On Being a Food Snob

65 Comments

There has been quite a debate over food snobbery. On one side, you have people who think that there’s no snobbery in loving good food. But I happen to think I am a food snob, having been fortunate to have been raised on fabulous food, and admit that I do look down on the less-than-fabulous.

Which brings up the point – what is fabulous food? Because what I find fabulous may not be to others.

Being a food snob, to me, isn’t looking down on the people who eat specific foods, or those who refuse to try certain foods, but it’s looking down on those foods that they chose as fabulous to them. It’s a very different issue. I am a snob of bad food, not of people.

I don’t think I was always this way, for there were times I know where I voiced some disgust over someone who wouldn’t try a new food, or refused a rare steak, or avoided all things spicy. But once I started working for other people, I became well aware that people have their own tastes, and these must be respected. It was a humbling learning curve. Now, that doesn’t mean that the food I prepared was inferior in any way, but it was made to their liking. It had to be.

I would never have been successful at catering if I didn’t honor certain requests by my clients. If they hated mushrooms, I didn’t include them, even if I “knew” that all of the guests probably loved them. Allergic to shrimp? Of course – no shrimp. Sensitive to spicy food? Hate curry? Fine! I could work around all of that.

My biggest learning curve occurred when I got married to a man who had been raised on the typical American diet. That’s how I learned that Velveeta wasn’t something you put on fish hooks to catch trout. Fortunately, he was open enough to try everything I cooked, and I kind of created a monster! Although he still refuses offal.

My delightful son-in-law and I had an uproarious discussion at dinner one night recently, just about the topic of “good” food. It probably started because my daughter’s steak had been cooked improperly. We began discussing people who want their steaks cooked well, on purpose, which I really don’t understand. He then commented that my opinion was not necessarily the end all, since food tastes are subjective. Indeed they are, but I pointed out that if Michelin-starred restaurants served beef only medium-rare or rare, then my opinion was indeed “correct.” Honestly, that young man just likes to push my buttons, because he was all the while eating a bloody rare steak! But I really think I have a point.

In the past I’ve referred to my dislike of Velveeta, Lipton’s onion soup mix, and canned cream of mushroom soup. Are these ingredients served at fine dining establishments? I think not.

Perhaps we can agree that there is no real “bad” food? I mean, some people love Velveeta, and even Spam. But perhaps we can agree that there’s good, better and best?

When my second daughter was born, we’d just moved to a town in Texas 2 weeks prior to her birth. We didn’t know a soul, but a man my husband worked with happened to live two doors down. His wife was extraordinarily nice to bring over a casserole when we came home from the hospital. She was also generous enough to keep my older daughter, 2 1/2, overnight while I labored. I hadn’t even met her before so her actions were life savers. But you know I’m going to talk about the casserole, right? It was a tuna casserole. But it gets better. It was topped with potato chips. There’s not much I don’t eat, but I couldn’t bring myself to even taste it. It even looked horrible. Of course my husband loved it.

I’ve mentioned how I was raised before, with a French mother who brought with her to the U.S. all of the typical habits of a European. She shopped often, always had a garden, never opened a can, made everything from scratch, cooked globally, and never made casseroles. So perhaps you can understand my shock at a canned tuna casserole, topped with cream of something canned soup, and then potato chips. That is just not good food to me. And it’s not served at fine dining establishments.

In a lovely post, my friend Stéphane Gabart write about how there are no food snobs, only food lovers, or foodies. It’s a delightful post about how he loves being surrounded by friends and family who love food. But I know from my conversations with Stéphane that neither of us loves absolutely every food that exists. Even as food lovers, we have our limits. For one thing, I really dislike celeriac. Stéphane? He hates beets. We might think each other silly for omitting these specific foods, but we all have our own tastes, and these must be honored in everyone.

No one can helped how they were fed by their mothers and fathers while they were growing up. Some of us might embrace the foods on which we were raised, others might rebel. But as adults we can certainly make choices about what we prepare, and the ingredients that go into those foods. There’s no right or wrong here. I will always hate celeriac. And Velveeta. And be snobby about them.

