Michele Obama gave a tour of the White House kitchen in March, talking about sustainable eating and childhood nutrition to some culinary students. Among other things, she said, “If it tastes like a real carrot, and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy.” She’s right. Good carrots are tasty little sugar sticks, and when I pick mine up at a farmer’s market, I eat a handful in the first two minutes after purchase. Such vegetal sweetness is a Proustian belly-flop into one of my first food memories.
In a last-ditch attempt to get her fussbudget kindergarteners to eat salad, my mom sprinkled sugar on our iceberg lettuce. It sounds horrific today. Separately, that variety of lettuce or those sugar crystals are bad enough. Put them together and you might as well have poured Mountain Dew into my sippy cup and praised its nutritive value. The horrors of diabetes have turned sweetness into an evil, or at least a source of fear and loathing. Lately, when I publicly proclaim my sweet tooth, I might as well be proclaiming my admiration for Big Tobacco, judging on the carefully blank (but still appalled) looks I get.
My parents (Midwesterners both) grew up in a world with rationing, with limited food choices, and in my dad’s case, eating treats that barely exist anymore, like suet pudding and green tomato pie. The idea of making do or doing without didn’t need to become a slogan; slogans aren’t necessary to define such fundamentals. The son of a widow during the Great Depression, a daughter in a tiny flat-as-a-pancake Nebraska farm town—the only carrots they had were homegrown, in season, unless there were enough carrots, jars and time for canning. And of course they were sweet; that’s how a properly-grown carrot tastes. Such sweetness was (and is) a treasure.
As parents, they knew quite precisely what they were putting on their kids’ salad plates: lettuce, and sugar. There were no unpronounceable ingredients, nothing elaborately derived from feed corn. Sodas were an unusual treat (the only cola readily available in my pint-sized hometown was RC), and if my salad was lacking in vitamins, my mom’s friends sympathized rather than judged. Different parents have different strategies, based on what’s available and what the budget allows. The important thing was (and is) to put thought and effort into it—in other words, to care.
The same summer I started munching on the world’s unhealthiest salad, we had a vegetable plot in our endless backyard. It was situated between the crick (you might know it as a “creek”) and the tree stump where I once sat down on a yellowjacket’s nest, and it was as lovely a patch of topsoil as I’m ever likely to see. The vegetable I chose to grow? Carrots. The biggest one of my entire crop was about three inches long, because I pulled them up and ate them straight out of the ground.