“Anyone who’s a chef, who loves food, ultimately knows that all that matters is: ‘Is it good? Does it give pleasure?’”– Anthony Bourdain
Do you ever think about the things you think about? Sure, that has nothing to do with this week’s post, but it does make you ponder. Well, the other day I was thinking about food. Ok, I get it, doesn’t everyone think about food. Yes, of course, but recently I started to think about those foods that defined my past. Honestly, this topic came to me after watching a recent vlog on a YouTube channel called Dani.702. The host, Dani, was at Disney Springs and purchased a substantial glazed donut from Everglazed Donuts and a giant chocolate chip cookie from Gideon’s cookie shop. After sampling both, she selected the one she thought was best. Her decision ultimately rested on which one made her feel most nostalgic. She then mentioned a favorite memory of getting a similar donut when she was younger. Dani.702’s reaction made me ponder about the types, and flavors, of foods I enjoyed when I was younger and produced a similar response. Stuffed quahogs, linguica pizza, sour cream and onion dip, and malasadas are a few foods that always transport me back in time.
In an old post, Traveling to Familiar Surroundings, I discussed my journey back, after many years, to where I grew up, going to a few eateries, and finding comfort in familiar surroundings. My parents no longer reside in the area, and my siblings and extended family have since moved away and on for the most part. My ability to connect to the past is, well, not as easy as I wish. That was why, as I discussed in that post, my wife and I went to my home town. I was able to deal with my anxiety and depression with a nostalgic trip that included hometown food. I have since moved closer, even if slightly, to the area, but the pandemic has, of course, made revisiting eateries challenging. Today, join me as I travel to coastal Massachusetts, the area of my childhood, and explore those foods and meals, either home-cooked or takeout, that stand out to me today, and if given an opportunity, I would order right now.
A Food Memory No One Believes
Food memories are unique, and like the glazed donut that immediately produced a sentimental reaction for Dani.702, these nostalgic memories can come at any time. No, this isn’t a reaction I frequently have. Instead, certain foods trigger specific feelings and emotional responses. Sometimes sadness, other times joy and excitement, more so laughter and a smile. It could be a smell that hits you, which you can’t place, or a holiday event where you try something that tastes eerily similar to a favorite dish you ate in your past. In my nearly four decades, I have found foods I love and many I dislike. I lived in Hawaii, traveled to China, and spent many moons in Cape Cod, and I love to eat the local food no matter where I am. Poke in Hawaii, Szechuan in China, and seafood on the Cape. Are those foods nostalgic? Not necessarily, but they can transport me back, even if they are not as powerful as those when I was younger.
One particular food memory that illustrates a powerful nostalgic feeling was when I turned twelve-years-old. I remember that I had a pool party in the afternoon (#summerbirthdays), and one thing I always enjoyed was when my dad took me for breakfast. So, in the morning before the party, we went to our local baseball field; he threw me some batting practice, and then we got breakfast. I was all-in for this start to my birthday. I mean, who wouldn’t be? We packed the car, departed the house, made a quick detour to Honey Dew Donuts, where my dad picked up a coffee and a hot chocolate for me, and to the complex we headed. We spent a few hours as he threw me what seemed like, hundreds of pitches and letting me swing away. A fantastic memory. Father and son, enjoying a wonderful time together.
I remember hitting a ton of balls, and once I finished, or when my dad’s pitching arm was exhausted, we went for breakfast at McDonald’s. Ok, I get it, that may seem, how do I put this, a poor breakfast choice and not nostalgic at all. What you don’t know is that our local McDonald’s did a breakfast buffet for around six months, and it was terrific. Eggs, potatoes w/sautéed onions, sausage, biscuits, French toast, and so much more. My dad took me to this buffet on no less than four occasions, but it formed a perfect memory when he took me on my twelfth birthday. But soon, the buffet was gone. Never again did this breakfast buffet come back to our local McDonalds. No one believes me when I tell them this story. Most think it’s a tall tale, a myth, a legend – no one else has been to a McDonald’s breakfast buffet. Even my wife doubted me, but I remember, and my dad remembers, so believe me, discount me if you must, but every time I have breakfast with my dad, we discuss that twelfth birthday and the legendary McDonald’s breakfast buffet.
