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What Was Your Earliest Independent Chowhounding Experience?

I don't know why this popped into my head, but I was just thinking about what I realized were my earliest independent Chowhounding experiences. It was in the late 80s, before Chowhound even existed, but the same motivations that I have now for expanding my culinary horizons started bubbling up on the annual trips my junior high school's band took to Boston, to perform a few songs, to catch a Red Sox game at Fenway, to experience the awesomeness that was John Williams and the Boston Pops, and to explore, for a few glorious hours, the variety of food stalls and restaurants at Quincy Market.

Of course as an adult I know Quincy Market is a big tourist trap and much more Chow-worthy places may be found all over the greater Boston area, but for a seventh grader like myself, with my first real taste of freedom, it was incredible. I remember going from stall to stall, trying the hot dolma with the ground meat from the Greek place (Mykonos Fair, I presume, now Steve's Greek Cuisine?!), skewers of bacon-wrapped scallops, raw oysters and littlenecks on the half shell, clear cola (I think by Clearly Canadian) way before Crystal Pepsi was introduced. At one point, my one sushi-loving friend and I even ventured up to the second level of one of the outer buildings that had a sushi restaurant, and we ate sushi at the bar (I'm remembering having saba and ikura, probably because of their bold flavors). I blew pretty much all the money I brought on food at Quincy Market, and I couldn't wait to do it again!

If that wasn't a sign true proto-Chowhounder, I'm sure this would qualify: I knew our school band would be coming back the following year, when I was in eighth grade, and during the time in between I would occasionally start daydreaming about trying the foods I saw at Quincy Market that I didn't get a chance to try the first time, and planning how best to optimize my exploration of the various food options now that I had more familiarity with the place... :-)

So, now it's your turn... What, my fellow Chowhounders, were your earliest independent Chowhounding experiences (i.e., not a place or food that your family or friends introduced you to, but an experience that you made or discovered yourself)?

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  1. Peter....bizarrely, mine was at Quincy Market/Faneuil Hall too.

    Back in the 80's there was a food stall there where a dude who looked like Eddy Grant (at least that's who was manning it the times I went) would deftly select a ripe pineapple from a stack of fresh ones he had, machete you a big, thick juicy and pristine spear of it (I swear it was a big and long as my forearm), put it on a wooden skewer and off you went.

    First time I had ever tasted non-canned pineapple was back then, in 8th grade, on a field trip. What an epiphany.

    1 Reply
    1. re: pinehurst

      That's pretty funny, that it was at the same place. I think I remember that food stall with the pineapple!

    2. I can think of two things: one was begging to be sent to cooking classes from age 6 on; the other was when on my 7th birthday I asked to go to a Middle-Eastern restaurant and my folks had zero idea why I was interested in that, since they were unadventurous, but they took me and it was great; the start of a lifelong love affair with different ethnic foods.

      1. My memories are a bit more pedestrian. The hot donuts from the automatic donut maker at Marshall Fields. A Coney Island dog from the local guy across the street. I do remember being so proud of having my own money!

        1. This is ho-hum now, but going to a Benihana's in Los Angeles in the early 1970s helped to set me up for a culinary journey. It was so different from anything I'd experienced before, on several levels.

          1. Making a triple-decker Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich.

            I thought it was genius. Still kind of do. But now I realize I'm not original.

            1. I was around ten years old, and I was working with my dad at a customer's home doing some type of construction work. The laborer on the job there asked me if I could go and pick him up a 40-ounce of malt liquor (Olde English "800", IIRC) at the local deli. So I did. While there, I had to buy myself *something*, but I had limited funds being I was only ten. So, I opted to buy the cheapest thing on the menu ... olive loaf on white bread with mayo for $1.50. That was probably my earliest Chowhounding "independent" experience. At the time, the sandwich was tasty as heck, but NOW present-day, I really wouldn't know. I also remember the 40-ounce being kinda big and heavy.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Cheese Boy

                Ah, back in the days when kids could go into a store and buy smokes and booze for their parents...

                1. re: PeterCC

                  PeterCC, I'd pick up Kents for dad, two packs for a dollar, and the laborer's 40-ounce was sixty or eighty cents.