65 thoughts on “On Being a Food Snob

  1. I agree on all points and the thought of the tuna casserole is pretty revolting. But I have a Canadian-born friend who loves that stuff, especially if the sauce is made from tinned soup! I’m with Stephane, I Ioathe beetroot, which many people love. Each to their own, I suppose.

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    • What people consider good food is pretty awful. That’s why we travel so much. Even our country club in town, which should have the best food of the smattering of local restaurants, has a terrible menu, very few dinner options, some of which I’d never order, and a terrible wine list to top everything off. But if I designed the menu, no one would go. They have to offer what most people want to eat.

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      • Yes, a lot of the places where we live operate on the “pile it high, sell it cheap” principle, presumably because it sells. What I’d give for a decent gastro pub a bit closer to home!

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  2. Wonderful post as always Mimi! I am not sure if I am a food snob or not, but we try to have our sons be open to all kinds of food. As a kid, we ate the same 6 or 7 things on a repeating cycle (and one of those was Spam, which I must admit I have a craving for now and then!). I do agree that “well done” to me just does not make sense and that casserole, although made out of kindness, sounds dreadful.

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    • Thanks, Jeff. My husband was raised that way – velveeta grilled cheese on monday with campbell’s soup, tuesday was hot dogs, hamburger patties topped with cream of mushroom soup, and so forth. thank god he was open to my cooking. of course, he really had no choice if he was hungry!

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  3. Great post Mimi. I’m a food snob too. There are certain foods I’d never eat; I never drink instant coffee. People sometimes like to make fun of anyone who is fussy or snobby about food but there’s nothing wrong in wanting the best of something you’re passionate about; wanting to know more about origins, classics, good sources, what’s best about something that’s important to you. Other people are in to movies, motorbikes, sport … and they know all there is to know, seek the best. For me it’s food. And there is nothing like sharing a meal or cooking with someone who shares the same passion!

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    • You’re absolutely right. People can be passionate about all kinds of things, but they still have to eat! And in the US, it’s pretty incredible what people consider good food. You should see what they feed their children!

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  4. Very well put Mimi! Yes, as far as I’m concerned, beetroots should be eradicated from the face of the earth. And celery while we’re at it. Just kidding of course as, as you mentioned, people’s individual tastes and habits should be respected. I would draw the line at casseroles with canned cream of mushroom and chips. That’s just laziness! My dog wouldn’t even touch such a thing :0)

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  5. I love this post Mimi! I find interesting this thing about food snobbery. In Italy this does not exist because basically everyone likes good food. It is just considered normal enjoying a decent meal.
    And what can be better than eating well and feeling good too for it?? Let’s celebrate good food. Always XX

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    • I know. Italy, and the rest of Western Europe as well. Even some packaged food that we had to grab at Charles de Gaulle airport was really good. That is not the case in the US, unless you get it from Whole Foods, in which case you pay dearly for it.

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  6. Foods I don’t like and won’t eat: Bananas (even the smell is offensive), Marmite (awful tasting goop favored by some Brits), Barnacles (biggest ordering mistake I’ve ever made at a Michelin starred restaurant), and parsnips (something about the taste turns me off).

    I feel sorry for people who don’t like beets (one of the greatest vegetables).

    Foods that are a turnoff:
    -> Pizza slices that droop because too thick topping insulates the top side of the dough preventing the crust from cooking all the way through. Most American fast food pizza droops
    -> Frozen or canned vegetables, with the exceptions of frozen corn, frozen peas, and canned tomatoes.
    -> Most prepared foods such as frozen meals and entrees
    -> Bottled salad dressings with the exception of a few refrigerated dressings such as Marie’s blue cheese. It is so easy to prepare a good salad dressing and a good bottled dressing is as rare as a Martian with a purple nose.

    Pet peeve: People who think of a steak house as fine dining.

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      • I wouldn’t condemn the entire casserole population because there are some really excellent dishes that follow the casserole format.

