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Overcoming Generational Gastrointestinal Trauma

OR: A Hate Read for the Food Loving Texan.



As the summer relentingly drew to a close, my wife and I took our kids to stay with some friends at an Airbnb in Kerrville. As holiday perversions begin spreading from one big box store to another akin to a corporate seasonal venereal disease, I find myself reflecting back on my summer vacations growing up. Some of my fondest memories I have from summer vacations are going to visit family in Ohio and Michigan. Some other vivid memories associated with these trips are of the food my dad would bring back with us in the car or airplane. 


My dad, being from the Midwest, was a stranger to the nuances of quality cuisine until his family moved to Texas in the 1980s. Governors Bill Clements and Mark White were taking turns at the state capitol, Willy Nelson still had twinges of red in his hair (before his troubles with the IRS), and the drive out to Salt Lick BBQ was still a days ride on horseback. Food in Texas then revolved around Tex-Mex and barbecue. As there is still heavy representation in these areas, it is worth noting that newer generations of Texans, and the kind of folks who invest their entire personalities into the cities they hop between every few years, are building establishments that serve foods of all kinds in the metropolitan areas. 


After nesting with my mom and raising two sons in Austin, my dad would take us on these summer vacations to visit family in Michigan. Halfway assimilated, my dad adopted the not-uniquely Texan cultural embrace of food- especially on vacation. I’m certain it isn’t only Texans who ask their relatives who just got back from a trip, “so, what’d you eat?”


So as my dad took us back to his homeland of the (now, decidedly, clogged) heartland, he would introduce us to the foods he knew and loved when he was our age. And to be honest, none of it was really that impressive from our perspective. We grew up eating venison chili from deer my dad harvested off of somebody’s lease, scarfing brisket sandwiches at whatever football or church-related fundraisers we went to, and LOTS of Mexican food/ Tex-Mex. (For those unaware, Tex-Mex is like the Texan version of Mexican food, made with ingredients more readily available or more accepted. Out of respect to authentic Mexican cuisine- which, considering the geographical size of the country, is about as diverse as “American food”- most central Texas restaurants serving “Mexican Food” are really serving their version of Tex-Mex. For example: yellow cheese as a Tex-Mex substitute for authentic white cheese such as cotija, refried beans replace black, etc. This rabbit hole goes deeper, but you get the idea). So when my dad took our family to Skyline Chili for the first time, I remember feeling betrayed that anyone would call that soup ‘chili’.


This is when I learned that you can eat anything if you put enough cheese and hot sauce on it.


My dad was beyond elated to introduce us to this food. He grew up eating this junk and moved to where they actually make good food, and now he’s returned to show us the food of his people. Listen, say what you will about Skyline Chili. We know it's not good, and we don’t care. We’re eating memories over here, so mind your own bowels.


And don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like about the Midwest/Great Lakes Region. The summer climate, for one thing. The endearing quality of the people, if that’s how you interpret it etc. But this little ditty ain’t about that.


The tour of fast-casual and pub-style dining continued to his favorite pizza joint (that also shares his first name): Ron’s Pizza. It's a local, small chain. It had the funky little stained glass lamp shades everywhere, and green carpet with wood paneling, it was the pizza place you remember from the 80s. It was decent pizza, I don’t think anybody would be mad about that pizza. They do a thin crust, party cut (square), with all the normal toppings available you’d think of, but they add this pepper and onion mix that I could understand not everyone falling in love with. 


Of course, my dad loves it. Looking back, I’m not sure if it was genuine enthusiasm, or if he was cheerleading my brother and me to like it too- maybe even to help prove a point to my mom. (As I now must occasionally plot against my wife to catalog exhibits to use in my defense case later.) It's all he knew growing up, why wouldn’t he love it? Who doesn’t love the pizza from their childhood? Sometimes, places close, or they get bought out and expand their demand beyond the supplier's ability, leading to lower quality products- looking at Austin’s Pizza, Freebirds, Hopdoddy, Alamo Drafhouse, etc. Those places serve semaphores of what their food used to be like, but they don’t serve the food you fell in love with anymore.


As the years passed, and we made similar tours of digestive discomfort, and maybe my mom or the rest of us incrementally lost patience with too many out-of-the-way detours for regular-ass, fast-casual food, we would still always make time for one place: White Castle. 


Our plane would land, we would get a rental car, find the nearest White Castle, and order a crave case (a box with 30 sliders) for the drive to the lake cottage. For my brother and I, not having grown up with sliders, or White Castle at all, the novelty really caught on. To be able to boast about how many burgers you could consume was a delightful after-effect. I think our perspectives had been warped from the plentiful servings of Skyline and other questionable fast-casual places. I really can’t offer any reasoning or explanation of why it was such a hit in our family. It's a perfectly ‘whatever’ fast food experience, with pretty much average everything. 


