Feb 10, 2021–A cousin compiling a family cookbook has been soliciting recipes. It got me thinking about the ways as kids we hacked food.

The mother of most of our food inventions was literally our mother. Parents were forever trying to get us to eat nasty green things. On that short list would be brussels sprouts, cooked spinach, and lima beans. I couldn’t stand canned green peas. The mushy centers combined with the tough skins and RoseArt crayon yellow-green color scheme never failed to trigger my gag reflex.

But the resourcefulness of kids never naps. I soon learned that if I took a forkful of mashed potatoes and pressed them into the sea of peas on my plate, it created a tasty aggregate of peas embedded in a fluffy potato-y matrix. Each vegetable improved the other. Especially covered in gravy. To this day I can only eat peas when perched next to mashed potatoes.

This didn’t work for brussels sprouts or broccoli. There wasn’t a pile of potatoes high enough to disguise their bitter flavor. So, like building up resistance to an allergy, I exposed myself gradually to them one sprout at a time until I could stomach a Suggested Serving.

At least “bitter” is a flavor. Unlike eggplant and beets, whose main flavor profile is “purple tofu.” The only way to ingest them is to do it while thinking about something else, like getting a smallpox vaccination.

Some food hacks we learned from our elders. Every meal, Grandpa Cupp held a slice of white bread, spread with butter and Grandma Cupp’s homemade apple jelly from the tree in the yard. He used it as an eating utensil, pushing food up against it, for sopping gravy, and as a palate cleanser between courses.

I copied his technique, but it lost its flavor literally when we lost access to Grandma’s apple tree jelly.

More kid food hacks:

Sugar-Cinnamon toast
Every kid discovers this independently. Sprinkling toast liberally with cinnamon and sugar not only imparts a delicious, unexpected flavor, it always makes a large mess on the kitchen counter which is a bonus for every boy.

Chocolate Chips
Adding chocolate chips to anything instantly improves it. Oatmeal, pancakes, any kind of cookie, on toast, or straight from the bag. Mom started hiding them behind the baking powder in the grandma cupboard, but adults cannot hide anything from a 12-year-old boy.

Or as we Midwesterners call it, frosting. It was alchemy when my sister showed me how to make frosting–powdered sugar, butter, and milk was all that was needed. Of course I added cocoa. This concoction was made for spreading on graham crackers, or even plain crackers in a pinch.

Speaking of cocoa, we were not one of those families that bought Nestle’s Quik or any other prefabricated cocoa mix. So I learned early how to make my own. I still remember mixing a slurry of granulated sugar, cocoa powder, boiling water, and salt in the bottom of a tall tin glass (remember those lip-slicing crucibles?), then topping it off with a column of cold milk for a refreshing drink. It tasted most delicious when sucked through a used paper straw we smuggled home from the school lunch room.

Another candy hack we felt we invented was the frozen candy bar. Buy a candy bar (Snickers and Milky Way worked best), jam a used popsicle stick in one end, and freeze. It was the same as eating a raw Snickers, but freezing it made it last longer. I remember my annoyance when I found local grocers began making and selling these next to the push-pops, for a nickel more.

I’ll end this column with a recipe I believe we invented as kids.

Homemade M&M Candy Bar


1 bag regular-sized Plain M&Ms

1 12-year-old child*

Place M&Ms (still in bag) in back pocket of child. Let him or her resume regular activities on a typical Midwest summer day.

Around mid-afternoon, remove bag of now smushed M&Ms and place in freezer.

After supper, remove bag from freezer, peel off wrapper, and enjoy!**

*If 12-year-old child not available, act like one.

**To double recipe, place a bag in both back pockets.

In truth, those frozen candy bars were a rare treat. It’s not that we couldn’t afford them.

It’s because no 12-year-old boy is able to pass up eating a candy bar held in his hand rather than waiting for it to freeze.