2017-07-19 / Columns

The family food snob and the lowbrows find a little common ground


I’m bracing for it. Next weekend, our daughter and son-in-law’s family will be arriving for a summer weekend. And along with the usual mayhem of five additional people joining the household, including three rogue grandsons, there is the issue of food.

In this case, it’s not about feeding the kids, whose appetites are voracious, but whose tastes are simple. Mac and cheese at every meal would be fine with them.

No, the challenge is Michael, our beloved son-in-law, who’s sweet, funny, charming—and a food snob,

I can picture it already. I’ll watch my son-in-law as he surveys the contents of our refrigerator. I’ll observe the slight sag to his shoulders, and when he turns to me, I will read the dismal disappointment etched on his face.

Michael, you see, is the sole gourmand in a world of plain eaters. And even after being part of our family for almost 25 years, Michael lives in hope that he will show us the way to redemption.

On a typical weekend visit, when the rest of us are scooping peanut butter (chunky style) and jelly (strawberry) out of the jar and slathering it on bagels, our son-in-law is lining up ingredients for a specialty omelet. Eggs are the one basic ingredient that we agree on: We both think they belong in a well-stocked refrigerator.

But poor Mike is also hoping that there is a kind of cheese slightly more exotic than Swiss or American in the refrigerator. There is not.

So if history is prophecy, he will begin foraging for ingredients that meet his standards for an omelet. Once, on that kind of search, Mike uncovered ingredients that had languished in our pantry for years—a jar of chutney that had been a part of a gift basket from several seasons before, a similarly pristine jar of a specialty cranberries, and a questionable spice that also had languished in a world of prosaic eaters.

That day, Michael was smiling, and got busy creating the ultimate exotic omelet. The rest of us couldn’t enter the kitchen for hours because the smell of eggs, chutney and cranberries made our stomachs churn.

It’s all become familiar territory.

On certain holidays, when my own menu choices of brisket, perhaps, or roasted chicken seem impossibly pedestrian to our son-in-law, he’ll ask for dominion over the feast. It’s usually granted, largely because I’m no fool: One less holiday meal to cook is O.K. with me.

One year, we sat down to a dinner of roast goose. Michael had prepared it—and all its accompaniments—for hours, commandeering the stove, the burners, and every inch of available counter space.

His own wife, our daughter Nancy, was the first of the deserters. Most of the rest of us joined in her defection, running to find leftover meatloaf, or the remnants of baked chicken.

A few loyalists stuck with Mike and his lavish spread that, if memory serves me, included Portobello Mushroom Quesadillas. Even those of us who could pronounce it wouldn’t touch it.

The culinary wars have raged over issues as complex as whether a “normal” family should try a Thanksgiving dish called “Turkducken,” a hybrid of turkey, duck, and chicken, to whether it’s really necessary to grind one’s own coffee beans in order to be a civilized mortal.

Over the course of our years together, Michael has introduced us to artichokes in Merlot wine and Moroccan-spiced lamb with pepper relish that alas, nobody was buying.

We have led Michael to the wonders of chicken soup and meatballs and spaghetti.

The matches have not all been made in heaven, but the efforts continue. We are, after all, kinfolk now, and food is part of the family tapestry.

Recently, Michael and I did something that seemed doomed to failure. We went grocery shopping together.

Naturally, Michael headed right for the gourmet aisle, while I surveyed the most prosaic of products, weighing the virtues of Corn Flakes vs. Rice Krispies.

Ultimately, we met in the freezer area, where I was expecting trouble. I was certain my son-in-law would be rooting through the most elaborate or unusual of desserts, some multi-layered Napoleon or Tira Misu.

Instead, we found ourselves reaching for the very same half-gallon container of plain old chocolate ice cream. Not even premium.

He remembered it from childhood. I remembered it from last week.

In the colliding worlds of food lowbrows and highbrows, we had somehow found communion.

There are still miracles.


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