The need to eat is common to every human on earth and, for most, food is essential to staying live. I like to think that cooks have embraced their own humanity; they've taken a fundamental need and wrangled into the consumption of a passion. Cooking well shares an unfortunate parallel with fuzzy toilet seat covers - a way to take that which we must do and make it a bit more elegant. I find beautiful irony in needing something on a physical level that I also crave on an emotional one.
In exploring food, everyone develops likes and dislikes and the results are as individual as our experiences. However, our preferences can only be based on what we've actually been given the chance to try.
Parents aim to expand the horizons of their children by introducing them to new things. Teaching them a second language, for example, is best done before they've fully grasped the first one. Information tends to "stick" better at an earlier age. Parents gather every conceivable educational device upon which to capitalize on a brain gathering information at blinding speeds. The mantra is "talk to your kids about drugs" and it seems to be working. I don't see a whole lot of kids shooting heroine on their way to school. They are, however, getting fat so clearly they're abusing something. It's ironic to me that something as important as what you put in your body gets ignored. Teach them about food, every day. Hard to say if your child will ever use drugs, but it's pretty much guaranteed that he or she is going to need to eat.
My dad went out of his way to let me try every type of food he could get his hands on. He's not a chef, nor a food writer, and he's not terribly handy in the kitchen. I don't remember him ever sauteing anything, no whisks, no reductions, and certainly no squeeze bottles. In fact, while I'm very appreciative of his enthusiasm for food, I realized I had no idea where it came from. Being of German, Irish, and Scottish decent, his odds of becoming culinarily curious didn't seem very high.
His explorations into food were modest and came in fits and spurts with months elapsing between inspirational strikes. When it did, he would come home with some new vegetable, ingredient, or substance, and in a few cases, a bit of technique, and set up camp in the kitchen. Lacking any cookbooks (that I can recall anyway), he'd follow his own instincts and whatever he learned from watching his mother. He often didn't have a particular goal or dish in mind, it was all about the journey.
In no particular order:
"Halva" - He brought home the sesame version of this eastern Mediterranean and Balkan-region sugary snack, anxious to introduce me to this obscure delicacy. As he described it, there was a familiar focus in his voice combined with a wry grin (a near clone of which I now possess) as he grew more and more certain I was gonna like this stuff. He sliced off two pieces, passed one to me, raised an eyebrow, and leaned back with his own bite awaiting my reaction.
Halva has an odd crystalline texture which feels a bit like a room-temperature popsicle, but surprisingly light and definitely unusual. I nodded in tentative approval. How or when he came across halva in his rather limited travels is beyond me, but my first memories of it were in a trailer park in Kearny, Arizona which would put the year around 1973. I was 7.
Cheese - Dad liked just about every cheese made, as do I thanks to him. In particular, we're fond of cheeses which are, as he likes to put it, "offensive to be in the same room with." My mother, who never wanted anything to do with "cheese that smells like feet", would indeed steer clear of the area.
He also made something one night that he called "cheese" which, as I recall, involved boiling the daylights out of milk. I don't quite remember how all of this worked nor the quality of the result, but standing on a dining room chair to watch, I was mesmerized by the notion of making something to eat out of something you drink.
Mizithra Cheese - I remember this partly because of its sheepy/goaty flavor, but also because of his intentionally-precise pronunciation of it. There weren't many exotic sounding words in my world so the ones that rang of far off lands stood out.
Jicama - A vegetable from the fringe, jicama stands out also because of his strangely Italian pronunciation of it, the "J" serving as a "gi" combination as in "giorno" with an emphasis on the middle syllable.
Home-made Ice cream - The mood would strike once in a while, though seldom enough that the wooden buckets would often have rotted between uses. The inspiration to make a batch usually coincided with his finding a replacement ice cream maker at a garage sale. The details of this process can be found here.
Alchemy - One day he made something that gave me my first glimpse into what home-cooked food can be; he braised mushrooms in red wine. This was, by far, the best thing he'd ever made and it was insanely simple and another example of something you drink becoming something you ate.
While his culinary adventures were somewhat limited, he did manage a few decent restaurants during work events for AT&T. I recall one place he talked about at length with that familiar gleam in his eyes and trademark softer and slower tone in his voice. His recollection was that it was the Top of the Mark (Hopkins hotel), with a large ice sculpture in the center of the room. Even the leftovers (which he brought home to me) had been wrapped in swan-shaped foil. At the time, these were clearly signs of a much bigger dining world.
Victoria Station - A theme restaurant in San Francisco modeled after the Victoria train station in London. As I had no idea where London was at the time, the novelty for me was limited to pieces of the restaurant being made of retired box cars. With reasonably good food and hefty sticker prices, this was reserved for the finest of occasions.
Nantucket Fish Company - Almost directly under the Carquinez bridge near (and slightly over) the water, it's definitely not a place you'd "stumble across". It's otherwise an industrial area with a dirt parking lot and getting to the front door requires crossing two sets of train tracks (which were still in use when I last visited.) Its nearest neighbor is a boat repair shop displaying the aquatic equivalent of cars on blocks. If there's a wait for a table, you can always grab a drink and walk out onto the pier to watch ships of all sizes pass by. While my dad recalls distinctly boats offering a fresh catch to the restaurant, these days, I have a hunch the fish you're eating was in a refrigerated truck more recently than the ocean.
