I think my biggest food influence was my neighborhood when I was growing up. It was outside a steel town where many people had settled down from all parts of the country post-WWII. We had an elderly Italian couple next door who lived (and cooked) in their basement, saving the upstairs for visits from New York City relatives or the priest. They would make tomato pies – pizza dough fried on both sides in large skillets of bubbling olive oil and topped with homemade sauce and fresh mozzarella. Three of their children had homes on the same street.
Across the street was a family from Tennessee, who exposed me to barbecued pork and Dr. Pepper.
On the other side was a Polish family who had moved down from the upstate PA coal mines. Mrs. B would made giant roaster pans of stuffed cabbage and halushki.
A few doors down lived a colored family, as we used to say then. Mr. Q and Mr. McC were always debating the merits of mustardy-vinegar BBQ sauce vs. tomatoey ones, while Mrs. Q pumped out pans of corn bread and corn pudding.
There were some other nationalities present too and in between them all was my family, with a PA Dutch cooking heritage of cherry crumb pies and chicken corn soup.
In those days of unlocked doors 50’s suburbia, the neighbors got together often for potlucks and picnics and that’s how I learned to appreciate all types of food, as long as it was prepared with love and pride.