              2. I was about 10 and my father took our family to Ponderosa Steakhouse. He ordered the steaks to be cooked well, our usual. Somewhere, I guess on tv, I heard that steak should be ordered medium, so I quietly peeped up and asked mine to be cooked medium. I remember my mother and father telling me that I wasn't going to like it and that if I didn't finish it, I would not be coming back. I can still see the pink/red juices pooling in the plate when I cut into the steak and hear my sister making puking sounds when she saw it. I ate the entire steak, and it was medium from then on.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Vidute

                  Holy cow- what fortitude you had to continue in the face of that gagging greek chorus. I used to go to dinner at soej really nice places, with the mother of my bf at the time, sshe had some really good accounts and i cringe when I think of us ordering Tounedos of beef wel done, etc.- and prime rib end cuts. At some point i realized that I preferred medium rare, and I hope nobody remembers me from the old days (not likely, I was never a local superstar :-) )

                  1. re: EWSflash

                    I'm still the only one of my family that doesn't eat well-done. Although I have converted my younger nephew to the enlightened side. I had taken him out to dinner and per our dining out ritual, he had to try something he'd never had before. So, he chose a taste of my steak. He wound up eating my medium rare filet while I got stuck with his well-done shoe leather, er, sirloin. sigh.... :) He hasn't eaten well done since.

                2. My first independent experience was quite minor in scope, since I only had a couple of dollars to spend; our Scout troop was on a field trip to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, and at lunchtime we went to the cafeteria there. One of the plates offered was a lamb chop, which I'd read about but never eaten, and it was well within my budget. Well, it may not have been a fabulous lamb chop (and it was accompanied by a blob of truly ghastly mint jelly), but I found it new, exciting and delicious. I've told this a few times on various CH Boards, but when I got home I asked my mom why we never had lamb, and she told me Dad had had some really vile mutton in the Army, and wouldn't allow any sheep-based food products of any sort in the house. Since he died in 1959 the Owen family has more than made up its lamb deficit …

                  1. I think I was born a Chowhound, and loved to cook before I could even reach the countertops. My mother was a creative, great scratch cook and we entertained many international visitors in our home when I was growing up and ate what I thought was a wide variety of foods and cuisine's relative to most households for the 70's - at least compared to my friends...

                    One summer, when I was 14, my family had the good fortune to accompany my father on an extended business trip around Europe. We spent a couple of weeks living in Vevey, Switzerland where my dad was teaching. One night, we met some friends of my parents, a wealthy Swiss couple, who took us out to a beautiful fancy hotel on the lake in Lausanne.

                    We sat out on the terrace, at a lovely table all formal with starched white linen, sliver and crystal. I remember the menu was enormous with very fancy lettering. I don't recall if was translated to English, or our hosts translated for us, but as a budding foody, I was wanting something interesting. I ordered a lamb curry dish knowing I liked lamb (but very unfamiliar with Indian food at this point in my life).

                    I remember being SHOCKED when the formally-jacketed waiter set down a large wide china bowl in front of me with a BRIGHT GREEN mixture in it!

                    I must have visibly grimaced, as my father lightly kicked me under the table, and muttered under his breathe 'you ordered it - you eat it!".

                    I did, and of course it was delicious. He and I still laugh about that memory from time to time to this day!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: gingershelley

                      This is great. I wish there was a "like" key.

                      1. re: mamachef

                        Me to Marci... always hoping for the addition of the 'like' button, or some chow-worthy similar term!

                      2. re: gingershelley

                        I was probably born a Chowhound, but I come from a family of food-focused folk on both sides. I don't have any independent baking/cooking memories before age 10, but I do remember baking gingerbread houses when I was 4, and baking cornbread in JK. I roasted a duck when I was 10 or 11, and I remember planning a Chinese take-out meal for one of my birthday parties in grade school.

                      3. I found your question really interesting. Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay area, feasts picking spice coated crabs, clamming with our toes, oysters raked by my cousin's friend -- that is so normal, but it would be an awesome experience for others (and still for me).

                        My dad ventured into a few meals inspired by the Galloping Gourmet back in the day, but most of our meals were basic. When I wanted to explore, I did the Julia, Claiborne, Franey cookbooks and was inspired.

                        But, when I really was shown what was possible was when I had my first "curry" visiting my first time in the UK. I had never had Indian food before. That was truly when I realized that there was a world I didn't know. My first chowish moment was UK Indian food.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Terrie H.

                          Thank you for reminding me of this ... 'clamming with our toes'.
                          Great reward, but wow was that always a yucky muddy bottom.

