I have been writing food reviews in my head for most of my life. Even as a child I was a foodie, in that I ate for enjoyment, never to gorge and never just as fuel. As I grew older, I spent many happy hours in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother who had two distinctly different repertoires.
My grandmother’s cooking style was simple, down home food- loads of canned veggies, baked meats like ham, fresh caught trout and catfish and references to sticks of Oleo. My grandmother’s house was where a diet plate meant a hamburger patty (sans the bun), cottage cheese and slices of tomato doused in salt and pepper followed by sliced watermelon for dessert (also doused in salt and pepper.) Her mother’s cooking consisted of desserts (my great grandma got meals on wheels delivered to her and with a bum knee she had no need to flex any skills in the savories arena.) She made the most delicious lemon meringue pie, the recipe for which is still a coveted prize in my family (I have it!) Whenever anyone tried their hand at her recipe though, they inevitably failed. Everyone claimed my grandmother was sabotaging the recipe when she gave it out. It was years later (when grocery stores began to carry Meyer Lemons in season) that I realized it was her lemons that made all the difference. She grew her own, in the backyard and none of us realized they were different from those we were buying in the store.
My mother on the other hand, spent mornings copying down recipes from the Today show and would occasionally work these in alongside those from her Betty Crocker cooking manual and more vibrantly daring dishes like eggplant parmigiana. My mother loved to cook and we grew up eating an array of home cooked meals and though she used things like butter flavored shortening, she was one-upping her mother who used lard.
I have many happy memories of hand-cutting egg noodles and hanging them around the kitchen and dining room on noodle drying lines my mother made from yarn strung between two walls for her famous scratch chicken noodle soup with dumplins. I can still remember the smells that filled the house the year my mom decided to go non-traditional and served us Christmas dinner in courses. She set-up our dining room table in the center of the living room so that we would not see what was coming next and served us fresh green salad with ripe garden tomatoes and red onion, French onion soup with crouton and cheese topping and homemade meat lasagna filled with Italian sausage and salami and copious amounts of cheese, bubbling and golden brown. I was 12 years old and my sisters 7 and 6 respectively. We raved about that dinner for years to come.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how limited some children’s food experiences were. My husband (who is from the east coast) tells the story of the first time he was introduced to tacos as a child. It was his eighth birthday and his mother decided to make something new for the special day, she bought a taco kit from the grocery store, you know the kind with the pre-crisped reconstituted corn shells, seasoning packet and “taco sauce” (i.e. glorified ketchup.) He sat down to dinner and full of excitement grabbed the taco from his plate and bit down- right in the center of the taco, to peels of laughter from his parents, who then instructed him on the proper way to eat a taco (end to end.)
I love this story because it’s mind boggling to me. Growing up in California, with a mother who cooked from scratch, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know tacos existed. My mother had an especially deep fondness for Mexican food. She grew up in Los Alamitos and received a great education from the Hispanic mothers in her neighborhood, who taught her how to make homemade tortillas, chili rellanos and tamales- all of which I grew up eating. When my mom made tacos she did so with real corn tortillas fried to perfection (crisp but with a little chew), sometimes using cheddar cheese but sometimes using cojita, and meat flavored with spices bought in clear crinkly bags with brand names like Mojave and El Guapo in the ethnic food aisle (then merely an arm’s width of space displaying hanging bags of Mexican spices and treats from pilconcillo (a solid cone-shaped Mexican brown sugar) to dried Ancho chiles, corn husks and chili powder.) But my favorite Mexican dish of my mother’s was her saucy chicken enchiladas. My sister and I still make her version to this day.
As my mother had done, I moved beyond the palate and repertoire of my mother when I got out on my own. I spent years in semi-vegetarianism and some time veganism (a self-imposed hell for any foodie.) During those years I learned how to use tofu, seitan and any number of meat substitute products on the market in ways that would satisfy my cravings for the real deal. Most vegetarian food lacked luster for me and those years I spent adapting my arsenal to the vegetarian and sometimes exacting vegan standards. The result of that effort was compliments from friends who could not believe that what I was feeding them was meatless. Though I would never go back to vegetarianism, I am grateful to those years for making me a more resourceful cook (less fat means less flavor so one must become better at layering flavors to subtle but delicious effect) and for starting me on my journey back to “real food.”