        For instance, this is an excellent casserole style dish:

        Baked Ziti With Italian Sausage

        Chunky marinara sauce, Italian sausage and mushrooms team up with ziti pasta in this flavorful baked dish. Fennel seeds add a unique Italian flair.

        One full recipe makes enough to fill two 8″ by 8″ square disposable aluminum foil pans. Freeze one for later and bake the other for dinner tonight.

        Ingredients:

        • 8 ounces dry ziti pasta
        • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
        • 12 ounces Italian sausage links, casings removed (hot or mild, your choice)
        • 6 ounces sliced mushrooms
        • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
        • 30 ounces marinara sauce (http://is.gd/FfSWC1)
        • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
        • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

        Directions:
        PREHEAT oven to 400° F. Grease 13 x 9-inch baking dish.

PREPARE pasta according to package directions.

HEAT oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sausage; cook, stirring frequently, until no longer pink. Drain. Add mushrooms and fennel; cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are tender. Add sauce; cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Remove from heat.

ADD pasta to sauce mixture; toss well to coat. Spoon into prepared baking dish; sprinkle evenly with mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese.

BAKE for 15 to 17 minutes or until cheese is bubbly. Cool for 5 minutes before serving.

 FOR FREEZE AHEAD:
PREPARE as above; do not bake. Cover; freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in refrigerator.

PREHEAT oven to 400° F.

BAKE for 25 to 35 minutes or until cheese is bubbly. Cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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  7. I adored this post! You bring up some really great points. As far as being a food snob goes, I know I’ll try anything, and I tend to like some of the ‘odder’ food, but I don’t have a problem with others not eating it. That being said, people who are unwilling to try new things drive me nuts! If someone doesn’t want to dig into some liver with me, fine, but I generally want a better reason than ‘it just seems like it will be gross. I know I won’t like it, etc.’

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    • Agreed. Funny story. The first time I took my husband to France, he and my daughter ordered the same thing for lunch at a restaurant, and I was engrossed in my own order so I didn’t pay attention. They ended up with what they claimed was the best thing they’d ever eaten. That’s when I realized they’d ordered bouche a la reine, my favorite meal my mother made growing up, and it was made with sweetbreads and brains. Of course I had to tell them, because my husband refuses to try a lot of things, including liver. Unfortunately, that experience didn’t enlighten him, but it’s still funny to me.

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  8. The funny thing to me is when people act like a food snob but then when they eat something and raving about it because they think it’s some rare or expensive food and then I burst their bubble by telling then it’s just ordinary and everyday ingredients but I prepared them well! — it’s all in the presentation.

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  9. If there was every a thought-provoking post, this was it. Let me see… I happen to love Velveeta, I will eat a casserole made with cream-o-something soup, hamburger from MacDonald’s, pizza from Pizza Hut (I know, it’s pathetic) and was actually quite fond of a London broil from the hospital cafeteria in Stanford, that most of my friends twisted their noses at… :-) I will try anything at least once, and even though I prefer my steak rare, I will cook it well done for one of my Brazilian friends who will not touch meat if there is a hint of red or pink in the middle.. ;-)

    I think my only concern is moderation, I never enjoyed the feeling of being overstuffed with food, no matter how great it tastes – but that has nothing to do with food snobbery.

    I feel a little sorry for people who won’t try something new, or those who restrict all sorts of food categories in the name of “cleansing”, “detoxifying” or some other fashionable gastronomic move or diet fad.

    but if I had to answer honestly to this question, I would have to say I am not a food snob.

    ps: not that there’s anything wrong with it! ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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    • I would guess you really can’t say you are a food snob if you go to McDonalds! No, this post wasn’t meant to insult anybody’s tastes or hurt feelings. I just had a very sheltered life, food wise. It’s kind of funny. When my husband to be first met my parents, she served snails, and then lamb. I’m sure she knew that it would make him squirm, because she does that kind of thing to this day.