Those Early Days, or is it, Early Meals?
Even before the McDonald’s breakfast buffet story, I loved going out for breakfast. It was, and still is, one of my favorite meals to eat outside the home. As a kid, weekends were exciting because it meant a trip to one of the many breakfast eateries, or, even better, a trip to the Shawmut Diner in New Bedford where I would get my usual eggs over easy, sausage, wheat toast, and home fries. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate milk or coffee milk – this is New England after all. Of course, my dad got a similar order, but with coffee and tons of cooked onions mixed in with his home fries. I loved going there, and while it was not an “every” weekend type of foodie venture, it was like the first time every time. I think about those breakfast outings often when I eat breakfast at a local joint.
It makes me think about when my dad owned an ice cream shop for many years. I know, I buried the lead but moving on. When I was young, he would go to the eatery very early in the morning and sometimes brought me to help out with the weekly maintenance/cleaning. While the cleaning part was not fun, once we completed our task, my dad cooked me eggs, put some sausage on the cooktop, and cut up some frozen French fries, and threw them in the fryolator, and bang… home fries! That is how nostalgic a meal breakfast can be for me. If it doesn’t bring me back to that diner or those weeks cleaning soft-serve ice-cream machines, it may bring me back to my mom making sausage on the skillet, baking biscuits, and making little homemade sausage biscuits.
I know what you are thinking, so every time I eat breakfast, I have this nostalgic flashback? Well, no, just in those rare instances when I can go out for breakfast at a similar diner or since the pandemic has made that impossible, when I order out at a place called Cowbells Cafe. Yes, the name comes from the SNL skit with Christopher Walken. You know, the one with Will Farrell annoyingly hitting the cowbell, followed by Walken, as the music producer, demanding more cowbell and uttering the line, “I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.” Classic, iconic, and I say it every time we order takeout from this wonderfully fabulous local cafe.
Although sausage and biscuits are amazing, my nostalgia, on warm sunny weekends in Massachusetts, is often directed towards a sugary fried dough that’s insanely enjoyable. But when I was younger, and school was out for summer, it was on these beautiful Sunday mornings my family often had malasadas. What is that, you ask? First, let me explain that I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which has deep and essential Portuguese immigration roots in the United States. On my dad’s side, my grandparents, who were born here, are 100% Portuguese, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Azores. So, my dad grew up with a strong Portuguese connection. This link to our familial past is significant and one I cherish, but it is especially apparent when it comes to food.
When I was a kid, my dad would arise early on Sunday and drive to downtown New Bedford. He went to a local bakery, sometimes I tagged along, but he always brought home malasadas. Malasadas are “sometimes called ‘Portuguese Fried Dough’ and are a Portuguese confection. It is a fried type of doughnut, made of small balls of yeast dough and coated with granulated sugar.” I will admit the ones I had as a kid were not small balls but instead quite large and flat, with crispy edges. I freaking love them! After moving to Hawaii, I learned of the Portuguese connection on the island of Oahu. I discovered a couple of local bakeries that made them, the best being Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu. I was ecstatic when I learned this and quickly made Leonard’s a regular stop. One bite, and immediately I am transported back to the south coast of Massachusetts. Being so far away, it was necessary and helped ease those moments of homesickness.
Sadly, since the pandemic began, I have not had an opportunity to travel to New Bedford and pick up an order of these delicious Portuguese delicacies. One bite, and smell, and I will be back in the late 80s. As soon as I have a vaccine, I know these will be one of the first foods I travel back to the area of my youth to procure! Still, malasadas, breakfast sausage, biscuits, or over-easy eggs, are a couple of foods that can quickly bring on a sense of nostalgia, but as they say, there are more hours in the day and more meals to consume.
