Having been utterly reprogrammed and revitalised by veganism, CARRIE STEELE looks back in horror at the food she ate as a youngster.
The other day when I was out getting some exercise, an oddly familiar (and somewhat sickly) smell wafted towards me from the direction of a block of shops. My brain, like a computer trolling through the memories, brought it back to me about 250m further along the road. It was the smell of crab sticks frying. It was almost hard to fathom that not a million years ago, I used to eat crabsticks, and after I became a vegetarian, I moved on to egg foo young or vegetarian fried rice when we wanted to get a takeaway.
I spent the rest of my time out that afternoon thinking about other things I used to eat and feeling grateful that in recent years I had come to my senses and decided that I wanted to eat to live. My early years were spent on a small island, and hence, my earliest memories of food originate there. It would be easy to make the assumption that my early childhood was a clean and simple life, with few of the trappings of modernism and big city living. However, when I think back from a food point of view, it’s closer to the truth to say I was living off American grocery shelves, rather than out of a tropical food basket.
Way before NZ ditched glass milk bottles in the late 1980s, I grew up in the late 60’s/early 70s accustomed to milk coming packaged in thick plastic bags, which required the use of one of these plastic jugs to stand it up in the fridge, and much skill was involved in just how much of a snip to make on the corner of the milk ba, so as to prevent a Niagara Falls slosh on pouring. I never liked milk. Maybe too many spills? I would only chug it down if it was flavoured up with a couple of teaspoons of that awful ‘Quik’ powder, my favourite flavours being banana or chocolate, or if it was disguised in Milo and served in my Jolly Green Giant cup.
My favourite breakfast as a child was a slice of very white bread, spread with squirty cheese (which I recall being unnaturally yellow) and then cut into small squares with each square dotted with tomato sauce. I recall very fondly how the first time my parents went away on an extended holiday and left my grandparents in charge, the lengths to which my grandmother went to ensure that this little princess’s breakfast was served ‘just right’. I can’t recall what either of my siblings ate for breakfast, but I think the above-mentioned concoction was my own personal delight.
On Saturday nights we usually went to church in the afternoon and had hot-dogs when we came home for dinner. That would be American Hot Dogs. The sausages came in a can, standing up straight like little brown fence posts. We were way ahead of our time back then; I just Googled it and those sausages would have travelled 4,461 km as the crow flies to get from those American grocers to my dinner table.
I’m sure we had some vegetables as children, but I think potatoes were likely the most prevalent. We did have a very small vegetable garden, but I don’t know what was in it. I will never forget the momentous occasion when our lovely domestic cooked cou-cou, which is actually one of the national dishes of my little island. It is made with corn meal and okra. I recall that she had to stand on an upturned wooden softdrink crate to get enough traction to stir the pot, it was that thick and gluggy. It would probably have been much easier if she’d had the use of one of those electric paint stirrers. Nonetheless, she persevered and we all tasted it, and I don’t ever recall having it again, which probably sums up what we thought of it.
Long before I even thought about being vegetarian – probably when I was 7 or 8 years old – I tried cat food. The bowl of cat food was filled and put down on the floor and when I thought no one was looking, I had a taste. I don’t remember it being particularly good or bad, just that the cat politely stepped aside, looking puzzled. In later years, whenever we had canned corn beef I thought about the cat food incident.
When I went back to my island about five years ago it irked me greatly that with the fertile soil and wonderful warm weather, very little seemed to be growing anywhere. Even the fields of sugarcane were few and far between. Accordingly, anything fresh was very expensive, and in short supply. The supermarket shelves were full of the same processed foods that you can get anywhere in the world. A small jar of (English) Marmite was more expensive than a small bottle of rum. The one thing that seemed abundant and relatively inexpensive was chicken. Clearly, though locals aren’t keen on growing anything, they’re happy raising and killing chickens.
When I got married almost 30 years ago, all I knew how to cook was spaghetti bolognaise. I wasn’t really interesting in cooking. Thinking back over my adult years, pre-vegan time, I didn’t produce very healthy meals. I can see that now, and it makes me sad. My recollections of my childhood aren’t intended to be cruel or even judgmental, but rather to illustrate how much things can change. I had wonderful parents, and I’m sure our diet was common for many 1970s families in the Western world enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution at its most extreme. For many people, nothing has changed since that time. For me though, everything has changed.
Some people would probably like to ask me if the aroma of that crabstick frying was even a bit little tempting. I’m afraid not. I think it’s clear that I’ve been well and truly re-programmed, and once you know the truth about something, you can’t just ignore it.