                          1. re: Cheese Boy

                            We would row out a bit and then walk alongside the boat and throw the clams in. My undoing was when I stepped on a flounder (or whatever the flat fish was -- I'm going with flounder). I was in that boat so fast... I was probably 10, but I'll never forget.

                          2. re: Terrie H.

                            Another epiphany was when I visited a former roommate who'd moved to Alaska. The LOCAL king crab in the '70s, and the razor clams, and the fresh red salmon (caught that same day)- never mind the halibut we caught. It was an epiphany because I didn't think I liked seafood, living as I did in Arizona!

                          3. My first bar pie (pizza) at a childhood friends family restaurant. First time I learned what thin crust with char was...how a pizza was made...how the sauce was made ahead...how the pizza was sliced...oh and that oven! boy. did that hold my attention....and while it wasn't my first pizza it was the ONE that got me crazy in the head about homemade pizza making!

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: HillJ

                              Very nice, HillJ - I bet that was one BIG oven if you were young....

                              1. re: gingershelley

                                As I recall it, I was sitting on a bar stool all of 7 years old and I could feel the heat off that oven all over my face. I was gobsmacked and in love, forever.

                            2. I dont' know if this exactly counts, because I was accompanied by a family member (I was only 8!). It was also at Quincy Market, and I was up there visiting an Aunt who lived in Wellesley at the time. She took me there and told me I could pick anything I wanted for dinner. She showed me the pizza place, the pretzel place.... and what do I do? I pick the twin lobsters and go to town! She was amazed, and said I ate them just like my grandmother.... everything but the actual shell! So yummy...

                              1. I travelled to Quebec City with my French class when I was in high school. I don't know which restaurant we went to, but we must have had a set menu that included filet mignon. it was the first time I had ever tasted wine in cooking (a reduction sauce). The rich taste, the incredibly tender meat -- cooked to my specification, which would have been the medium rare I grew up with -- the formal atmosphere of the restaurant (nothing like that in rural N.S.) -- it's all so clear in my mind, even almost 40 years later. That was when I became a food tourist!

                                1. Mine go back to about 1956, when my parents took me to Galatoire's in New Orleans. We lived in MS, and took the train to the City, for shopping, etc., and then went to Galatoire's. That was both a learning experience, and a culinary catharsis, at least for me.


                                  1. From an early age my family went to italian, mexican, and chinese restaurants. Took a trip to Mexico with cousins, but that was not an adventurous family, although I still remember my first fresh tortilla. When I learned to drive my friends and I would go out, but mostly to the same kinds of places my / our parents went. One of my friends families put kim chee on their hot dogs, that was pretty good.

                                    Finally on Senior Prom night my date and I went to a new kind of Chinese, at the Mandarin in Ghriardelli Square in San Francisco. Until it opened about the only chinese food in northern California was Cantonese. I had seen and heard about the Mandarin (spicy Chinese.. what a concept) and my date and I had a great meal. I have no idea what we ate, I'm sure we had a beef dish, a chicken dish, probably soup, and definitely noodles. Really really good.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                      "From an early age my family went to italian, mexican, and chinese restaurants. Took a trip to Mexico with cousins, but that was not an adventurous family"

                                      Growing up on the MS Gulf Coast, we had nothing like that. The best that we could do was to take the train to New Orleans, and dine there, at what I now call the "Grand Dames" of NOLA cuisine.

                                      I was about 17, before I first tasted Mexican fare, and about the same age for Chinese. Before, I only knew what came in a can, or as a frozen dinner.


                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        As a family we never ate at the "Grand Dames" of San Francisco, although I do remember one dinner at the "Empress of China", the best known/upscale Chinese restaurant in The City at the time. Far more often it was at the Far East Cafe. I think I was in my 20's or 30's the first time I ate at a fine dining restaurant.

                                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                                          In my case, as it was basically the parent's day/night out, my mother chose the restaurant, and my father spent the day at the Fairgrounds with the horses. I would go with one, or the other. My mother would shop, basically on Canal St., and then we'd all meet up at Galatoire's, Antoine's, Arnaud's or Brennens for dinner. Then, we'd cab to Union Station for the train back to the Coast. While the MS Gulf Coast had some good food, my mother always wanted a "white linen tablecloth experience," where she could wear her hats. We did not have that on the Coast, so it was on the trips to NOLA, that she got, what she wanted.


