My four-year-old daughter Brontë’s favorite meal is pesto pasta, which she calls “green pasta.” She’s usually thrilled whenever she finds out we’re having it, but the last couple of times haven’t been up to par.
My husband John makes a great pesto sauce using fresh basil leaves, aged parmesan, and toasted pine nuts, but he tried to save time one night by using pre-grated cheese.
Brontë noticed, and it dimmed her enthusiasm quite a bit. “How do you like your pasta?” we asked her.
“Umm, it’s… good,” she said, looking sideways.
At least she ate it. Last night, John tried to save even more time by using a pre-made pesto sauce from Nugget. Brontë took one bite, quietly set her fork down, and asked to be excused.
We only have ourselves to blame, creating this monster by giving her fantastic cheeses since before she had teeth. My kids were raised on Manchego and aged Dubliner Cheddar. Whenever I can’t find the good block of Parmesan, I start hunting through my kids’ hiding places until I find it, chewed down to the rind.
They poach fine cheeses from the fridge all the time, and while I’m proud they can handle the strong flavors, I’m also getting frustrated by how high-maintenance they’ve become.
They won’t eat string cheese, for example. One time, I handed Bridget a stick, after she’d been begging for cheese, and she took one bite before throwing it on the floor and having a complete meltdown.
I guess she had a “cheese fit,” if there is such a thing.
But something about pesto indignation really put things into perspective, maybe because it reminded me how excited I was, years ago, when Trader Joe’s finally started offering decent pesto sauce.
I have to warn you that what I’m about to say is going to sound really old fart, but back when I was a kid, you couldn’t get your hands on good pesto for love or money.
Kids today don’t know how good they have it, with their easily-obtainable Arabica coffee beans and quality pesto. Say what you will about the market saturation of Starbucks, but at least they brought good coffee to the masses. When I was little, if you wanted anything better than the kind of swill that tastes like it’s been sitting in some gas station’s drip coffee machine all day, you had to special order it.
I travelled through Europe some while growing up, which was great, except it turned me onto a bunch of good food I couldn’t find anywhere in the US.
Like decent coffee or Nutella. Nutella absolutely rocked my kid world (spreadable CHOCOLATE? Were they serious!?), but we didn’t carry it over here. I just had to choke down my strawberry Pop-tart, shut up, and try to be grateful for access to peanut butter.
And then there was pesto.
After experiencing the wonders of pesto pasta in southern Italy, I became obsessed with finding more after returning home. But that was tough, because any pesto you could actually find tasted like crap. Weirdly bitter and garlicky. They always replaced the olive oil and pine nuts with canola and walnuts.
Trader Joes’ pre-made pesto seemed like the first halfway-edible stuff I came across until the great pesto revolution of the mid-nineties, when Americans everywhere suddenly decided pesto was a great idea.
It’s not just pesto… you can get diverse and complicated foodstuffs from across the world in every run-of-the-mill grocery store these days, even Marmite (if you like that sort of thing). I remember when this stuff was regional, being horrified when my first husband (who was from Virginia) brought home a jar of Pace picante sauce one night.
“NOOOOOOO!” I told him. “You get salsa from the clear tubs at the deli!” He looked at me, completely baffled (“The what?”). Poor guy was from Virginia, after all. He found it hysterical when I mixed brown sugar into grits.
Whatever… it looked like Cream of Wheat.
Say what you will about the threats of globalization, but at least we’re now getting our hands on lots of good food. The jarred salsa incident pales in comparison, for example, to the great tortilla fiasco my parents experienced in the 1970’s.
Before I was born, my father was stationed for a while at a naval base in Gulfport, Mississippi. The food was excellent, if you like cornbread and crawdads, but being Californians, my folks had a hankering for Mexican food that simply would not be denied.
It grew and grew until they finally set out on an epic taco quest. Problem was, they couldn’t find any tortillas.
They looked and looked, and finally, found some one day.
They were canned.
Canned, you may be thinking… What on earth do canned tortillas even taste like?
Well, according to my dad, they’re horrible. Or in his words, “You’re probably better off nailing them to the soles of your shoes than eating them.”
Unable to get a decent taco before returning to California, I’m sure my folks think my generation is packed with insufferable foodies, with our caramelized onion cheeses and almond milk. We grew up with cafe latte’s on every corner, after all, wondering whether or not our oils were cold-pressed. They probably shake their heads at us the same way I do when my toddlers stare at mac & cheese like it’s going to crawl over and bite them.
And my parents’ generation probably seemed just as snotty to their predecessors. I’ll never forget the time my great grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, pulled a huge tub of expired cottage cheese out of her refrigerator.
Staring down the cheese tub raw determination, she popped off the tub and gave it a good sniff.
Then she scooped out a big mound with a giant silver spoon and bit it with true ferocity. She blinked a couple of times before attacking it again.
She kept at it until she had finally finished the entire tub and shivered. “I’m glad that’s over,” she told us. “It tingled a bit going down.”