By Joanna Bastian
We recently enjoyed a dinner with friends from Singapore. Our friends joked about the common American greeting, “How’s it going?” My friend spoke in amused amazement about the number of people who would walk by him, make eye contact, smile amicably, and say, “How’s it going?” Before our friend could answer, the person would be long gone, never breaking stride — obviously not interested in details. He mused that it was much like a traditional Chinese greeting used by the older generation, “Have you eaten?” This older greeting could have originated when people did not have enough to eat.
For days after our discussion, I mulled over the cultural aspects of both greetings. I’ve been in countries where the simple act of ordering food becomes a lesson in family history, “my mother, rest her soul, learned this recipe from her mother, who learned it from her mother, who stole it from the invaders after crushing their souls. I added cream.”
The discussion of food insecurity affecting a cultural greeting had me remembering, of all things, my little red wagon full of cheese back in the 1970s.
Once a month, mom and I would walk downtown pulling my red Radio Flyer wagon. We’d roll that wagon up to the front porch of an old, two-story blue house with a wraparound porch and pretty framed windows. Two front rooms were filled with cardboard towers of food. A woman with multiple pens and pencils poking out of her copious bun of hair, would scan a pile of papers on a clipboard before calling out the number of boxes of powdered milk, blocks of butter and bricks of cheese that we could pile into my wagon. The cheese was wrapped in brown paper and stamped USDA. That government cheese was amazing. It sliced without crumbling and melted smoothly with no oily residue. I’ve often wondered if it was really that good, or if the lens of childhood bliss affected my taste buds.
A recent podcast of “Planet Money” answered my questions. The cheese was indeed as good as I remembered. In the 1970s, the government tried to increase market demand for milk by purchasing surplus dairy goods that could be stored: butter, dry milk and cheese. To prevent fraud, the government also hired cheese graders to taste and test the cheese. The result was a processed Grade A government cheese for food banks, schools and the military that melted smoothly and was a hundred times better than Velveeta.
Another food memory was tagging along with my dad while he worked at the homeless shelter. He’d take his tool belt and go fix something, while I helped fix something in the kitchen. One of the cooks made colorful candies that she would send home with me, winking, “for your mother.” She thickened a flavored gelatin, and dusted the cooled squares with powdered sugar. It looked and tasted like Jell-O gone wrong — I did not care for it and happily passed along the entire bag of candies to my mother. I may not have been a fan of those brightly colored Turkish delights, but I did enjoy Aplets and Cotlets candy from the store.
The government cheese I grew up on is no longer available, but I found a Turkish delight recipe that looks palatable, with a result similar to Aplets and Cotlets. Mix two quarter-ounce packages of unflavored gelatin with ½-cup of applesauce and let stand for 10 minutes. Pour two cups sugar and ¾-cup applesauce into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the gelatin-applesauce mixture and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add ½-cup finely chopped walnuts and 1½-teaspoons vanilla, stirring to mix well. Pour the warm candy concoction into a greased 8” by 8” pan. Let cool at room temperature for at least two hours. When cooled, slice into squares and toss with powdered sugar to coat. To make cotlets, substitute the applesauce for an apricot puree.