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      • Oh, I understand completely, and I know I am in a minority as far as food bloggers (and food blog readers) are concerned. Now, let me just set the record straight – I probably have a MacDonald’s meal once every couple of years when we go for a long road trip. The fact that I can eat there and even enjoy it, doesn’t mean I am a regular customer! Come to think of it, I think our last fast food meal was in 2011, California to Oklahoma drive.

        I didn’t feel you tried to insult anybody, as I said, it is a very thought provoking post and it did make me think about labels – what type of labels could I place on myself? Food for thought! (pun intended)

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  10. This is a very interesting post, Mimi. I’ve recently been reading a lot about the old guard when it came to food snobbery in the mid century. I’ve been reading Julia Child’s books, MFK Fisher’s writing, James Beard’s history and even learning a bit about Richard Olney and this exact topic keeps coming up in their writings. They discuss the meaning of taste, the evolution of food in America and France and the limits of snobbery. I totally understand how you must have felt when this kind neighbor of yours made a casserole out of love and it was tuna and potato chips. It’s how I feel when my friend goes out of her way to make lipton’s french onion soup something or other. I don’t think I’m a food snob, in fact, i’m sort of at the adolescence of my journey, but I’m a food lover and I may judge people for not having an open mind. I was raised half like you and half like your husband..so i have the love of good food, but have had my share of kraft mac & cheese. Great timing on this post for me :) Thanks.

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    • ugh. that soup mix. I have a lot of friends who’ll never cook for me, which is silly, because I’m no chef. I’ve just been cooking a really long time! But I have friends who don’t care, and invite me over for potato chips and that dip, and hamburgers sitting in broth in a crock pot, and it’s all delicious to me because I’m with friends. For me, I want my friends, but I just want better food! Thanks for your great comment!

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  11. I’ve had very similar thoughts! It’s interesting to think back on my food journey and what I used to eat compared to now. Tastes definitely change. Though I don’t think I was ever a fan of velveeta. :)

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  12. Dear Mimi, what a wonderful post! I’m still shocked a little bit about the tuna-soup-chips Casserole!!! :-) But it is the thought that counts :-) I guess I’m a food snob too, even there isn’t much I would not eat (or try), but it has to be fresh prepared with good ingrediens. Warmly, Bridget

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    • Thanks Bridget! My mother hates the fact that my husband hates mayonnaise. she once baked him a chocolate cake, and after he took a bite and said it was good, she told him it was made with mayonnaise. but she’s not nice. she actually hates people who hate certain foods.

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  13. Great discussion. I read Stephane’s post too and thought it was a comment about enjoying the company of like minded people. Your post goes deeper. I think there is a fine line between being discerning and snobbery. I believe snobbery is based on a need for self aggrandisement. There is loads of reading material about the palate. Only 25% of the population is born with a great palate, 50% are able to train their palate, the remaining 25% will never truly taste the flavour of their food. We all make choices based on our food experiences, perceptions, emotions and palate reactions. My feelings about canned and packaged food, McDonalds etc run deep. They have changed flavour expectations to the point that a large a proportion of the population think that fresh fruit and vegetables don’t taste good because they are not sweet or salty or have an unctious mouth feel. Some like to dine, others like to fuel up, it’s a choice thank goodness! Mimi, your are not a snob, your are discerning.

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    • Okay! I’ll take that. I’m truly not a snobby person, either, I just believe strongly in good food. And that doesn’t mean it has to bee all “gourmet,” although that is what I prefer. But of course, that word can be debated as well. My life would have always been easier if I would have bought pre-packaged stuff and driven through fast food restaurants, but I’m so against it. I’ve tried to force myself to buy things, like even a bottled red sauce, and I read the labels and I can’t do it. So much sugar. You’re right. Everything is sweet or salty or chemically. It’s so sad.

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  14. This is a very thought-provoking article, Mimi. I think I am a bit of a food snob too and we often discuss this around the staff table at work. Unfortunately I think North Americans are battling the fast food and prepared food industries. For me, the bottom line is fresh and unpackaged. So funny, because I was thinking about the casseroles we were brought up on, just the other day and realizing that we don’t eat casseroles anymore. Maybe someone needs to reinvent casseroles and bring them into the 2010’s. This might be an interesting challenge!

