Chef Boyardee is what being six years-old tastes like. Of all my senses the sheer power of the one-two punch of taste and smell as a means of time travel is unrivaled. Sure, the immediacy of sight, seeing imagery of our favorite toys, clothes, TV shows and movies is transportive, and audio, hearing favorite songs, dialogue from movies, or something as incidental as the specific ring my childhood telephone made is enveloping. As far as touch is concerned, for me this is the sense that is overshadowed the most by the others as it’s the one that is next to impossible to turn off and thus it just becomes a part of being. I’m hardly totally discounting it, I mean I have very distinct memories of what it felt like to play with Lego for instance, the sharp edges, the pain under my fingernails from hours of trying to pry apart two flat 1×2 pieces, or the way it felt to chew on one of the bulbous rubber Space set tires. But of all my senses the almost inseparable combination of taste and smell has the unique ability to overwhelm me, almost drowning me in a flood of memory, almost literally enabling me to travel back in time when I reconnect with certain stalwart flavors.
This past December I decided to relocate, packing up all my collectible junk and moving from Atlanta to Baltimore. Though I’d hardly say that I’ve been homesick these past three months (I had no problem trading in the Falcons for the Ravens, peaches for crabs, or the really shitty traffic on I-85 for the really shitty traffic on I-95), I have been feeling the pull for homey comfort food. I’m sure part of this is dealing with my first real snowy winter in the last 25 years, as well as wanting to lean on some small part of my past, something that feels like it’s a part of my down to the level of my DNA. While doing some grocery shopping and browsing the aisles of my new local supermarkets I was on the hunt for something that would make me feel like a kid again, something easy, cheap, and undeniable; something that hasn’t changed over the last three decades. For me this pretty much meant picking up a can of Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli.
Of all the branded food products I grew up with none had quite the impact on my life as Chef Boyardee, positive and negative. I’ll be the first person to admit that it’s not good food. Hell, even as a kid I know that, and now that I’m a “responsible” adult doing my best to watch what I cram in my body, these heavily processed cans of pasta are probably right under the 1lb block of Velvetta on the list of things that humans should never consume. Even though I know for a fact that my consumption of way too much Chef Boyardee as a kid let to my issues with weight as a kid, the nutritional value isn’t really what I’m getting at. Without these cans of faux Italian goodness I sometimes wonder if I’d be as comfortable in the kitchen as I am today.
In the eighties I had two distinctly different experiences with Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli that changed my life for decades. I was six at the time of my first life changing event. My family lived in a quaint slice of suburbia in Tampa, Florida and my best friend was a kid from down the street named Anthony. I remember that his parents were a little on the eccentric side, in fact my dad always used to joke about the fact that Anthony’s father caught and caged a peacock he found on the golf course that butted up to the back of his property. They kept the bird in their garage and always had the door rolled up so they could display it to the neighborhood as a sort of status symbol. I actually thought it was pretty cool and totally identified with how his dad must have felt when he caught it. I myself spent an inordinate amount of time as a kid searching that golf course for wildlife and was always coming home with a mini travel cooler filled with creek shrimp, crawfish, turtles and frogs. At some point during that summer of ’83, Anthony, his little sister and I ventured out onto the green that was beside his house. There was a short bridge that connected a path leading around the green over a small creek that ran alongside it, and underneath where the earth had eroded away there was a decent amount of natural red clay soil exposed. We dug up a couple buckets full of clay with the idea of making some small pottery that we could sell to the neighborhood. We spent the afternoon shaping crude clay ashtrays and a couple sad little clay ducks before leaving them in his driveway to bake under the scorching Florida sun.
Anthony’s mom came out and saw us completely filthy; arms and clothes caked in orange clay mud, and immediately pulled us into the house to get washed up. I remember being very concerned about leaving my handiwork outside and unsupervised where anyone could swipe it and told her as much. Though I don’t remember her exact reaction, I’m pretty sure she had a laugh at that and she ended up buying my duck and ashtray for $15 to put my mind at ease. By the time we were mostly free of mud, and she’d sent the two kids to their rooms to change into fresh clothes it was starting to get dark out. I remember feeling a little strange in their house because I hadn’t really spent much time inside it before and it smelled completely different than my own home. Anthony’s parents didn’t smoke like mine did, and there was a very flowery scent that wafted up from the carpet from the powdered deodorizer I saw his mom using while I waited for Anthony to get done changing.
