Food for Thought

By Dr. Harold A. Black

Why do white people eat so many casseroles? I don’t think I ever had a casserole while growing up – unless mac and cheese is a casserole.

I love to cook and get several emails a day from cooking sites. Almost daily comes another recipe for a casserole including links to things like “Grandma’s 142 favorite casseroles.” I have yet to try any.

Southern Living magazine has an article “Why do Southerners make casseroles?” saying “These 12 recipes will tell you exactly why Southerners, if given a chance, will almost always make a casserole.” Actually, the title should be “Why do White Southerners make casseroles?”

The magazine also announced “50 Bake and Take Casseroles Your Neighbors Will Love.” If my neighbors brought me a casserole, I would consider moving.

What about “15 irresistible au gratin potato recipes.” Fifteen? Is au gratin a casserole?

Growing up I thought that you ate because it prevented you from starving to death. My mother was an awful cook. She knew it. But Dad was worse. Once when Mother was in the hospital, Dad cooked us breakfast. We could not recognize what he put on our plates. My brother and I took over the cooking until Mother got back.

Growing up, Italian was canned Chef Boyardee. Eggs were soft scrambled. Meat was floured and fried except for turkey and roasts – although once she deep-fried a roast. There was a grease can on the stove. Vegetables were cooked to death so that the only way we could tell them was by the color. Squash was fried and okra was boiled. I refused to eat them then and won’t eat them now. Biscuits were from a can. However, because Mom grew up on a farm meant that we got breakfasts with fried catfish and grits or fried pork chops and grits. Dad loved fried oysters and grits (with Mother’s canned biscuits). I grew up thinking oysters were a breakfast food. It’s still a bit strange to see oysters on a dinner menu.

My food enlightenment started when I lived in Germany finishing my dissertation at the University of Konstanz. The local pizzeria had wonderful pizzas, calzones and pasta. Here I had my first taste of pesto and knew that this was confirmation that there was a God. My favorite pizza was spargel (asparagus) pizza with pesto. I thought about expatriating knowing what food I would face when I got back to the States. But I was homesick and asked my mother to send me some red dirt. She sent it in a small box and I was called into the customs office and asked, “Was ist das?” I said, “Dirt.” “Schmutz?” “Ja. Schmutz.” They just shook their heads, handed me my box of Georgia clay and let me go.

I moved back to the States and took my first job at the University of Florida in 1971. I weighed 235 pounds having sat on my behind during the four years in graduate school eating mostly fast foods. In Gainesville, I lived in the same complex as the great marathoner Frank Shorter. Inspired I started to lose weight by changing my diet and starting to run. So I stopped eating meat and all fried foods. I gradually lost weight and kept running. I started running in the local races. I was no Frank Shorter and in my first marathon, I was passed by a race walker. But eventually, I was running a weekly 10K, two half marathons and a full marathon yearly. I weighed 165.

Gainesville had great freshwater fishing and quick access to salt water. Softshell crabs confirmed the existence of God. Later when I moved to Knoxville, I was fishing with a friend weekly until deer season when he quit fishing to hunt. He took me one day and although I did not see anything living, I became addicted to the solitude and peacefulness. I remembered following my grandfather around the family farm in Gray, Georgia, with my little 22 while he hunted squirrels or rabbits. Since I now hunt deer, I eat them and the only red meat I have eaten since 1971 is what I kill myself.

One of my favorite memories is when my son was around six, he was asked what was his favorite food and he said “Ziti with pesto.” Hopefully, that is not a casserole.