Dallas in the sixties became the incubator for my ideas, the place where in my teenage years I chose the roads that led to who I am today. In the late nineteen sixties, while the rest of the country was churning with activism, Dallas was still the place where teenagers walked after school to the neighborhood drugstore’s soda fountain and where hippies, drugs and civil rights were not talked about in respectable company. At least that was the view from my little corner of the world and most likely not supported by facts.
In reality, I was too busy becoming American and that took a lot of work. The shock of abundance in every aspect of life coupled with unfamiliar customs consumed all my waking hours. How could I make sense of smiling faces which greeted me with apparent enthusiasm only to whisper as I looked away. Girls and boys gathered on street corners dressed in matching outfits, giggling at what exactly. Perfect hair and nails and diction unmistakably screamed success.
Grocery stores were stocked with unfamiliar products I just had to try: bread that came out of a plastic bag, TV dinners that only needed heating, canned veggies and meats and of course Dr. Pepper, every Dallas teenager’s drink of choice. Oh and hamburgers, this strange concoction on a bun replacing the sit down meal with portable convenience. Convenience was the buzz word of the sixties as marketeers lashed on to changing demographics and prescribed suitable solutions to the masses who were needed in the workforce and not around a dinner table.
I was fascinated with all of it. I participated like a wide eyed puppy and couldn’t get enough. I ate the burgers and the fries, and the white bread with bologna, and the tuna salad with lots of mayo, and the turkey and dressing with instant mashed potatoes, and washed it all down with Dr. Pepper. And then I discovered the biggest trick played on us, the one dubbed ‘just add eggs and water’ mystery in a box, the instant cake and its cousins the puddings. I consumed with fervor because I was told to. Every billboard, every TV commercial, every magazine touted their benefits and I had to participate to be truly American. Besides, there was no alternative. My parents were just as busy trying to fit in and had no time for old country traditions. The few times that they craved a memory, it was not available anyway or it required extensive searching and funds. We succumbed, we accepted, we assimilated, we were good, clean members of society on our way to serve and we made sure we lit our cigarettes after every meal for that special finale.
But then something happened. As my gluttony was adding to my waistline and all other lines, I noticed that the girls at school were giving me dirty looks and whispering more than usual. And while they were staring I also noticed that they were thin, very thin. How was that possible? Didn’t they consume the same diet as me? Didn’t they go home and have a TV dinner while watching “A Life to Live’ and a big slice of chocolate cake? Didn’t they spend afternoons at Big Bob’s eating hamburgers and drinking Dr Pepper?
Luckily I had a friend, another member of the outcasts who made it all clear: they were dieting! Dieting, a reaction to following the recommended regimen of high calorie foods and the birth of another industry. So what were they eating I asked. Mostly nothing. Just drinking sodas, chewing gum and smoking cigarettes. This was a huge revelation. It not only challenged my faith in the American way of life but also led me to my first diet. I was going to show those girls that I could be just like them: malnourished yet smiling.
It didn’t last of course, it couldn’t. After several episodes of gaining and losing, I was led back to eating like in the old country. My parents who became alarmed at my behavior and who became less accepting of new ways, hired a cook to prepare meals from ‘scratch’. Being the first one home after school, I would sit at the kitchen table and watch how Doris transformed raw ingredients into delectable meals. Over time, she allowed me to help her chop and sauté and since I was a quick learner, she would explain the history behind the dishes she prepared and also the chemistry involved in using just the right amounts when measuring. As I learned more, I developed a love for the craft and art of cooking and became more involved in nutrition. When Doris left, I was able to prepare a balanced meal that was not out of a box.
Grandma Dora’s Layered Cabbage (Kolozsvari rakott kaposzta)
Squeeze about 2 lbs. of sauerkraut well. Add a cup of water and cook for 10 min. Meanwhile, cook about 1/2 cup of rice and set aside. Fry a large chopped onion in 1 tbsp of lard, add about a lb of ground pork and cook for ten minutes stiring often. Add 1 tbsp good Hungarian paprika and 2 cloves of crushed garlic and set aside. Chop 3-4 pieces of bacon and fry a few minutes then add 1/2 lb of sliced smoked hungarian sausage and stir. Assemble in a large casserole: Pour fat from bacon and sausage on the bottom, add about a third of the sauerkraut, half of the cooked pork, half of the rice and all the bacon and sausage. Stir a quarter cup of milk with one cup of sour cream and pour half over mixture. Repeat steps and bake uncovered at 375 for about an hour.
I have never made this recipe which I found in my grandma’s papers, but I enjoyed it as a child. Grandma Dora lived to be 98 and never dieted. She came to the US in the early seventies to join her children. After teaching herself English, Dora became an American citizen at a special ceremony at the UN, something she was very proud of.
*vegan version: substitute oil for the lard and a mushroom medley for the meat, bacon and sausage. Add a cup of cooked beans and use coconut milk instead of the dairy.