New Bedford + Seafood = Oh, Hell Yeah!
It’s coastal Massachusetts, so you better believe fish is on the menu. While seafood, in and of itself, does not invoke a once of nostalgia, scallops and stuffed quahogs do. It’s strange that as an adult, these two foods, in particular, will result in immense comfort. For one, I never eat scallops, unless they are from New Bedford. So, while thinking of scallops makes me smile, the only way to produce nostalgia from them would be to order them at a local restaurant or cook my own, as long as the scallops are from New Bedford fishers. Hey, the scallops out of New Bedford are excellent, and according to NOAA Fisheries, “New Bedford has been the top U.S. port in terms of revenue from commercial fishing for 19 straight years. The port brought in $431 million in 2019. Atlantic sea scallops, which has the highest economic value of all the New Bedford fisheries, dominate” New Bedford’s commercial landings.
Oh, and by the way, they are pronounced as “skawl-up” by us here in New England. As you can imagine, I refuse to entertain eating those scallops harvested by anyone whose fishing vessel is not docked in the Whaling City. When I was younger and started to eat seafood like swordfish, my dad introduced me to scallops. He would get them directly from a fisherman, and they were incredibly fresh, I mean so fresh, that he would literally eat them out of the bag. He wouldn’t even cook them. I don’t go that far, but while my dad is not a trained chef/cook, he could broil/cook a scallop to perfection. Does my refusal to eat scallops from anywhere other than New Bedford kind of make sense now? Well, once you have eaten the forbidden apple, you can’t go back. Well, you can go back to New Bedford and order them, but you can only eat scallops directly from the fishing boat for the first time once. Even now, I can think back to that moment, and damn do I want some New Bedford scallops.
When considering seafood, or thereabouts, another classic from my childhood I will get elsewhere and each time offers a fun memory, is a stuffed quahog. These are very popular where I grew up and in Fall River, Massachusetts. Maybe not as popular as Portuguese cacoila sandwiches, which I can still taste and smell as I write this, but stuffed quahogs were a staple of our weekly appetizers or snacks. You couldn’t have them as a meal, but you could easily have them as a starter or after school snack. The famous chef Emeril Lagasse has a recipe for Portuguese stuffed quahogs since he is originally from Fall River. Most Portuguese homes from the Fall River/New Bedford area have these stocked in the fridge. I enjoy ordering them at local restaurants and recently had one at Moby Dick Brewing the last time I was in New Bedford. I immediately texted a photo of my meal to my friend Melissa, who is of Portuguese descent, and grew up in Fall River but lived in Seattle. She was jealous. Those who had it growing up will always order it when they are out and about, and when we do, let the memories flood back in, but don’t ask me how to make them, no clue. There are tons of recipes online from people in Fall River or New Bedford, and I am sure everyone has their spin on what makes it suitable. For me, it doesn’t matter, but please make sure it’s ready when I get there.
One exciting story representing my fondness for New Bedford seafood is when I introduced my wife to it. It was on one of our first dates, many years ago. When I lived in the New Bedford area, I used to go to Davy’s Locker, a now-closed fabulous eatery and a former staple in the South End of New Bedford. While my wife and I love another New Bedford restaurant, Me & Ed’s, where I always order New Bedford scallops and my wife tried linguica pizza for the first time, our trip to Davy’s Locker was exciting. That night we had terrific scallops, cod, clam cakes, and, as far as I can remember, great drinks as we sat near and overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and Butler Flat’s Lighthouse. As a good New Englander, Bay State guy, and a man who lived near the ocean, bringing my wife to my favorite seafood restaurant was an obligation. The night was memorable because when we sat down, and our waitress came to check in with us, it was someone who I had known from my teenage years, but someone, my wife, knew from college. We have never seen someone so confused, so befuddled, and it was rather amusing. Mind you, my wife is from New York and had never been to New Bedford before. Seeing us together must have confused the hell out of our waitress. Sometimes life can be random and when it is… eat seafood in New Bedford!