                                    2. I was about eleven. My family and I were living on a sail boat near San Remo, Italy. We went out to dinner at a little family run restaurant that was actually in a cave. We had a number of traditional Italian courses and it took hours to eat.....it seemed that way at the time. I've never had a better meal since. The experience was what started me off into a life time of cooking and creating and enjoying food.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: Puffin3

                                        What a great youth memory - and how cool of your parents to have you living on a sailboat in Italy! Bravo!

                                        1. re: gingershelley

                                          Technically the boat was moored in a little fishing village in France near Nice.

                                        2. re: Puffin3

                                          This is where I wish there was a "like" feature -- it is so lovely to imagine.

                                        3. I guess the first time was to satisfy a craving. I really wanted baklava. There was a Greek community in the northern part of the county. I got on my bike and started peddling. I had been there many times on car trips and didn't really consider how long it might take by bike. It was 18 miles from home, 36 miles round trip. I was 11. My mother hit the roof when I had to explain why I was late for dinner. The bike was confiscated for 6 months and I was put on restrictions for a month.

                                          It was worth it!

                                          The next experience which comes to mind was my discovery of the world of cheese at 16. I was working in a mall. Each Friday I would cash my check at the bank in the center of the mall. On the way back to work I passed by a Hickory Farms. I thought the place smelled like heaven. I had never seen such a variety of cheese and was intrigued by the unusual names. One of the employees must have noticed my frequent visits and began offering me little samples and making suggestions. I started to purchase a different cheese each week. The HR person at work eventually tracked me down as the person putting stinky cheese in the break room fridge and I was banned from that. I just budgeted my cheese allotment and bought a small amount daily and ate it for dinner!

                                          10 Replies
                                          1. re: meatn3

                                            Ah...the freedom a bike provided.

                                            And, too bad Hickory Farms didn't sell Epoisses or Limberger. That HR person would have really learned what a "stinky cheese" was. :)

                                            1. re: Vidute

                                              They did sell Limberger - that was the first time I had seen it! Hickory Farm at that time (mid '70's) had a much, much larger array of offerings than they do now. I think the last time I saw a HF was as a mall kiosk with limited holiday assortments.

                                              I rode that bike everywhere. Felt like I was fast as the wind!

                                              1. re: meatn3

                                                Meatn3, can you cover 18 miles in an hour (at eleven years old)?
                                                I was wondering how long the trip took you one way.
                                                Leave the math to me after that. ... GREAT story.

                                                1. re: Cheese Boy

                                                  Well, it was in Florida so most of it was quite flat. I'm pretty sure it took me over an hour, especially since I was late for dinner. Being home on time for dinner was huge - so I wouldn't have attempted the ride at 3 pm. I suspect I left around 1 and was back by 6. There was a church midway that had an outdoor water fountain and I took a rest stop there both ways. I also stopped and snooped around the fence at a retirement facility for old circus apes! It probably took me 20 minutes to decide which bakery to buy from and then I wandered around the sponge docks for a good half hour.
                                                  Perhaps a 10-11 mph? I was just craving - not particularly athletic!

                                                  That area has grown so dense that biking the same route now would kill you just with exhaust fumes!

                                                  1. re: meatn3

                                                    That truly was a great experience. "Hey, mom. Sorry I'm late for dinner but I had to stop and visit the apes."

                                                    I can see why they took the bike away. Your wonderlust and curiosity drove you!

                                                    1. re: Vidute

                                                      I didn't mention the apes! There was a lot of wariness about carnies at that time and in that area - I'd probably still be on restrictions.


                                                      1. re: meatn3

                                                        Dang- what an interesting childhood. I would never have been allowed to bike or walk or anything far from home because my mother had a phobic response to worrying. Limited the hell out of my childhood. DH tells me about biking along the canals in the Phoenix area when he was a kid- of course he was the 4th of five kids, the parental boundaries may have relaxed by then, but MIL is a much more normal human than my parents were.

                                                        1. re: EWSflash

                                                          Did not know the bike paths in PHX, until decades later, but we'd often bike 15 - 20 miles on the Gulf Coast, and did Gulfport to Biloxi (24 round-trip) several times. However, as there were no bike paths, and one could not ride too far, even on the wet sand on the beach, it took all day.


                                                        2. re: meatn3

                                                          I think the wariness regarding carnies is still around. Their reputation has improved although we trust them with our health and lives when we get on an amusement ride.

                                                          Nice article. The Noells have big hearts.

                                                      2. re: meatn3

                                                        Okay then, about 11 mph. Pretty good for an 11 year old.
                                                        I thought you might have been a Lance Armstrong of some type.

