Arizona was a great place to grow up during the 1960s and 1970s. It was there and then that I made my first attempts to understand what it means to be a human being. I was young and often nervous, but I was smart and, most of the time, I paid attention to what was going on around me.

Lots of things remind me of those years, some good, some not so good. Oddly, though, as I look back, three of the things that speak most loudly to me about the kid I was and the man I have become are Cheez Whiz, fish sticks and Tang.

When we were young, my siblings and I somehow latched onto the notion that all cheese was derived from Cheez Whiz. It really was close to being the perfect food. Put it on celery: health food. Put it on a barbeque potato chip: a tasty side dish. Put it directly on your tongue: fast food. My brother and I once slathered it between two pieces of waxed paper and put it in the freezer over night. We were sure that was the secret recipe for Kraft singles. It wasn’t. Still, if you had asked me when I was 10 if I liked cheese, I would have said, “You bet.”

I’m not sure why, but we never tried Cheez Whiz on burgers or Salisbury steak. We certainly had ample opportunities to do so since my Dad was a devout carnivore.

Even though there were little drawings of fish on the Fridays in Lent on the Catholic calendars we got from the local mortuary, we ate cheese pizzas on those days when we had to dutifully forego meat. We seldom had fish for dinner. When we did, fish meant one thing: fish sticks. The jumbo-sized Safeway brand, 48 to a box. We loved them.

Like any self-respecting children of the Space Age, we washed down our Cheez Whiz and fish sticks with Tang. A pale orange power to which you simply added water and stirred, Tang, we believed, was what Neil Armstrong drank just before he took that one giant leap for mankind. It was pretty nasty stuff, but we drank it anyway. My little brother couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say “Tang.” He dubbed it orange juice, and for the rest of my childhood, orange juice meant Tang.

In high school, my horizons expanded a little. I tried brie at dinner before the prom. Disgusting, but you could choke it down with the right combination of French bread and Dr Pepper. One weekend, my mom daringly brought home cans of frozen orange juice. Safeway brand, three cans for a dollar. We tried it, but decided to stick with the Tang. As for fish, well, it would take more than high school to expand that horizon.

So, I began my freshman year at Georgetown pretty much convinced that a steady fare of Cheez Whiz, Tang and the occasional fish stick was good living.

Late in my freshman year, I found myself at a downtown restaurant, eating dinner with my roommate and his parents. The place was dark and plush, a womb of mahogany, leaded glass and potted ferns. After dinner, the waitress brought a tray with blue cheese, slices of fresh pear and little glasses of what I now know was port.

The tray was passed around; I waved it off. There was no way that so-called cheese was getting anywhere near my nose, much less my mouth. My hosts insisted, “You like Stilton, don’t you?” I could tell from the tone that the right answer was, “Yes.” Under pressure, I caved. News flash: Cheez Whiz is great, but Stilton? Well, let’s just say that that night I learned what God eats after dinner.

Not long after that epiphanic meal, a friend introduced me to what he called “freshly slaughtered orange juice” at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. Ten 1980 dollars for a small glass. Sublime. I never looked at Tang the same way again.

By the time I graduated, sea bass, red snapper, rock fish, even cuttlefish and soft shell crabs had convinced me that fish sticks were, well, not all I had thought them to be.

Stilton, sea bass and freshly squeezed Breakers OJ. Georgetown helped me make that leap, and for that I am genuinely grateful. But my deepest gratitude is reserved for the part of Georgetown that refused to let me settle for the Cheez Whiz, fish sticks and Tang of my inner life.

“All religions are basically the same and shouldn’t really be talked about much since faith is, after all, a matter between me and God.” That would be spiritual Cheez Whiz.

“My college degree is about lining myself up for a job or a graduate program of some sort. My GPA and résumé are my first priority.” That would be educational fish sticks.

“Love and justice and all that trendy lefty stuff sounds nice, but what really matters is who you know and how you parlay that knowledge into something that actually counts.” That would be vocational Tang.

Now, I wouldn’t have starved or died of thirst if I had chosen to live on Cheez Whiz, fish sticks and Tang. But Georgetown invited me to something better. “Pull up a chair,” she said, “and learn what being human is all about.” Now that’s what I call good eating.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is an assistant dean for Georgetown College. He can be reached at rjm27georgetown.edu. This is this semester’s last installment of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT ., with Fr. Maher and Fr. James Schall, S.J., alternating as writers.

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