Welcome to Massachusetts
American Chinese Cuisine
My father and mother love to tell how I refused to eat Chinese food as a young child. That’s the story, wicked funny, right? Ok, so maybe the story has a little more depth to it. When we visited my aunt and uncle on a weekend evening or a random celebratory day, we often ordered Chinese cuisine. But I was a kid who didn’t like it, so they ordered me a hamburger each time they got it. One, it was nice of my parents/aunt and uncle to cater to me, when they probably shouldn’t have. Two, the irony is that I love Chinese food today. Yes, I know it’s American Chinese food, but whether it is in Boston, New York, San Francisco, it’s so good. I am not a culinarily expert, sure I have eaten several times at the Culinary Institute of America, but as far as I know, eating at a place that trains experts does not make a person an expert. I wish it did, though!
Chinese food was a staple in my house as a child, adolescent, and growing teenager years. Whether it was Thanksgiving Day immediately following high school football games or our regular trip to a staple eatery for New Year’s Eve – Chinese cuisine was regularly our first choice on special days. Nothing says Massachusetts more than High School football on Thanksgiving, followed by a Chinese buffet. As a teenager, my friends and I would get Chinese food, park our car at the beach, set up a buffet in the trunk, and throw on some music and talk until sunrise. But it was the restaurant Wah May, which I discussed in my previous hometown post, that has my Chinese food eating heart. The pork fried rice, the delicious egg rolls, this place could do no wrong and for decades offered my family celebratory meals and random Wednesday night meals.
Recently, I took my wife, for the first time, to Wah May, it did not disappoint. The smell and taste of the egg rolls can do something few foods do. It elicits happiness that brings me back to when my family was all together in the home I lived in for my first twenty-years. Not many foods can do that so quickly, so vividly, so emotionally. It was as if Willy Wonka took a break from chocolate to make an egg roll that instantly made you remember and feel decades in a split second. I have yet to find that egg rolls equal, or another that can even make me think of those beautiful family get-togethers. My aunt Madeline was the center of attention at those meals. She loved telling people of my Chinese food progression from eating hamburgers to devouring classic American Chinese staples like chow mein, entire pu-pu platters, or boneless ribs, which accompanied me on several school field trips to many New England Museums. Since my aunt passed a couple of years ago, thinking of those dinners and random food flashbacks has added greater importance and meaning. I miss her dearly and those family meals, but I am grateful that merely thinking of, or eating, a Wah May’s egg roll can help me relive those moments, if only briefly.
Ok, I get it; my wife is of Italian lineage and from New York, who I initially thought was from the Bronx when we first met. I was way off. Still, I have often visited Brooklyn and ordered delicious pizza. But I am from Massachusetts, and no, not from the north end of Boston, so my pizza “tastes” are not of someone who is. While I know the difference between Papa Gino’s and local Brooklyn pizza, I grew up with one and not the other. But then there is Greek-style pizza. Many pizza shops in Massachusetts are owned and operated by Greek-Americans, Greek immigrants, or are the children thereof. One of my best friends in high school, his family-owned two such pizza restaurants and both were excellent.
One Greek-owned eatery called Galaxy Pizza, which was close to where I grew up, is the place I think most fondly of when I think of pizza from my youth. The other day my brother text messaged me that he took his family to where we grew up and told me he had a nostalgic day. Then I asked him where he went to eat and if he had gone to any of our favorite places as kids? He answered; yes, Galaxy Pizza. It’s the perfect example of this post’s intent. It is about finding comfort in those foods that bring us back, remind us of the past, and well, through taste, sight, and smell, offer some reaction that results in a grin/smirk on our faces. Even as he told me of where he went, what he did, the food he ate, I had that reaction solely by thinking of the food. Even now, I can smell and taste that cheese pizza. Right, one can never honestly go back in time, but that slice of pie from Galaxy Pizza is as close a time machine as I can imagine. Indeed, it’s not New York pizza, but then again, it need not be to achieve my nostalgic moment.
