Many of us remember the things that terrified us as children, whether it was a dark room, a gaggle of monstrous beings that resided - we were sure of it! - under our bed, or scary movies.
There was a long time when I, as my pre-teen years were coming to a close, could barely watch shows like The Outer Limits or Twilight Zone: the angst was just that great. (Dee still can’t bring herself to watch Twilight Zone, owing to one episode that scared the living crap out of her when she was barely into double digits.)
Even before that, I had a number of weird phobias. Well, phobia is maybe too strong a word for my reaction to objects that didn’t quite send me running off screaming, but for which I had a peculiar dread: mushrooms and chimneys. The idea of actually touching a mushroom filled me with loathing; and certain chimney shapes just... bothered me in a way that is hard to describe. (Strangely, I never feared eating mushrooms, only being in close proximity to them.)
Eventually, these sources of angst faded into the background and disappeared, being outpaced by the real grownup phobias: poverty, failure, disease, harm to loved ones, aging. One stupid-ass mushroom can’t keep up with those - plus, mushrooms are tasty.
As long as we’ve gotten on to the subject of Frightening Foods, I suppose we can all of us admit to having certain powerful food aversions. Some food items are loathsome to us because of our acculturation - while they may be perfectly delectable in some places, there’d be No Fucking Way one of these would cross my lips, f’r example - and others are simply outside our experience. My mother (of blessèd memory) would eat things like brains in black butter, calf’s foot jelly (AKA pt’cha, an Ashkenazic Jewish classic beloved by almost nobody), and sweetbreads. Unto this day I cannot abide the idea of eating brains (zombie food!), but having had sweetbreads at Alice Waters’s legendary Chez Panisse some 34 years ago, I pronounce them excellent.
But the greatest bugaboo, for me, has been buttermilk. Rich, creamy buttermilk. Nasty, gloppy buttermilk. Is it liquefied sour cream, or just regular Grade A that’s gone off?
I use buttermilk whenever I make cornbread or pancakes, but the idea of picking up a glass of the stuff and drinking it has horrified me since little-kid days, when I was handed a tumbler of what I expected was cold, refreshing sweet milk. Buttermilk, it was, and the sour, saline shock of it, combined with that weird creamy/gloppy consistency, convinced me on the spot that I should never let that stuff near my face again. It has been close to sixty years, and I’ve kept that promise.
A true Southerner - and maybe even an adopted one like me - should have an appreciation of local folkways, especially where food is concerned. I like grits enough, and have even adapted them for those who want a more Ashkenazic version. I make cornbread from time to time. Why not enjoy it the way old-school Sutheners will do: crumbled into a big ol’ glass of cold buttermilk?
I had to put aside my childhood revulsion of buttermilk in order to do it, but here it is:
Home-made cornbread and buttermilk.
It was a pleasant surprise, with the mild lactic acid notes of sour cream and the crumbly texture of the cornbread that soaked up the liquid, resulting in something that was more reminiscent of a pudding than anything else. Ah, that’s it! Indian pudding meets mamaligeh, that quintessentially Ashkenazic/Romanian combination of corn meal mush (i.e., polenta), cottage cheese, and sour cream. A meal in itself, or even a grown-up dessert.
And now I need fear buttermilk no more.
[But there’s still no fucking way I’m eating a balut.]