I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. It wasn’t diverse in any way at that time, but I had one advantage: my parents were open-minded about more things than most, and so I learned to try new things by their example.
The most obvious model of this behavior involved food. My folks both grew up in white-bread America, so for them, exotic food meant Chinese or Italian. Note that most Chinese food from restaurants at that time was highly Americanized, and had far more in common with Chun King than Peking. Still, it was new to us, with unfamiliar textures, ingredients, and flavors, and that was intriguing.
I remember a couple of visits to Milwaukee before I was 12. There used to be a Chinese restaurant there called Charlie Toy’s. I don’t remember well the food – I was young enough that I may have eaten off the kiddie menu, which may have consisted of hot dogs and hamburgers for all that I can recall. Charlie Toy’s restaurant closed it’s doors in 2000, but you can read a little of the restaurant’s history here: http://archive.jsonline.com/features/food/chinese-food-has-long-history-in-milwaukee-b99440047z1-292236441.html The Charlie Toy’s we visited was it’s final incarnation, located at 830 N. Old World Third Street, very close to the Milwaukee River and not far from the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Another favorite – and one closer to home, was Gino’s restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. Gino’s was located on State Street downtown, and Gino and his brothers – the Gargano family – had a thriving restaurant empire with several locations offering a variety of Italian cuisine dining experiences. One summer, we grew banana peppers in our garden – half the plants were sweet peppers, and the rest were hot. For some reason conditions were ideal for those peppers that year; by the end of the summer we had more peppers than we could eat in a decade. My dad’s idea was to take a basket full in to Gino’s, and so he did. Gino was surprised and, I think, charmed by this gesture, and at Christmas that year he gave us hand-painted water pitcher and ash tray branded with the restaurant name. Gino remembered my dad for years afterward, always giving everyone at our table a free dessert with our meals, which is how I formed my life-long infatuation with cannoli. Gino’s is gone from State Street: absurdly high rents have forced out all but the most hardy of college student-dependent businesses, but the tradition lives on in two Gino’s Deli locations still in operation in the area and run (if I remember correctly) by Gino’s kids: https://www.ginosdeli.info/
Of course there are some things I won’t eat: I will NEVER knowingly eat dog meat, and insects are not high on my list either. I’ve discovered that the texture of sea urchin in sushi/sashimi makes me gag, so that’s right out, too. I have found that I’m fond of vegetables that many people don’t care for: Brussels sprouts are one of my favorites, as is asparagus. Broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower don’t bother me at all, and while I’m not fond of lima beans, I’ll still eat them without complaint.
Even though what my parents’ ideas were of what was exotic doesn’t match mine anymore, I’m still grateful for them hammering into me that age old plea of parents everywhere: ‘Just try it – you might like it.’ Eventually, it stuck, and over the years, I’ve tried a lot: sushi is one of my favorite categories of food, and sadly I got to see my parents blanch at the very idea of eating raw fish. I tried snails once on a cruise, and found them to be just fine though, like oysters, they are not so spectacular that they’re worth (to me) the typically high price charged for it in restaurants. I’ve eaten alligator too, though it was so thoroughly fried and breaded that it could have been nearly anything and I never would have known the difference.
I’ve sampled several classic Korean dishes, including Bibimbap and Kimchee; because of my wife’s interest in Middle Eastern Dance and culture, we’ve eaten a lot of shawarma, tabouli, hummus, and baba ganouj. I’ve found I enjoy cajun food quite a bit too; my favorite local cajun place closed, but others have sprung up, and Fat Tuesday is comin’ ’round again. I have an itch to try some soul food; growing up in rural Wisconsin I wasn’t really exposed to it or the culture surrounding it, but I’m hoping I can sample some of both this year. One thing’s for certain: there’s still a lot of fascinating and delicious cuisine out there that I haven’t tried, and I’m getting hungry…