Let’s Eat In, but What’s for Dinner?
Ordering out at local eateries is an easy way to produce those memories, but those meals cooked, baked, and prepared at home are powerful too. Shortly after my aunt’s passing, my sister Becky provided me my aunt’s recipe for one of our favorite childhood delicacies, linguica balls. They are straightforward to make, made with Vermont cheddar cheese, Amaral’s linguica, a locally owned New Bedford meat market, and a couple of other things rolled together in a small ball baked. Oh, my goodness, my siblings and I devoured them so quickly that they barely cooled down. We didn’t care. We are unanimous in our belief that of all my aunt’s food concoctions, and there are hundreds, these linguica balls are the most nostalgic. However, my brother Jeff might consider voting for her chourico sloppy joes. Still, the first holiday after her passing, and soon after my sister provided me her recipe, I made them. I cried a little. I miss my aunt, and it was as if no time had passed since the last time, I ate them, which was when she made them.
Still, linguica balls are but one of several homemade delicious foods that I often think about or get nostalgic over. Yet, the funny part is, sometimes it takes smelling or seeing something to bring up these long-dormant memories. While I can easily recollect how much I loved my mother’s recipe for Polish hamburgers or her take on Shepard’s pie, it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to remember what they smelled like or tasted like without enjoying them now. That doesn’t change the fact that my memories reflect clearly how my siblings and I would fight over the wooden spoon that stirred Shepard’s pie, eating as much from the pot on the stove without my mother knowing. Or, eating several cold polish hamburgers from the fridge well after the meal and before someone else could enjoy the last one. These two meals mostly remind me of home, childhood, and my siblings.
In the same vein, there are those foods that produce the opposite feeling. Foods like American Chop Suey, an “American pasta casserole made with ground beef, macaroni, and a seasoned tomato sauce.” American Chop Suey is incredibly popular where I grew up in New England. I ate it for dinner once a week and for lunch at school at least once a month. Is it delicious? No, no, it’s not. But it’s one of those foods that if I eat something that even resembles it slightly, I will not be able to eat it, and I will recall those times I ate chop suey. I will have to call it a night and take my leave. The smell and taste have the same result, but while I wouldn’t say I like the food, my anger makes me laugh, and I enjoy thinking back to those days when eating this meal was constant.
The Restaurant is Temporarily Closed
While each month I spend time exploring travel, half marathons, and POP! culture, generally in music or movies, nostalgia and memories often get a write-up, like today. Maybe it’s the fact that the pandemic has isolated my wife and me from friends and family, and in so doing, those meals that produce momentary emotions of nostalgia are few and far between. When my brother told me of his return to our hometown and his journey back to Galaxy pizza, it produced that nostalgia for a second. That is what forced me to ponder the question, which led to this post’s construction.
Sure, it’s just food, but those few specific foods are much more. Just before this year’s holiday season, my brother dropped off a ton of fresh seafood that he had procured. In the box was a bag of fresh scallops—New Bedford fishermen harvested those scallops. My reaction was ecstatic, and soon after I seared them and sat down to eat them, I was reminded by those days with my dad back home, eating New Bedford scallops for the first time. It reminds me how much I miss seeing my dad, mother, and all my family and friends. Soon I will be able to see them again, more often, and together share a meal, a drink, and a hug. Thinking of specific foods brings me unique joy, and when those nostalgic moments arise, I gain a powerful reminder of those days that time has seemingly forgotten. Days when I enjoyed an egg roll on New Year’s Eve, or Greek pizza after an event, or linguica balls at my Aunt Madeline’s house – all memories I hold onto, remember and smile while I reflect on those moments.
Cover Image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash