My Barnard Salad Days
For our first date in my junior year, Chris offered to make me a salad for lunch. (I know, more innocent times.) His apartment share on Morningside Drive had a big kitchen.
To me, having grown up in Queens with a supertaster father who nevertheless did not know how to cook, and a mother who also did not know how to cook yet controlled the kitchen, a “salad” meant iceberg lettuce and oily bottled dressing. So when I looked at the salad Chris put together, I knew something was wrong: Among other things, it contained mushrooms. Not just any mushrooms, but wholly inedible ones: They were not from a can.
“You’re allowed to eat these raw?” I asked, poking at the things with my fork.
Yes, he explained, you are allowed to eat them raw, or “fresh,” as he called them. Much as I disliked canned mushrooms, I was reluctant to try these. But I found I actually liked them, with their velvety texture and earthy appeal.
Chris also introduced me that day to cheese. Not what they call “American cheese,” a plasticized product individually wrapped in actual plastic, but the tangy, zingy kinds of cheeses from all over the world (particularly France). Who knew cheese could be so tasty without first having to be melted over tuna fish?
Chris and I only went out for a few months, but I learned a lot about food and other things from that salad date. It turns out that most (all?) vegetables can be eaten “raw,” in their natural state, and that they taste better for it. Flavor and crunch. Boldness and subtlety. Before that date—before college, really—I had somehow thought of farms as the equivalent of canning factories, where fruits, vegetables, and meats were processed into a chunky, faintly metallic-tasting sludge. Not until I went to Barnard did I learn that most good things in life, from food to friendships to ideas, do not have to go the preprocessing route.
My parents had sorely wanted me to attend Queens College, which had everything they thought I would need in higher education: It was free and nearby. I would have lived at home and commuted to a school with a lot of the people I already knew from high school, pulled back into the same comfortable rut. There would have been less imperative to try new things, to “dare to eat a peach.” (Speaking of which, my mother’s idea of “fresh fruit cocktail” was to freshly open a can of Del Monte.)
At Barnard, I was forced to make new friends from scratch. These were people who did not live around the corner from me. They had backgrounds even more rarefied than “Manhattan,” which previously I had thought exotic enough. Some were even from other countries.
If I was naïve about food, I was twice so about how other people thought and lived. My time at Barnard exposed me to the brilliant cacophony of a wider world. I learned that food can be eaten fresh, and that I can choose to lead a life in which nothing is canned. •