So Where Did It All Begin?
March 18, 2011
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where my interest in food and cooking has come from. I was watching an episode of Top Chef the other night and it seemed that nearly every contestant on that show grew up helping their grandmother make swedish meatballs when they were six years old, or they were influenced by their Italian cook of a mother, or their uncle owned a restaurant where they bussed tables as soon as they could walk. The whole time I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that I’ve never really had an Ah Ha! moment where the light bulb went off and I knew that THIS was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Frankly, I have a lot of interests and as I’ve gotten a bit older, it’s been much easier to embrace that about myself. But when I’m honest, I can’t help but see that I keep coming back to food no matter what path I’m on. But what is it about food and me personally? I’m aware that there are a million food blogs out there and it’s all very hip and trendy right now to be “into food,” and if I’ve learned anything about myself throughout the course of my life, it’s that I don’t like to be thrown in with the masses. Which is probably why it’s been difficult to fully embrace what it is I love about cooking and eating, I fear being thought of as just another foodie with a camera and a blog.
So in an interesting coincidence, I recently met up with a woman in my neighborhood who is working on a project relating to people’s memories of food and cooking and she’s interested in having me take some portraits of the participants. She’s still in the very beginning stages of the project and is working on the types of questions she wants to ask, and last week she sent me the first draft asking if I wouldn’t mind taking some time to answer them, to see if she’s on the right path. So that’s what I’ve been doing all morning and it’s been a really interesting process having to actually think specifically about some of these things that have been rolling through my mind lately. And I thought, what the hell, I am a foodie with a blog so I might as well post them up here.
1. Tell me about your favorite memory with food.
One of my favorite food memories is eating Lemon Italian Ice on the Jersey Shore when I was young. I’d nearly forgotten about that memory until last summer when I had a dish of Izzy’s Lemon Italian Ice at the East Nashville Farmers Market and all of a sudden I was seven years old again, sitting on my grandparents screened in porch in Spring Lake, probably working on a giant puzzle, a paper cup of Luigi’s Lemon Italian Ice in my hand. I loved that refreshing citrusy kick especially after a long day of lying on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Even though you could buy it at pretty much any grocery store, I only ever ate italian ice when I was in New Jersey.
2. Do you have any family traditions based around food?
I always loved St. Patrick’s Day at my house. My dad would play Irish music all day, my mom would make Irish Soda Bread and jello in the colors of the Irish flag, orange on the bottom, white gelatin in the middle and green on top. Then we’d eat corned beef and boiled cabbage and potatoes for dinner. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of the corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, but I have since grown to love it’s simplicity, and saltiness. When I look back, the thing I think I love the most about it is that the meal never ever changed. Every year it was exactly the same, and still is to this day, and there’s something lovely about having a reliable food memory that continues well into adulthood. Eventually, when we have a little more space to have people over, I’m going to start the tradition again. For now though, without fail I always make Irish Soda bread, which I did yesterday since it was St. Patty’s Day, and it tasted exactly as I remembered.
3. What is your favorite food/meal?
For a while now my favorite food has been mango. I love it’s diversity, that it can be prepared in a hundred different ways, and it’s refreshing sticky sweetness. But after moving to the south last year, my new favorite to add to the list is Benton’s Country Ham. Country ham does not really exist in the north, or at least it didn’t when I was growing up and I was never a huge fan of the Honey Baked Ham that we had every year on Christmas and Easter. But Drew and I went on a tour of Benton’s last fall and then camped out that night and cooked up some of the country ham in a cast iron skillet on a coleman stove and ate it while sitting around the campfire. That crispy meaty saltiness was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. I’ve tried a couple other country hams since, but Benton’s is by far the best.
4. What was your favorite food/meal growing up?
Even though I don’t really like baking all that much and I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, my favorite thing growing up was when I’d come home from school and my mom would’ve baked her Triple Layer Brownies or Monster Cookies. It wasn’t a super regular occurance so when it did happen, it felt really special. And it was always a surprise and I liked that about it. And hands down the birthday cakes she would make for us when we were young were pretty amazing. She used to make a doll cake where she’d cook a cake in a bundt pan, put the top of a plastic doll on top and decorate the cake like a frilly dress. They were pretty impressive and as always, tasted really decicious. Oh, and her cocoa cake….I could go on and on.
5. How did you learn how to cook?
My mom was pretty ingenious when it came to having to cook for six people everyday of the week. I think I was pretty young, maybe seven or eight years old, when she came up with the idea that each of us kids could cook our favorite meal one night a week and then we wouldn’t have to wash dishes afterwards which was a pretty sweet deal for a family of six with no dishwasher. I have a memory of making homemade macarroni and cheese, but I’m not sure what else I made. I do know that I looked forward to when it was my night to cook. I told my sister Laura a year or so ago that for some reason I remember eating refried beans and white rice all the time growing up, and it was then that she reminded me that when it was her turn to cook each week, that was her masterpiece of choice.
I learned to experiement with cooking when I first met Drew in 2001 when rather than go out for dinner, we’d go get a bunch of ingredients, a bottle of wine and cook at his place. We were both vegetarian at the time and I don’t remember using a cookbook very often, we’d just try things out and see if they worked.
