I was not raised in a food family. My mother tried, but she was a slave to cubed steaks, pork chops, and other meat and potato meals. She made a decent spaghetti and meatballs, but that was about it. My hometown in Northwestern Pennsylvania had no ethnic restaurants except for some Italian joints (although there was an old-fashioned Italian bakery there that made awesome bread!). My first experience with Asian or Mexican food came in college during the early 80s.
I went to the University of North Carolina, and because I was a manager of the basketball team there, I suddenly became exposed to lots of different types of food. Before each season, our coach, Dean Smith, took the entire team to the Fearrington House, which was (and still is) nationally renowned for its elegance and upscale Southern cuisine. The purpose of that meal was to learn proper etiquette – how to eat an artichoke; when to use which fork; when is it appropriate to use your hands; how to use a fingerbowl. Seeing many of the players (and at least one of the managers) had little experience with fine dining, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn some important lessons of life.
Traveling with the team exposed me to even greater things. We went to Japan, Greece, Hawaii, San Francisco, New York, etc. In Greece, I remember eating at a restaurant at the foot of the Parthenon, and we were chowing on some great type of seafood. Michael Jordan (yes, that Michael Jordan) was raving about it – until someone informed us it was squid. I kept on eating it, realizing how awesome well prepared squid was. This particular incident made me aware how important food was going to be for me – the other members of the team just wanted steak and french fries with Fanta orange soda. I wanted to try the local cuisine, no matter how nasty it looked or initially tasted. When we were in DC, we stayed at the Watergate. The team was given the option of receiving a $30 per diem for meals or eating at the hotel. I, with one other player, were the only ones to choose the hotel. Jean Louis Palladin’s cooking was extraordinary.
The other aspect of being with the team was how much beef we ate. Steak was the standard pre-game meal. We had steak or prime rib 6 nights a week at our training table. I truly got sick of it to the point where I went 2 years without eating steak. Fortunately, I’ve recovered from that mental lapse.
While I obtained my Ph.D. at Chapel Hill, I met an interesting guy who later became my roommate. He always had money and wanted to show off. Thus, he bought Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee or great French wines just because he could. I began to learn to cook, because he would pay for the food as long as I cooked it. I discovered Julia Child and simple French technique during this period. It was an awesome arrangement -- why can't I have someone bankroll me like that now?
After this time, I focused my culinary efforts on barbecue. I traveled across the state to learn as much as I could about NC barbecue. I would host an annual pig pickin’ for 100 of our closest friends each year, something I last did for the eGullet crew in September of 2005.
After getting the Ph.D., I got married and moved to Milwaukee for three years for my wife to do her residency. I decided to go to law school at that time. In Milwaukee, I discovered Eastern European cuisines: Polish, Russian, Serbian, and German. I learned that Milwaukee was quite a good food town. Usinger sausages; Racine kringles; Kopp’s frozen custard; good Italian markets and bakeries.
I’ve been back in North Carolina since May of 1995. Mrs. Varmint and I have 4 great children, who are slowly learning to appreciate food. I’m also a partner in a medium sized firm, and I focus on health law. As a result of family and job considerations, I don’t spend nearly as much time on food matters as I’d like, but that’s something that I’ll have to sacrifice for now. But give me some time . . . .