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Jeff Simon: Growing up with American food

Jeff Simon

It was interview time.

It just so happened that my "interviewer" on the other end of the phone was one of my favorite people in the world -- my grandson, whose eighth birthday is in January. As a homework assignment over Thanksgiving, his class was told to ask a grandparent -- or some other suitably ancient person -- what their life was like growing up back in the Jurassic Era.

So there I was talking prehistoric times with one of the most virulent actual dinosaur fans I know.

When he asked what was specifically different about my childhood in the early '50s (when I was his age) I realized that the biggest difference was the computer. We never even dreamed of them before Steve Jobs put one in every home. To him, it's as much a part of the living room as the lamps and the TV.

But after that, it hit me that the biggest difference he might immediately understand was food. It's an entirely different subject in the 21st century from what it was in the early  '50s. Almost none of the food that he loves and eats regularly even existed for me when I was growing up on Starin Avenue in Buffalo.

I am neither a foodie or a gourmet. Gourmand is more like it. I doubt that I could love food more than I do but my knowledge of it is thin. It's my appreciation that runs fat. The food I ate in the '50s -- long before the subject exploded in America -- was a paltry variety, indeed. I had to be introduced to:

PIZZA: I was 12 years old before I ate my first slice. It was a decidedly barren and minimalist thing too -- a slice of single cheese pizza with no pepperoni. Never mind the double cheese, double shrimp, mushrooms etc. that I sometimes order now when I'm feeling ravenous and excessive.

My starvation introduction to the wondrous paradise of Pizza occurred at Santora's on Main Street across from the old Trico Plant. In a different location they're celebrating their 90th year.

Criminally stripped down as that slice was, I was in love with it from the first bite. Who on earth could have invented something so sublime out of melted cheese, tomato sauce and crusty bread?

It was my first understanding that there was more food on heaven and earth than I had ever dreamed of in my philosophy. It wasn't as if I'd never tasted anything exotic before. After all, my family was a frequent visitor to the House of Peking on Hertel Avenue. But as a risk-averse kid, all I ever ordered were egg rolls, spare ribs and shrimp fried rice. My first taste of Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs in Toronto seemed practically decadent. And when an old and dear friend overwhelmed me with her sophistication by ordering Shrimp and Lobster Sauce and telling me its Chinese name was "Lung Har Woo," I had suddenly been transported to the Fourth Dimension of Food. I was in the Chinese Food big time. (It remains, along with dumplings, Chinese comfort food for me.)

MEXICAN FOOD: It just didn't penetrate Buffalo in the early '50s. We had to wait for the '60s. But there it was suddenly -- Tex-Mex Division -- when a friend took all of us to his fave, Prospector Pete's on Bailey Avenue near Kensington.

It was a tiny joint, no wider than five enchiladas laid end to end. It had the kind of food most people are now very superior about. But the pictures on the wall were delightful -- Mexican Revolutionary Pinups of Pancho Villa and Gen. Albaro Obregon, not exactly a figure memorialized at Taco Bell or the Mighty Taco (as beloved by some as they are).

The food was paradise -- tacos, enchiladas, frijoles refritos, egg rancheros to die for.

I was in my late teens. My grandson has been eating Californian Mexican food his entire life. (To him, a fish taco is comparable to what a hamburger and fries were to me at his age.) When my daughter was little, my wife was slow to understand why I insisted on taking the family from the Delaware District to Transit Road to introduce them to Tico Taco. She quickly became a convert.

EASTERN EUROPEAN DELICACIES: The biggest mistake of my culinary life was resisting every time my mother would drag my older brother and me to a place on Hertel Avenue near Colvin called The Belgrade. What she loved about it and what I'd practically kill to try now was its serving of "old country food" of the kind HER mother had known back on the Ukraine/Polish border. It was like a cheap, mini-version of what people in Manhattan celebrated at the Russian Tea Room. For my brother and me, it was just too far from good old American beef to even think about.

I can't even imagine the heartburn I'd risk now if the place still existed--or there were something comparable.

JAPANESE FOOD: For years, one of the most shameful lacks in Buffalo cuisine. I first tasted it at the Toronto Film Festival. I had time to eat a lightning quick lunch between screenings and walked into an empty but good looking Japanese restaurant in Yorkville. I asked the waitress if there was any chance of my being in and out in 40 minutes. She said yes and I had one of the best lunches of my life.

It's always been lovely  that Buffalo always had the Arigato Steak House but it wasn't until Bob Rich brought Kuni Sato to his Pacific Rim restaurant Saki's that we had a first-rate Sushi chef. When we finally did -- and when Sushi and Sashimi started showing up in supermarkets everywhere -- I felt that culinary civilization had reached us.

What was obviously true is that Buffalo cuisine was growing up right along with American cuisine and that my gourmand's taste was growing up along with them. We were eating things we had never dreamed we'd eat.

To my grandson in L.A., thank heaven, he knows no other world than the whole culinary globe.

Telling him about the terrible deprivations in my Grammar School of Food felt a little like Mel Brooks talking about the local cuisine in Yugoslavia when he and his cast went there to film "The Twelve Chairs."

Said Mel of that country's unfortunate lunches and dinners, "One day, they served us fried chains."

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