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    • Julianna – You are right when you say that the bottom line is fresh and unpackaged. I have a story about that.

      For years, I searched for the perfect Mexican Salsa. First I tried every prepared salsa in the supermarket and found them to be universally awful. The Pace brand is the worst but it has plenty of competition for the bottom rung.

      I wanted a great sauce that would work well as a dip with tortilla chips, as a sauce for Huevos Rancheros, or as a a topping for tacos. After striking out on supermarket prepared salsas, I tried many combinations of canned tomatoes, canned jalapeños, and dried chiles but couldn’t quite come up with the salsa I was looking for.

      Finally I hit upon the idea of using all fresh ingredients. Take six medium size tomatoes, six fairly large tomatillos, five mild peppers such as Hatch, Anaheim, or Pablanos, and several Jalapeños (more or less depending on how much heat you want). Cut the tomatoes in half and place on a baking sheet cut side down. Trim off the stems off the peppers but leave the seeds in place. Pile them onto the baking sheet with the tomatoes. Bake in a 350F oven for 30 minutes.

      When soft, run the vegetables and their juices through a food mill with the coarse disk. This gives a sauce with a great texture. If you don’t have a food mill, I would strongly encourage you to buy one. I use mine all the time and find it to be one of the best kitchen gadgets. Google for Matfer Food Mill to find a very good one that is used in many professional kitchens.

      Season to taste with salt, a little vinegar, and ground Cumin. Be careful not to overdo it with the cumin as a little goes a long ways.

      This recipe makes three to four pints of salsa. I divide up into one pint canning jars and freeze those I’m not going to use right away. So much better than anything you can buy prepared.

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      • Wow Dave, your recipe sounds amazing!! I don’t have a food mil, but I will check them out online. Mabye I need to add one to my growing list of kitchen gadgets :-) I’m with you – I don’t really like any commercial salsas at all. Thanks for this great recipe!

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    • I mentioned to someone else that casseroles, to me, look like regurgitated food, which makes them quite different from, let’s say, one pot meals, which can be very pretty. Challenge indeed!!!

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  15. I couldn’t help but notice a trend when you (rightfully) mentioned sad food: total lack of freshness or quality ingredients. Premade mixes, canned items and overcooked stuff – all of this really results from inaccessibility to the good stuff. Am I right?

    I’m right there with you on all of this!

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    • I wish that was the only problem, or excuse. In the US, we all have access to fresh food with the kind of grocery stores we have. Plus we can all have gardens throughout the warmer months. It’s laziness, the idea that packaged and fast foods are cheaper, plus the fact that people don’t make feeding their families good healthy food a priority. All I’ve ever heard is “I’m too busy to cook.”

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  16. I’m with you all the way Chef! There are some things that can’t be compromised and good food is one of those. I do belive in food hacks and short cuts, but with real ingredients, not with substitues. (for example I am a frozen pea fiend!) ;) Growing up in a chinese family, I’ve never encountered hybrid foods such as the ones you describe, but I guess there’s always time!

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    • Velveeta is a processed cheese “food.” I’ve never understood it. My mother actually went through an involved and lengthy Chinese phase, with wintermelon soup and fun hot pot nights. It’s so healthy! Thanks for your comment.

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  17. To me, when the preference for only certain foods interferes with your enjoyment of life, it’s not a good thing anymore. Granted, I was brought up on meat and potatoes fare, indifferently cooked. I didn’t know I loved steak until I was in my late teens, because my mom cooked all her steaks VERY well done. My dad hates garlic, mushrooms, fowl of any kind, fish, and the list could go on. He likes McDonalds. I cook a much more varied menu than my mom, and I don’t ever buy Velveeta. I find most restaurant food too salty, and quite often I could do better at home, if I took the time.