My brother and I had finally fallen prey to the condition that my dad had found himself with as we began this exploration of culinary mediocrity originally: a lust for food that can not be had where we live. Again, I’m sure this is not a unique experience but hopefully, the uniqueness lies in the foods we’re lusting after. After we had White Castle, and realized we couldn’t get it til we returned had sparked something in us that felt foreign and familiar at the same time. This yearn for a forbidden food that we’ve seen in our own father, had now been bequeathed unto us. The cycle of generational gastrointestinal trauma continues.


My dad quickly recognized this and thus began the practice of trying to offer solace by bringing back food from his travels. You see, my dad traveled a bit for work. Every few weeks, he would bring back a sandwich from a favorite pizza/sub shop up north, soggy bread and all. Or he would bring a beloved pizza onto his plane, surely to the delight of all surrounding passengers. Eventually, he would call Ron’s Pizza a month in advance with very specific instructions to cook halfway, quarter, and freeze ten pizzas that he would pick up with a cooler and dry ice ready.


The man got almost scientific about maintaining the integrity of the textures of the food he was traveling with. He had entire procedures for sandwiches, pizzas, tacos, whatever. The calculation involved was nothing short of Newtonian. 


Of course, no matter how diligently he prepared, how specifically detailed his ordering instructions were, the food he would bring home would hardly hold a candle to the fresh version hundreds of miles away, to say the absolute least. For me, being around middle school age for most of this, I could afford no shame to eschew his offerings, and I think my body was used to a level of digestive abuse. 


This era of food travel, it turned out, had an expiration date. I had previously written about an experience where my dad was driving back from Ohio and brought my brother and I back a White Castle crave case. He had calculated the closest White Castle to home, which ended up being around St. Louis if memory serves. (A quick search on the WC website for the nearest ‘Castle concluded Farmington, MO!) To solve the quandary of refrigeration, my dad turned the foot-oriented a/c on full blast and kept the burger case in the footwell for the twelve-hour drive home. About another 12 hours later, my brother and I (sadly, my wife tagged along to witness our collective trauma) joined my dad at his house for a dinner of microwaved 24-hour-old White Castle sliders. (We knew the grocery store sells them frozen, and we still did this)


It wasn’t the sliders that inspired me to write about the experience, but the diarrhea that sprouted forth the following day. I felt that this experience was so moving that surely the internet community would resonate with on a deep level. 


Since then, I’ve been keen to enjoy the food that we love where it belongs. So when my family traveled to Kerrville, a Hill Country city that has been rendered entirely from plastic Adirondack chairs, a couple weekends ago. The morning after our arrival, a part of my brain that developed long ago and is not always active woke up from its dormancy to alert me that Kerrville is the home to not one, but two Taco Casas.

 

For those that have not been, Taco Casa, as described by my dad and other men of his generation as, “Taco Bell back when it was good”. With a menu dedicated to value and simplicity, the variants of orderable items are not as diverse as current-day Taco Bell, but with dedication clearly to simpler times many of the mainstays of tacos, burritos, and nachos can be seen listed along with not much else. For those who are Scovillularly inclined, Taco Casa offers one flavor of hot sauce. In keeping with the theme of simplicity, the lone hot sauce is very similar to the Taco Bell original hot sauce. 


We stayed at an Airbnb right downtown, on the river. During the day, our friends and my wife went to the wineries, and I stayed at the house with our kiddos. One of the days, I loaded the kids in the car in hopes of finding a splash pad for our five-year-old to get some energy out. This strategy turned out to be a bust, so I plugged in “Taco Casa” to my GPS, slid into the drive-through, and proceeded to house (casa?) four tacos and some nachos. 


A part of me thought about deconstructing some of the tacos to bring back to my brother and my dad. Ultimately, I decided that these tacos would be fairly difficult to retain any texture or flavor integrity. And geographically, these are within a couple of hours' drive from where we live, so not exactly a delicacy by way of distance.


It was then, in our rented weekend accommodations that I first tasted the feeling of having overcome significant inherited generational trauma. No longer was I beholden to ill-thoughtout behaviors of my father before me. I’m free to make my own culinary discoveries and maybe long-distance takeout orders don’t have to plague my own children as they come of age. This journey has taken many years, many carefully worded orders over the phone, and many disappointing trips to the bathroom. I don’t yet know if it was all worth it, but as I watch my kids grow older, and take them beyond the confines of our neighborhood, I can find solace in the fact that I no longer am tethered to the temptation of bringing home any delicious findings.


2 comentarios


Heather Childers
Heather Childers
23 feb

What a fortunate realization for you and your stomach. Long-distant takeout orders, hilarious. I'm adding "you can eat anything if you put enough cheese and hot sauce on it" to my "Words of Widsom" note in my phone. What a treat (aka Taco Bell's Cinnamon Twists) to read.

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ronjones26
21 feb

Nobody wants to raise two sons - quite successfully I might add - then provide them with nothing to discuss with their therapist when they become adults!!!

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