Still, there's a gritty charm about the place. Its obscure location, view of the water, and obvious history are only part of it for him; the other reason is cioppino. This reddish collection of seemingly random oceanic bits was a bit intimidating to me, but the joy of watching the server place a bib on my father was immediate and reliable.
The Crepe Escape - Another of my first and most robust food loves to this day, a sign that there was a much bigger food world out there, was my discovery of crepes. I'm not sure where I first encountered them, but I was hooked immediately. For my birthday, dad took us to San Francisco to a restaurant he knew I'd appreciate instantly, "The Crepe Escape". The French bistro-themed interior of T.C.E. further supported the foreign, exotic feel and flavor of crepes.
It was also here that, much to the surprise of my dad, I first ordered an espresso. While supportive, a bit surprised, and quite obviously skeptical, he asked if I knew what I was ordering. With the waiter standing over us, I wasn't about to back down and admit I wasn't sure what I was getting into. I gave the waiter my most grown-up nod, assuring him I had things under control. I was 12 years old and worldly enough to know that espresso was nothing more than strong coffee; I just didn't realize HOW strong it was.
The tiny cup of mystery arrived, awkward in my hands during the gangly years of puberty. The aroma was intense and it was fogged over with beautiful tan crema (which would take me two more decades to appreciate). I took a sip. It was so intense that the fact it was blazing hot was actually the second thing I noticed. I could feel my dad just waiting for me to hate it, but I refused to give him the satisfaction. After considering the first sip, I stirred in a single sugar cube. I wasn't about to let on that it was insanely powerful and was doing all I could to choke it down.
It wasn't too long before my own explorations into food began. It had a slow start, but he had given me the basic "building blocks". He showed me that there is always something new to learn, and something else to taste. He'd done all he could, and once I moved out, it was up to me to keep up the quest. Since eating is something I'll need to do for the rest of my life (literally), I can't think of anything better he could have given me.
I sent him a draft of the blog up to this point and asked him to fill in details which I would then thread into what I had already written. Instead, when his email response came back, I decided to leave then in their own format.
Here is his response:
My "food consciousness" sprang mostly from my family being deeply-rooted in farming during my early years. Food was chosen for freshness, color, seasonality, and other factors. My parents taught me what they could any time we were in a store or, preferably, at a roadside stand.
Dad felt that you appreciated produce better if it was you that gave it a tug out of the ground or off the tree, vine, or plant that worked so hard to make it for you. That also led to my almost fanatical “waste not, want not” attitude. Something wonderful had occurred to bring that food to life and we shouldn't waste it. Of course, when you're six or seven, even an okra stalk was challenge to pick from and I remember enjoying the smell of the stem after picking the pods.
I was about 12 when I got curious about fresh vegetables and how they tasted in combinations. I raided my dad’s refrigerator, always well-stocked with fresh vegetables, and arranged them on a plate at the table. As I tasted each separately, I focused on their individual smell, taste, texture, and aftertaste (if any). Then I tried them in various combinations; again closely noting all of those same factors. That episode changed my attitude toward food for life. From that time on, food was more that just a way to stay alive – it was an adventure to be enjoyed!
Going one step farther, my parents didn't spend a lot of time experimenting with exotic foods, and wine was not in their diet, so I began to yearn for a bit more excitement. I welcomed the discovery of "chow chow" (a sort of pickled corn chowder) from Oklahoma, and the mule jerky the neighbors brought from old Mexico; both of which were very different from the meat-and-potatoes style my mom tended to make. Though, to be fair, she put it together SO unforgettably! For example, when I cooked a pot roast, and I got cooked meat. When she did the same thing, she got a savory delight.
And then there was my Mexican mother-in-law. She did everything on a grand scale because she often had 30 people at her house for some occasion. Her specialties were southern Texas-style seafood and side dishes, and she was also a master of gravies, migas (a Spanish dish made from bread crumbs), and potato salad.
I'm still surprised I weighed only 135 lbs when I was 21, but that was due to a metabolism I no longer possessed by the time I was 35!
My next defining food moment was when I started watching Julia Child. Her pronunciation of "Coq au Vin" sounded like she was being strangled, but the recipe sounded like fun and I jumped in feet first. I then branched out to the mushrooms in wine sauce which came off well regardless of the variations I tried in the ingredients.
As you pointed out, there were places to eat, such as the Crepe Escape that transcended the food they served; they served memories. We remember the trip to downtown San Francisco to that very special place. Food is available anywhere, memories are harder to find!
The Nantucket Fish Company was special and impressed me with how fresh fish COULD be. During their heyday, we went there for dinner and a fishing boat docked on one of the many slips just outside the front door of the restaurant. The crew began unloading the catch, which included some very large fish. The manager of the restaurant trotted out to the boat and, after a few minutes of chatting with the fishermen, came back inside and wrote “Fresh Swordfish” on the chalkboard. Now that is fresh!
At one AT&T dinner, the table got together and bought a $75 bottle of wine. This was 30 years ago, so it is probably a lot more nowadays. I gasped when I heard the price, but my share was small and I was curious. Since that taste of premium wine, I can fully appreciate why people spend big bucks for it. All I remember for sure is that it was a Johannesburg Riesling. They poured me a half-glass, someone proposed a toast, and I tasted. The different flavors went on for at least two minutes, each going by as if my palate were on a merry-go-round. I don’t get that experience out of a seven dollar bottle of sherry!
I've had frog legs in Apache Junction, Arizona. They tasted like mud. I have had frog legs in Montreal, Canada. They tasted like chicken.