I wasn’t exposed to a very large variety of foods growing up. There were many factors that contributed to this. First, my parents were Mormon. This immediately ruled out caffeine and alcohol (we didn’t even keep it around for cooking purposes until my sisters and I were in high school). Secondly, my mom was dangerously allergic to shellfish. Consequently our adventures into seafood were usually limited to fishsticks and the rare occasion when our dad could sneak us out of the house for a basket of fried shrimp at Burger King (remember when they served those?!). Of course one kiss on the cheek (followed by a rash of hives) and my mom knew what we’d been up to! My dad loved shrimp though, but he unfortunately hated many other foods. This removed mushrooms and onions from our diets as well. Lastly, and most significant, was the fact that we just didn’t have a lot of money. Dad was a truck driver and Mom ran an in-home daycare that was licensed to care for 14 children. It didn’t make sense, on a limited budget, to stock the pantry with anything that the flock of children wouldn’t eat. So yeah: we had a LOT of fishsticks!
I was fourteen when I met the dashingly handsome (OK, more like tall, skinny and awkward) boy that would years later become my husband. Ryan and I were in first period Freshman PE together. Ryan had transferred into the school district from a neighboring semi-rural town that didn’t have a high school. I had been home-schooled since 3rd grade and was the first of my siblings to make the brave leap into public high school. Ryan and I hit it off immediately and started eating lunch together. When our freshman homecoming dance crept up on us, we made the mutual decision to attend together and (as they say) the rest was history. Neither of us could have guessed at the time that fifteen years later we’d be married with two kids.
Those fifteen years were my “Food Awakening”. Ryan was quite the food connoisseur. He liked to try new things, excelled in cooking and catering classes and took me on dates to exotic restaurants where I ate amazing things that I couldn’t pronounce the name of. He took me to local restaurants that specialized in Lumpia. He made fresh Gazpacho for me. He opened my eyes to the miracle that is Lobster Thermidor.
During our crazy high school years, our city was blessed with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train extension that brought the tracks and a brand new train station right to our back door. Even before we were old enough to drive, we could buy a ticket that would take us to San Francisco and back. The city became our food muse and an addiction for us.
I don’t use the word “addiction” lightly. During our senior year, there were a few times that we folded to temptation and skipped school together. We were partners in crime! We’d walked the sizable distance from our school to the BART station and hop a train into the city. On one such occasion we were strolling through Chinatown, heading towards our favorite Dim Sum spot, when we bumped into some classmates. Our immediate assumption was that we had found some rebellious comrades to share in our victory (and perhaps our pork buns) but they quickly made us aware that we had wandered directly into the center of a group of our fellow students on a field trip. I’m not making this up! We somehow managed to slip out of that scrape remarkably painlessly (the few acquaintances and chaperones that spotted us just assumed we were part of the field trip group) but we had learned our lesson. No more trips to the city on school time for us.
That didn’t deter us from visiting the city in general though. On one memorable occasion we brought a group of friends with us. They bought a tiny pet turtle in a handy portable tank from a street vendor just outside Chinatown. We later went to a famous upscale Chinatown restaurant for dinner and spent the entire meal trying to convince the waiters (and eventually the chef himself, when he came to our table) that we did NOT want that poor little turtle cooked. We didn’t care if it was a delicacy! To this day, I’m still not 100% sure if they were serious. I don’t want to know.
Over the years we spent many weekends in the city. We stayed in boutique hotels with murals on the ceilings, 6″ pathways around oversized victorian furniture, scary antique elevators that could only hold two people at a time and that had no parking for miles. We also stayed in the Pickwick, where we enjoyed modern amenities, antique fixtures, movie memorabilia and a convenient walk to the Metreon. The Palace Hotel had marble floors, mile high ceilings (in our room!), down comforters, valet parking… and a high school prom on the first floor at the time of our visit. We had adventures in the city, no question. We saw the sites, rode the trolleys, shopped the shops …but the food is always what brought us back.
I had my first dish of hummus and a pomegranate martini while sitting on a floor pillow in a restaurant called Pasha. It felt like we were dining in a luxurious tent, with draped fabric walls and velvet everywhere. We ordered the “Sultan’s Feast” and munched on lamb while wearing fez hats and watching belly dancers gyrate around the room to live music.
The entire family would join us for family-style Italian food, served on a pope-themed room, at Buca Di Beppo. I adored the sourdough pizza crust on Pier 39 as much as I enjoyed the giant servings (and bottomless homemade pickles) at the city Hofbrau.
