Emilio Villarruel
Emilio Villarruel
Director of Marketing

Breaking Bread: Pretzel Jello

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Breaking Bread: Pretzel Jello

More often than not, there's more to cooking than just the sum of the ingredients. Too often we forget the human element, in this issue of Breaking Bread we explore a childhood life lesson found in an unlikely package.

In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he describes a childhood strikingly absent of culinary interest, spending time in France choosing burgers and sandwiches over the more exotic bouillabaisse or coque au vin - much to his parents’ more cultured chagrin.  Despite, what I hope, is an apparent passion for the subject of food, I’m only recently working my way through Kitchen Confidential, and learning firsthand how Bourdain shaped the way we look at and write about food. Through the lens of Bourdain’s writing, I think of my own journey through food, and how my own childhood pickiness parallels Bourdain’s penchant for drab eats that nearly precluded him from pursuing what would become a culinary passion. 

As I’ve shared before, I was fortunate enough to grow up in Detroit, home to a wide variety of culinary innovations as well as havens of authenticity. As is often the case, we tend to miss what’s right under our noses, and for much of my formative years, I was far more likely to scarf down chili cheese fries at a Coney Island than venture for fried rice, shawarmas, or pierogi readily available nearby.  At around nine years old though, my food journey switched from cruise control to a screeching halt upon encountering an unfamiliar food offering - the likes of which I, due to forces beyond my control, couldn’t refuse. Pacino and Brando of The Godfather reknown would be proud. I was panicked. Looking back now I’m simultaneously amused and appalled.

The setting was a casual barbecue among friends, you know the sort - a hot summer day, stand up charcoal grill with burgers and brats dutifully smoking in the background, stereo playing Summertime, and of course enough Super Soaker squirt guns and shenanigans for a kid like me to entertain himself. The hosts were my older brother’s friends, and though I was the only kid my age, I’d been put through a rigorous curriculum of all things 80’s pop culture from my older brothers - I was equipped to navigate the conversations and references like a pro. At least as much of a pro as a nine-year-old with a keen understanding of Transformers, Silver Hawks, and Thundercats lore could be. To this day I still own a Member’s Only jacket to which I credit the influence of that cultural education. 

Like most kids at barbecues, I was content as could be - all the burgers and hot dogs I could stomach, an endless supply of sugary soft drinks, and I even got to hang out with my brother’s older friends. The soft drink binge-induced hyperactivity and food coma battled it out as light began to slip away and the periwinkle hue of approaching nightfall took its place. With the last remaining, now thoroughly dry, pieces of meat warming over dying charcoal embers and sides thoroughly cleaned out - it was time for dessert.  The dessert hid deceptively in an opaque glass dish under a foil barrier, I remember later regretting declaring that I wanted some once what was inside was revealed. I turned to my brother visibly hesitant, “Uhhhhhh, what’s pretzel jello?” 

Those familiar with pretzel jello may find this entire recollection to be somewhat outlandish, after all,  what kid turns tail at an abundance of sugar, strawberries, whipped cream, cream cheese, and pretzels? This one definitely did. Pretzel Jello, for the uninitiated, can be largely understood as a riff on a cheesecake’s flavor profile - subbing the traditional pie crust for a pretzel crust, with the Jello and fruit as a topping. For me though, seeing the strawberries congealed into the jello evoked images of mortifying fruit in Jello molds, a bizarre concept that elevated neither the jello nor the fruit it imprisoned.  Pretzel crust? The concepts of salty & sweet playing together hadn’t really broken through to me yet. All I could think about was what I imagined to be a weird textured mess of Frankenstein’d fruits, a vague dairy “mush”, and salty pretzels. I gazed at the pretzel jello like I was looking at my last supper. It was apparent. 

If I sound dramatic in my recollection, I assure you that’s because that’s entirely the case. I sat there looking intimidated (by an American dessert of all things mind you), to the point in which my brother took notice in a very pointed way. “Nick’s girlfriend Sherry made us that dessert, you should try it” and while the words themselves sound innocuous enough in print, in person, I wasn’t too young to miss the thinly veiled threat underneath. Nick was my brother’s best friend, and many years later, our companion on many a Las Vegas run remembered only by blackjack, cigars, and shenanigans. In short, I wasn’t going to make this situation any more awkward. Big brothers will big brother afterall. 

Finally, faced with the prospect of potential physical discomfort (at consuming the dessert) and guaranteed physical discomfort (at the alternative), I played the smart card and gave it a shot. It was like a cannonball into a kiddie pool, preparing for a fight with Mike Tyson only to find Bob Ross offering to paint with you instead, balking at a “Beware of Dog” sign only to find an adorable Samoyed puppy behind it -  it wasn’t some revolting assault on my senses it was…it was pretty damn good. I had built up a bugbear, foolishly so. 

The initial takeaway from this was, “Hey, don’t be scared to give more things a shot!” something which I’ve in recent years approached with a renewed - and well rewarded - vigor. The lesson underneath though is something I missed for many years. While my brother succinctly conveyed I was crossing invisible lines of conduct in my very brief anti-pretzel jello protest, it took far longer to eke out a more cohesive understanding. The subtext I only picked up on years later is likely blindingly apparent for most, but in my childhood ignorance, I completely missed that in refusing someone’s homecooked meal I was rejecting a piece of who they are. To cook for someone is a labor of love, from conception to creation to serving. To reject such an offering is in a way silencing their love language. 

Now, full decades later, thankfully my manners and palate have both matured. Admittedly I’ve still turned down the occasional dish or two (snakeskin in Shenzhen comes to mind, though I dutifully ate other dishes in lieu), but my perspective and with it willingness to try new things has changed considerably. When presented with a new item of diverse, exotic, or otherwise “odd” origins I’ve gone down many an unexpected food journey thanks to the introduction of a culinary shaman’s craftwork. I credit a lot of that willingness due to the lessons taught to me in the unlikely form of a pretzel jello.  Try more of what others love, you never know what food or culture you might fall in love with next. Sharing good times with good people over good food, after all, isn’t that what breaking bread is all about?

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