I did not have a food-aware childhood. My mother was a widow supporting three kids on a nurse’s salary, and she lacked the time, the money, and perhaps the imagination to get past hot dogs and sauerkraut, Spam and baked beans, or a dish we called goulash: she would brown a pound of hamburger, sprinkle flour onto it until the grease was absorbed, then add some water from the pot where she had boiled a couple of cut-up potatoes. She heated and stirred the meat, flour, and water until a gravy formed, dumped in the potatoes and a package of frozen peas, added a little salt, some thyme, and some oregano, and it was dinner.
My food awareness changed in my early adolescence when my mother remarried. My new stepfather was a doctor, and though my mother worked for a while as his nurse receptionist, eventually she was free to think about furnishing fancy houses and entertaining guests. My stepfather liked to cook and encouraged my mother to try interesting recipes. Also we often traveled on vacation to foody towns like San Francisco and New Orleans, always eating in good restaurants. My tastes, very unschooled at first, gradually began to widen. During a whole year my restaurant meal choice was a shrimp cocktail followed by whatever sort of skewered beef the place featured. Eventually I would discover the sauces, and I can still remember my astonishment at the dish Brennan’s called Eggs Hussarde, with its brown and hearty marchand de vin sauce and its delicate hollandaise. My parents registered my pleasure and steered me toward other sauces: mornay and other varieties of béchamel with fresh fish (another novelty to my Arizona-bred palate), beef and chasseur sauce, with its minced mushrooms, shallots, and parsley. When I discovered béarnaise, that became my choice at every restaurant that served it, with whatever they wanted to put it on.