Boxed In: A Culinary Memoir

Hajji’s Deli East Harlem, the birthplace of the famous Chopped Cheese sandwich

One of my fondest memories was the day I spent painting milk cartons in my kindergarten class at P.S. 129 in the fall of 1994. It takes me back to my inner child who is always trying to beautify things, and even in that very moment, I was painting a metaphor of my world. Quarts, pints, and half-gallon cartons made up the various sized boxes that would become buildings as they were taped to a large piece of square cardboard underneath. They became a replica of the very city I lived in, and the project buildings I returned to after school each day. The country’s top dairy company and the NYC housing authority were juxtaposed before me as I painted over them in rainbow colors — oblivious to what the image signified about my circumstances. All I knew was that I was having fun, and I could still smell the residue of nearly dried chocolate milk under the boxes I still had yet to paint.

I grew up during a time that anthropologist Jack Goody coined, the “…rise of industrial cuisine”. Technological advances and a heavy emphasis on branding, packaging, and advertising, took the food industry by storm, one that I was born right in the middle of. Even before I left my mother’s womb, I was being groomed to become a brand loyalist. Thanks to Kellog, Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam were childhood heroes, right along with the characters from the cartoons I watched before school each day as I munched on my bowl of 2% milk and half soggy cereal. Some mornings, I saw Captain Crunch’s bright jolly face before I even saw my mothers’. Breakfast often consisted of my siblings and I helping ourselves to a bowl of quick “nutrition’’ that was convenient, salty, colorful, artificially flavored, and loaded with just enough sugar to wake us up fully in case we were still half asleep. Then off to school, we went.

Lunch consisted of whatever the school cafeteria had to offer that day, courtesy of the public school free lunch program. More boxed (or plastic bagged) vitamin D milk, and a few other items that fit the FDA’s food pyramid requirements and probably came from a large metal can. Dinner back at home was also from a box; a Fun Feast Kid Cuisine meal, perfectly proportioned to enjoy while watching the evening comedy show (it even included dessert!). It was just enough to stave off hunger until the next morning. As I got a little older, I remember my mother cooking more but it was mostly on Sundays when she didn’t work the same day or on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, my mom was a great cook and could make the best soul food when she felt like it, and as you can probably imagine, I looked forward to those days the most. But even then, much of our produce and sources of starch were canned, poured, heated, spiced to add flavor, and then served. Sounds pretty “soul-less” now that I think about it.

Thinking back, I wonder if maybe we just couldn’t afford to eat fresher food. I know raising 4 kids as a single woman wasn’t easy for my mother, and outside of having the excess funds to spend on higher quality items, time is also a thing much of the working low and middle class isn’t afforded. Freezers and microwaves take the hassle out of everyday life and give back some minutes or hours that would otherwise be used prepping food. Some evenings if we were lucky, we got dinner from one of the few places on the avenue: the pizza shop, Chinese spot, White Castle, Kennedy’s chicken or maybe a chopped cheese sandwich from the bodega on the corner that sold all the other junk food a kid could ask for. Ramen noodles were also eaten religiously, along with other microwaveable foods that only needed a 60-second zap to be warm enough to consume. Boxes of cereal, boxes of macaroni, boxes of cake, boxes of rice, boxes of chicken. There was one grocery store for miles and we rarely ventured further for anything “other”. I lived my life out of a box in more ways than I’d like to admit.

Where I grew up was the perfect condition for the emergence of food swamps and deserts, and I lived in a place that was considered both. No adequate or quality grocery stores for miles and the one we did have served more people per capita than it could sustain, and we had more fast and unhealthy food options than anything else. The closest thing I saw to fresh vegetables was the few pieces of broccoli in my Chinese takeout. As a child, it was rare to see “fresh” or what is now called “raw” foods, and the nearest Pioneer grocery store had a produce section so small it was easy to miss. It was overshadowed of course, by the towering aisles of neatly arranged bright low-priced boxes of “food”. I had no idea where the things I consumed originated, nor did the thought cross my mind.

As a teenager, I did however have a Proust Madeleine moment like the one mentioned in “Remembrance of Things Past”. One of, “…exquisite pleasure that invades the senses.” But just as Proust felt after his second bite of a madeleine dipped in tea, there was no magic in the food I was eating, — I too had to search for it. As I started earning my own money, I began to make my own food choices. I lived in Spanish Harlem also known as El Barrio, an area with a mix of Mexicanos, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asians, people from the Caribbean, and even of Middle Eastern descent. I had a lot of Latina friends, and my first introduction to Spanish cuisine was from my next-door Afro-Latina neighbor who gave me my first taste of rice and beans. From there I began venturing off to the Cuchifritos spot on 3rd avenue for Pollo Asado, stewed beans over yellow rice, and platano maduro ,— which to this day is still my favorite meal. The older I got, the more I’d explore the world of cultures, cuisine, and language; as my senses awakened and I fell in love. I began to examine the world through tiny restaurants and cafes and eventually found myself longing to experience foods in their places of origin. I became that city dweller seeking authenticity, that Allen Weiss was referring to in Gastronomica. I was finally making the link between site-specificity, time, place, and culture as I traveled; something I wasn’t afforded in the foods I grew up consuming. What seems to have been food experiences few and far between as a child, are now frequent occurrences as I travel to new places to appreciate the unique tastes they have to offer.

In Sensory Memory and the Construction of worlds, Chateaubriand states, “Every man carries within him a world which is composed of all that he has seen and loved, and to which he constantly returns, even when he is traveling through, and seems to be living in some different world.” As I explore new geographies through food, I wouldn’t say I am constructing a new world altogether, rather, I am simply beautifying the world I’m in as I learn and grow in my Food Studies. I am grateful for the humble beginnings that allow me to appreciate food in ways I perhaps wouldn't have otherwise. For those years I spent as an unsatisfied girl in our small kitchens in Manhattanville, East River projects and Upstate New York are where it all began.



Food Studies @The New School, UX Designer

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