    But if my husband wants to take me out to eat, and all I can think about is how I could do better, or I go to my parents’ to visit and refuse to eat casseroles made with Velveeta (I know, it’s like your personal food nightmare come true) then I feel like I’ve let my enjoyment of good food get in the way of my enjoyment of things that actually matter in life (people). I don’t want to make myself any more discontent in life than I have to be. I value being content in whatever situation I find myself. I value gratitude for the blessings I’ve been given.

    Also there is a difference between just not taking a spoonful of “whipped topping” on my desert, and rolling my eyes and saying “You know me better than that”. One is perfectly polite, and one is potentially insulting to my host. Having preferences is not snobbery, but the expression of those preferences can be.

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    • A wonderful comment! I wrote in another comment that the few friends who cook for me serve things that I’d never make myself. But there’s so much enjoyment in eating with friends, that it doesn’t matter at all! So I totally agree with you. There’s so much to food than just the food itself!

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  18. Great post, Mimi. Yes, we are all brought up differently and I like to think I have moved beyond the casseroles made with cream of something soups. (These were staples in our home—quick and easy for my working mom.). I have to admit to snobbery now myself and hate processed foods. Really good discussion.

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    • Thanks so much! I wasn’t trying to insult the foods a lot of Americans were brought up on, just how I was raised so differently. All I ever wanted to have was turkey at Thanksgiving, and when I finally did, at my roomate’s house at college, I about died. Overcooked, dry, awful. All the pies were purchased, and that’s the first time I had sweet potatoes with marshmallows. That still grosses me out. I think sweet potatoes are already sweet. I like them with garlic butter!

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  19. I didn’t even know that velveeta existed, or that particular tuna casserole recipe, wow! (And I also don’t understand sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows.) I have obviously led a sheltered existence food-wise. So, in a funny way, your post has broadened my food horizons! :-)

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  20. I also grew up in a family where food was revered. Nothing pre-packaged ever appeared in my mother’s kitchen, and, at some point in my childhood, I was envious of friends who were fed frozen fish fingers – anathema in my household. But I am forever grateful I grew up the way I did. When I married my American husband, his children were bemused at my lack of knowledge of sugary cereals or Hamburger Helper. I really had never heard of it. They thought my made from scratch mac and cheese did not stand up to the boxed version but, at least with the boy and my husband, I was able to change their palates. I think for the better. You are very generous – I would never considered Velveeta a food item (in all fairness, I have never tasted it…)

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    • I remember being envious of iceberg lettuce and chocolate cocoa puffs, which I only had at friends’ houses. Velveeta is a processed cheese “food” – is that better?!!!!! Don’t taste it, although I’m sure you’re not tempted!

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  21. Very nice post! I am considered a food snob at the office because I can;t get myself to eat the horrible stuff they serve at the canteen. If I do I avoid all meats as they look like shoe soles at best .. so everyone thinks I am a vegetarian, when I actually love meat, but just the good stuff.

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  22. (With the exception of maggots in cheese) I eat everything and luckily have no food allergies. Thank goodness Mr. H. has also lived around in some different countries and continents, like myself, so he is always open to eat all my different variations of food. I need to google velveeta… ;)

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  23. This is very thought provoking Mimi and I really enjoyed this. Like you, I believe I was raised on fabulous food. My mother growing up in Sri Lanka ate fresh food everyday since her family lived so close to the water. Seafood straight from the ocean and endless fruits, spices and vegetables at their disposal meant nothing was processed. In turn, when my mother moved to the States she brought her customs/habits and essentially raised my brother and I the same way. They all have gardens! I love that. As children, of course we made faces at the beets and leeks on our plates but those tastes quickly changed and there isn’t much in the way of veggies my brother and I don’t eat now. I am really thankful to her. Still not crazy about okra but nevertheless I will still eat it. Don’t even get me started on what I see kids eating today. McDonald’s chicken nuggets is not healthy. It’s not chicken either. Oh well, I could go on and on….thanks for posting Mimi. You got some good laughs out of me!

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