We scheduled reservations and took a little ferry boat to eat filet mignon on Forbes island (a submarine that had been converted to a private island with a restaurant and lighthouse). I wore a feather boa to our dinner date at Teatro ZinZanni, where we were awe-struck by the incredible and dazzling performances and amazing meal, all presented to us in an authentic antique “spiegeltent”. Hot summer days were never complete without a cool evening stroll along the wharf where we could buy freshly steamed crab and have the guy behind the outdoor seafood counter crack it with a big mallet. We would stroll along the water, eating our crab out of cardboard trays and make futile attempts at washing our hands of the fishy smell with nothing but napkins and a couple lemon wedges.
After reminiscing about our many “food adventures” and contemplating my husband’s natural culinary skills, I asked him what his fondest food memory was during the length of our relationship. I had already compiled a list in my mind of what his possible answers might be, most of which featured our beloved city. Imagine my surprise when he insisted it was “Peanut Butter Cookies!”
Really?! Peanut butter cookies?! But I made those! And I had done so enough times over the years that I was sure it had become as welcome a treat as the plague, for him and everyone else around us. Besides, they didn’t come from a fancy restaurant, bakery or cooking class. There was no special recipe from a specialty cooking show or website. I just threw them together from a mental recipe that has been ingrained in me since childhood. Whenever we were packing for the train ride to the city or a long traffic jam on the bridge, I’d always bake a quick batch of fresh peanut butter cookies to snack on. Back in high school, when Ryan would make his homemade delicacies and liquor-infused desserts, I’d always bring him peanut butter cookies. Family gatherings, potlucks, welcome gifts for new neighbors = Peanut butter cookies. Peanut butter cookies. Peanut butter cookies.
Why? Because they were cheap! I always had the ingredients on hand, simply because my recipe only called for basic pantry staples. What’s the one thing you will ALWAYS find in the kitchen at an in-home daycare? Not chocolate chips. Not expensive nuts. Not fancy colored sugars or expensive candies. Peanut butter!! Lots and lots of peanut butter!! It was a recipe of convenience.
Still, I thought he was kidding, or in the very least just trying to flatter me. I tried to call him out on it. Ryan insisted that he meant every word. He said his own family members (who, for Ryan’s protection, will remain nameless) would pride themselves on their peanut butter cookie recipes. Ryan said he would eat the cookies and smile and politely compliment them… then would secretly hope and pray that I would bring him some of mine. He even admitted to trying several recipes himself, always in hopes that it would taste as good. He was always disappointed.
Still skeptical, I reminded him of our trips to the city and all the great restaurants we’d been to: What about Forbes Island? Crab on the wharf? Sourdough Pizza? Teatro ZinZanni?! He was unbending:
“You used to bring me peanut butter cookies at school. Remember? Why don’t you bake them for me anymore?”
He really DID mean it. All those times that I had assumed I was probably drowning my poor, overly-polite husband with dozens and dozens of boring peanut butter cookies, I was actually feeding an addiction. I had noticed, over the years, that the gallon size ziplock bags full of extra cookies disappeared within a matter of days (sometimes hours) but I had always assumed that Ryan brought them to work to get rid of them. Now I realize I could be singularly responsible for my husband’s weight gain during our time together. Oops!
In the end, it all comes down to a very strange trade-off. Ryan had opened my eyes to new, exciting foods (and places) that I had never dreamt of as a child. In exchange, I had inadvertently fed his addiction for chewy, buttery, slightly sugary peanut butter cookies …on a fairly consistent basis. We had developed a solid romantic relationship based on love, trust and communication, while nurturing a symbiotic food relationship based on adventure-seeking and peanut butter. Who knew?! I guess it just proves that no matter how close you are to a person and no matter how well you think you know them, there’s always something new you can learn about them. The key is to ask the simple questions. It may sound like a homework assignment from first grade, but what is your spouse’s favorite color? Favorite flower? Favorite cookie? I guess the little questions are the ones that we sometimes forget to ask when we’re busy submersing ourselves in the bigger picture.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to bake my husband some cookies…
Would you like the peanut butter cookie recipe? Of course you would!
About the Author: Ann Milligan started dating her husband when they were only fourteen years old. After spending a full decade effectively preventing him from escaping, he eventually surrendered, proposed, and they tied the knot in 2007. Ann now spends her free time caring for their two-year-old son and anticipating the arrival of their second child any day now. She believes the key to a successful relationship is communication, negotiation, humor ...and allowing her husband to proof-read and approve her writing before airing her family's dirty laundry online for the world to read.