When I was in my mid-twenties I worked at Whole Foods for a year chopping fruit and making salsas and guacamole. I learned a lot about how to properly use a knife, how to combine different peppers to get the right flavor and spiciness and how when you have to perfect amount of citrus in a dish, it brightens everything and makes you more able to taste each ingredient on its own. To this day I love anything with citrus.
After Whole Foods I worked at a cooking school in Saint Paul for a couple years. While my job was mostly in the admin department, I was constantly around foodies and you couldn’t go a single day without talking about food or watching a chef in the kitchen. I learned a lot just from observing. We started having semi-frequent potluck dinner parties and barbecues and it challenged me to think outside the box and try new ideas with my cooking. And when we started to eat meat again, my friends Kimber and Mary would whip up some pretty fantastic meals which set the bar pretty high for me. It was from them that I learned that food should be savored and enjoyed and that decadence is a good thing, and most importantly, that nothing has to be too fussy, it’s simply all about good ingredients and hanging out.
6. What do you enjoy cooking?
I enjoy cooking simple, straighforward dishes that focus on and showcase good ingredients. I love pretty much every recipe out of Fine Cooking magazine, sometimes I think that magazine was created deliberately for me, down to the layout and design of the whole thing. I love making sauces, partly because I like the idea that you can take an unassuming ingredient, like a potato for instance, whip up some green onions, dijon mustard, vinegar and fresh dill, and suddenly it becomes the most delicious thing ever, but also because there’s endless possibilities within the sauce world. And they’re easy. I also love making different kinds of salsas.
7. What are some of your favorite cooking memories with your family or friends?
When we lived in Minneapolis, our friends Kim and Ryan flew out for a visit from Portland. I think it had been over a year since we’d seen each other and I wanted to do it up and have a really delicious barbecue. We had just started eating meat again and I had actually never cooked meat on my own as an adult. So I made this lemongrass braised/grilled chicken drumstick recipe from Fine Cooking that involved searing the legs and braising them in a pot of broth and herbs on top of the grill. It was sort of an involved recipe and I was nervous because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but when it was all said and done, the meat was falling off the bone, so tender and succulent, we all sat there eating, not saying a word, kind of moaning a little bit with each bite it tasted so good.
And I always love planning meals for Christmas with my dad. Every other year we go back to Ann Arbor and in the weeks ahead my dad and I send each other recipes and ideas for what to cook over the holidays. This last year he cooked an amazing roast, we had green beans with shitakes and pancetta, pickled shrimp, smoked salmon with lemon creme fraiche on a salt and pepper potato chip, and so many other delicious dishes that I can’t remember them all. And I love my mom’s applesauce bread for breakfast on Christmas morning.
8. What was the most outrageous (either delicious or experimental) meal you ever cooked?
In 2009 Drew and I lived in Seattle for three months. Since we moved in October we decided we’d just spend Christmas together since it was so soon after we’d moved and we didn’t want to deal with flying back across the country. So we did it up and on Christmas Eve we walked from our apartment down to Pikes Market, bought mussels and trout for our Christmas day feast and crab legs for our Christmas Eve feast. We never had crab legs before and we made some sort of sauce for them, but I can’t remember what it was exactly, spread newspaper out on the coffee table in the living room, opened a bottle of white wine and sat there for an hour sucking the sweet juicy meat out of the legs. That’s a tradition I’d like to keep up. It’s fun to have a holiday meal that’s messy and primal, especially one that kind of blows your mind just how good it all tastes. (photo above)
9. Where did you grow up? What style of cooking did you grow up with?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan as the youngest of four kids. My mom did most of the cooking, or enlisted our help like I mentioned above with giving us each a night to cook. We weren’t a very adventurous cooking family when I was young, everything was pretty simple, even a little bland. I have a memory of my dad putting salt, pepper and hot sauce on everything before he even tasted it. I’d say we were pretty health conscious too, my parents had a healthy skeptisim for all things pre-packaged. But I think it was around the time I went to high school that my dad started to get more into cooking and eventually he and I started to turn Christmas dinner on its head, one year having a Thai Christmas, the next Spanish themed, it was great fun researching recipes. I think I’m pretty much a 50/50 combination when it comes to my dad’s love of delicious food and my mom’s lifelong quest for simplicity in the kitchen.
10. To you, what is most important about food or a meal?
I love the process of cooking. It was my sister Sarah who told me one day that she likes cooking because it helps her relax. I thought about that a lot and recently realized that I feel the exact same way. Now baking, that’s another story, perfect measurements tend to stress me out. But when it comes to cooking, it feels a lot like meditation to me, sometimes my head will be somewhere else and I’ll feel distracted, but when I’m in the groove, I just relax into the process of chopping garlic or peeling carrots or stirring broth into risotto. I don’t like to be rushed when I cook.
As much as I think having good ingredients is a key player in cooking, for me, there’s really nothing better than cooking with people and enjoying a meal together. When I think of visiting friends or family or having them visiting me, my focus is always on what kind of feast we’ll cook together because those tend to be some of the very best times.
I guess I feel skeptical saying that ingredients are the most important thing because not everyone has access to the best, nor can they afford the best either. I love supporting the farmers market and buying directly from growers and I look forward to that type of experience being more accessible to more people, but when it comes down to it, it still isn’t specifically about the ingredient but rather the connection and the relationship you forge with the person growing or raising your food. To me, it’s all about that intimacy, that human interaction, that makes a meal taste even better.