lot of dinner parties in those years, because restaurants as a whole, were not very good. There was little we wouldn’t tackle for our parties, even to creating an elaborate ice sculpture for a 4th of July party, which in the summer heat of Georgia melted before it could be admired.
By this time, my favorite cookbook was the NY Times Regional Cookbook. I used it almost daily.
I Left My Heart
In 1978, my husband took a 9 month sabbatical in San Francisco. I felt as if I’d gone to heaven. Gastronomically, we’d arrived at one of America’s great food cities. We were introduced to the pleasures of artisanal bread at the Tassajara Bakery. The Mission area brought us our first taste of authentic Mexican food. Chinatown was not only a place for weekend dim sum excitement, but for endless exploration. It all seemed so exotic. I discovered a fondness for a few products of Chinese bakeries, including their sponge cake and their egg custard tarts. If I hadn’t been dancing daily, I would have come home at least 25 pounds heavier. I didn’t gain an ounce. Oh, for the long-lost freedom to indulge.
I cried when it was time to leave San Francisco, for lots of reasons! But, I returned to Georgia, Tassajara bread book in hand and began to bake my own bread three times a week.That helped ease the pain of withdrawal.
I also knew after ten years in Georgia it was time to get out of Dodge if ever we were going to.
As luck would have it, my husband soon received a job offer in California. I was more than ready. The rest is now history.
You are inspiring.
Thanks so much!
Oh, lucky you!
Pepe’s just opened a location in my town… I may need to order the white clam pizza this afternoon:-) I’ll be thinking of you while enjoying it!
Thanks so much, Judi. Yes, the clam pies are worth a pilgrimage!
Hi Dianne, Loved reading your culinary history in a geographic context….I’ve never lived in the South and doubt that I could find anything to eat there. My mouth watered when I read about Pepe’s. I want one of those clam pizzas. A guilty respite from our “healthy food” regime. Your blogs are fun, thought provoking and informative. Thanks, J
Enjoyed the corn story.
You probably had more luck in Atlanta finding fresh sweet corn than I had in Athens?