                                              2. I think my earliest "independent" Chowhounding experience was not nearly as great as being allowed to roam freely among food stalls! But I remember traveling with my family on vacation, when I was perhaps 12, and discovering Chef's salads. I kept ordering them for lunch, even though my family thought I was nuts. I loved all the proteins arrange so prettily on the iceberg, and I loved the fancy crackers you got along with the salad. I still love a good salad, and I still like a chef's salad with a little blue cheese dressing on the side.

                                                1. In a really strange way, I have Richard Nixon to thank for my Chow-hood. Shortly after the thaw in relations with China began early in the 70s, Schezwan Chinese restaurants started slowly making their way into Wisconsin [a place called Peking Garden opened up in an old Big Boy!].

                                                  And I suddenly discovered that there was much more to Chinese food than chop suey and chow mein.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Fydeaux

                                                    I wish there was a Like button just for this post.

                                                    1. re: Fydeaux

                                                      This is an interesting point which few seem to be aware of. That thaw in relations had huge impacts in the US restaurant world.

                                                    2. Early '50s by myself, age 6, sitting at the counter of Ray's Drugstore in East Oakland having a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

                                                      1. We always ate well but unadventurously in our family, and I was a picky eater.
                                                        My high school had a Grade 13 trip to Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia that I went on. From freezing cold late March London, Ont. to Rome, where we were served pasta with a very nice meat sauce and a meat course I don't remember, and dessert was blood oranges from Morocco. I had heard about them (had been interested in food for a good bit, Gourmet subscriber for 2 years previous) but none of my classmates had, so I ate mine and scored a whole bunch more for later. And they gave us Valpolicella with it, and Soave (a bit frizzante) with other meals.
                                                        Part of the trip was on a Greek tourist ship that left from Ancona. Some of us had lunch in the restaurant beside the vessel, and the special was fritto misto. Oh boy, so fun to eat.
                                                        Even the food on the ship (populated by Canadian highschoolers and elderly British holidaymakers, who I'm sure were delighted to see all of us) was great, my first exposure to Greek olives, octopus, etc etc...) and retsina, which I had already had back home courtesy of a dishy Greek-Canadian boyfriend.
                                                        One standout memory was eating a hot tyropitta acquired from a bakery on one of our shore excursions on board a launch taking us back to the ship.
                                                        The sky's been the limit ever since.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: buttertart

                                                          Wow, that sounds like an amazing experience! Is grade 13 in Canada the same as senior year (grade 12) in the states?

                                                          1. re: kubasd

                                                            It was heaven. At the time at least, it was the last year of high school (college prep) in Ontario. (It dated from the Depression -- not that I do -- when the government established it essentially to keep people out of the workforce an additional year.)

                                                            1. re: kubasd

                                                              Grade 13 was the senior year in Ontario until around 2002 when it was officially phased out, to save the province money. Quebec has a different system, with CEGEP starting after Grade 11. The other 8 provinces have always had a 12 year school programme, afaik.

                                                              1. re: prima

                                                                You could graduate from Grade 12 but you couldn't go to university.

                                                          2. When I was 12 I decided to start a vending machine empire, and bought a gumball machine to start. I needed a license from the country to operate it, so I took the bus downtown to get it. After I had the certificate in hand, I went across the street from the county courthouse to a Chinese restaurant and spent 60 cents for a plate of chow mein for lunch. This was around 1966. At the time, I loved Chinese food and this was my chance to go it alone in a real restaurant, rather than eat take-out from paper cartons at home. I still have that thrilling memory. About seven years later, non-Cantonese food (Mandarin, Sichuan) came to town and I never looked back.

                                                            1. I love this thread!
                                                              I was 10 or 11 when I went on one of those cheesy resort vacations in Jamaica with my grandparents. They did the typical older-folks thing and ate in the American style food in the hotel restaurants every night, but I was obsessed with the wonderful smelling chicken that a guy was selling out of the half-barrel style grill a bit down the road.
                                                              I told the g's I'd rather go play than sit down to dinner, then coerced the concierge into helping me get some of that chicken. He was very nice, and a phone call or two and a five spot later, I was very happily chowing down on that spicy, succulent chicken in the lobby. My love affair with street food was officially born.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. I was 17, looked 14, but would walk into a tiny Somerville jug shop a few blocks from Harvard Square and buy a six pack of Bass Ale or Guiness and the biggest slice of goat cheese, usually Montrachet, I could afford.