My mother made many things from scratch but she still used some convenience or cost effective ingredients like the shortening or canned vegetables and there were the few uninspired nights of Hamburger Helper’s tuna noodle casserole. As we grew older and mom’s life became more hectic with teens in the house, she would even pull out a box of potato flakes to whip up some mashed potatoes and top them with jarred gravy for dinner.
When I began to learn more about food, flavors and health, I opted for extra virgin olive oil, fresh vegetables (although occasionally I will use frozen berries, corn or peas) and organics. I delved into new flavor combinations and tried foods I did not grow up with like collard greens, kale, tofu and celeriac.
As my cooking world expanded so did the culinary world outside my home. I moved beyond Mexican, Italian and Chinese (and especially the American versions of these cuisines) to sample authentic Indian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, French, German, Spanish and Japanese. My first bowl of Pho was a golden broth from heaven, cooked all day, the mellowed garlic flavors melding with the vibrant basil, cilantro, jalapeño and green onions, brimming with noodles and thinly sliced chicken. Likewise was my excitement the first time I sampled saffron gilded paella, savory bul go gi with spicy kim chee, bratwursts with spaetzle and sweet and sour red cabbage, salt and peppered squid, Oyako Donburi, escargot with butter and garlic, oysters on the half shell with mignonette and that first dizzying bite of sweet tuna nigiri.
My own weekly cooking menus look something like this: seared steak and arugula salad; cassoulet; Bánh mì and pickled vegetables; shrimp tacos with pineapple salsa (my hubby’s fav); fresh pasta with clams, bacon and greens; Hot Mess Burgers (thick, medium rare organic beef patty topped with jalapeños, habenero and tabasco sauces and cheddar cheese on fresh baked Kaiser rolls) served with parmesan dusted zucchini fries; herbs de provence roasted chicken with lemon risotto and asparagus; and sometimes a down home favorite like tuna gravy over potatoes topped with two eggs over easy. My cooking has progressed so much over the years that even my husband has become a pretty tough customer when dining out. Many times he’ll turn to me afterwards and say, “That was good but you could have made that or something better at home for less.” While this is indeed a great compliment, cooks always love to taste what other chefs are cooking- not only for the break it affords but for inspiration.
My own culinary education is rooted in family and my personal exploration of food, which is true, I think, of most everyone’s relationship with food. It’s filled with warm comforting memories of grandma’s oatmeal raisin cookies kept fresh in a Roman Meal bread bag tied closed and stuffed into a Krispy Crackers box; reminiscing about the six months of tasting my way through Europe I did when I turned 30; my first unforgettable bite of Kitfo; the year I made red velvet and cream cheese frosted “present cakes” (decorated to look like wrapped packages) for Christmas; my nephew’s expression when I handed him a licorice flower planted in a flower pot filled with his dirt and worms birthday cake; my mom making me German chocolate cream pies for six consecutive years during my childhood because I wasn’t too keen on cake and feeling of pride I felt the first time my son (who is now 15 months old) got really excited, squealing and clapping, after his first tastes of Fuul.
All of these kinds of memories are why I am so passionate about food. Food brings us together in a way that few other things do. We all have to eat, so what better way to connect with your partner, your kids, your friends, family and even colleagues than to share a meal. It is the one socially acceptable, yet deeply intimate thing we can do with just about everyone — even within moments of meeting them. This makes me think of something Diana Abu-Jaber says in her book, The Language of Baklava, about her aunt being able to bring about world peace if she was only given the opportunity to make baklava for the United Nations.
I feel Ms. Abu-Jaber’s point is no exaggeration. What if instead of bombs we made meals? Broke bread with our enemies and once we were satiated, our bellies full and endorphins high, only then would we speak about our problems, over dessert. Who can say no to dessert? And who can stay mad when you’re spoon deep in velvety custard drizzled with honey and topped with slivered almonds or when you are licking your fingers, as you chew through the sensual flavors of ground walnuts, phyllo dough, butter and syrup, wafting with cinnamon.
This is why I cook and it’s why I write about food. Because for me, food is like life, you get out of it what you put into it. There are exquisite dishes you will always remember and those you would rather forget but in the end we all must eat to live. If we are here but for a finite time should we not make the most of it? And so quite literally, I live by a quote by Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.”