The family invited me to stay for dinner, so I called home and asked if I could stay out past the time when the street lights came on (the international sign for when to call it quits) to have dinner with Anthony’s family. I must have gotten the okay because the next thing I recall is sitting up on a stool at their kitchen counter with a view of Anthony’s mom breaking out a few cans of Chef Boyardee. I can still see the yellow cans when I close my eyes and remember being excited. Well, that was until I saw his mom bring out a frying pan and crack a couple of eggs into it. My mom was never one to cook breakfast for dinner, so I had no idea why she was frying up eggs when there was also some ravioli simmering on the stove next to it. What happened next changed the way I would view food for the next 30 years. Anthony’s mom dished out two bowls of ravioli for us and topped each one with a sunny side up fried egg. I can’t quite explain why, but the sight of Anthony breaking into the super runny yolk and mixing it with a heaping spoonful of Chef Boyardee made me so disgusted that I freaked out a little. It’s not that I had an issue with either the pasta or runny eggs, I loved both, but the combination of the two had me so nauseous that I had to abruptly excuse myself and I ended up running home, crying and feeling really weird and embarrassed.
I’m not sure exactly what it was about that mix of food, carpet cleaner, and the strange (to me) odors in the house, but from that day forward it because nearly impossible for me to eat food prepared by anyone besides my parents or stuff I’d get out at fast food or restaurants. Whenever I attempted to eat outside my comfort zone I would have a physical reaction to the food, usually gaging or dry heaving. School lunches, eating at friend’s houses, visiting family, pot lucks at work, or dinner with the in-laws became my own private hell over the next three decades. I spent the first two years of middle school only eating Hostess Dunkin’ Sticks out of the vending machine instead of ever attempting getting a real plate of food. I’ve made so many excuses for why I wasn’t hungry or didn’t feel well as an excuse not to eat that people started to think I had serious health issues.
Over the past few years I’ve loosened up quite a bit, and I think I’ve finally managed to shake my food phobias. Though I’ve always been able to eat stuff that I’ve prepared myself (even weird stuff), the idea of mixing eggs and canned pasta has sort of haunted me. The other morning I was making breakfast for my girlfriend and she requested fried eggs sunny side up so she could dip some toast in them. I’d actually gotten up a bit earlier than her and wanting something comforting I already had a bowl of mini ravioli prepared for myself. While frying my girlfriend’s eggs I screwed up and broke the yolk on one, so I set it aside and made another. Not wanting to waste any food I unconsciously plopped the egg on top of my bowl of ravioli and proceeded to eat. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized what I had done and the memories of that night in Anthony’s house came flooding back. Sometimes it’s strange the way we change as we age. I’m not sure what triggered inside that let the phobia subside, but I’m glad that I’m more or less free of the fear of eating.
Getting back to the positive way the Chef has changed my life, I’d have to go back to sometime during the fall of 1985. I had just turned eight and was just starting the third grade. That was an interesting time for me because we’d just moved from Tampa to Orlando into another super quaint suburb of Florida and all of a sudden the scope of my world had grown exponentially. For the first time I was allowed to leave the neighborhood so that I could ride my bike the mile and change to my elementary school. I started earning an allowance and found myself “flush” with five bucks a week at a time when most of the stuff I wanted cost between $0.25 and $1.99. And it was around this time that my parents decided to trust me to use the stove top burners to “cook” my own lunches when I got home from school and on the weekends. Now I use the term cook lightly here because all I was really doing was heating up junk that I dumped out of a can into a saucepot (almost exclusively Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli), but this was an important step for me at an age when I was being seduced by the siren call of fast food. Granted, I was still eating a form of fast food, but it was a form that I had to “cook”. It took a modicum of effort and got me comfortable with using a stove and making stuff for myself.
This is most likely what urged my mother to buy me a copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls that same year, which seriously upped my game in the kitchen (well, if making hot dog pizza and eggs baked in bologna cups game changers.) By the time I was in my late teens I was regularly cooking for myself at a time when none of my friends were willing to do much more than nuking their lukewarm chicken McNuggets in the microwave. It seems like such a trivial thing, but when I think back on it, having the freedom to cook my own mini raviolis was the catalyst that has led me to being as competent as I am in the kitchen today.
In a lot of ways, for good or for ill, Chef Boyardee really is part of my DNA. When I’m in the mood for comfort, when I seriously want to time travel back to the eighties, all I have to do is crack open a can, heat it up and with the first spoonful I’m instantly 30 years younger in a way that watching cartoons, reading old kid’s books, or playing around with my vintage toys can never unlock.