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The Evolution of Your Cooking Life


fresco
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No one would ever accuse me of being a great cook. But I do it just about every day of the year. For a couple of decades, my weekday routine was rushing home at 7 or 7:30 and having dinner on the table in about 45 minutes.

That's one of the big factors which has shaped the way I cook. The other is living in a city where just about every imaginable food or ingredient is readily available--I've often thought that if I had spent most of my life working out of the house in a small town, I might be a much better cook with a much narrower repertoire.

What are the influences--cultural, environmental, peers, parents, mentors, training--that helped to make you the cook you are today?

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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Environment plays a huge role in what you choose to cook, but also in what you choose not to cook.

I initially took to the stove (as differentiated from "the pit", which every Texas boy is born understanding, coming to age as we all do at our daddy's knee beside the woodpile) because it looked like I was going to spend a disproportionate amount of my life with a Northern girl (thank God that didn't turn out to be the case) who refused to cook the southern and creole foods that I love. So I picked up a couple of books, good knives, and a set of Calphalon, and never looked back.

I moved to Boston some years ago, a town with a serious drought of Mexican food of any flavor. I attacked that as a subject with a great deal of inspiration and compulsion, working my way through Diana Kennedy and also some trashy border cookbooks, all to compensate for the bland offerings of New England. It was a case of satisfying cravings, both of taste and of technique.

Now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (ironically enough with a Texas woman this time) in a small community heavily influenced by Asian culture and food. Just before I moved here, I had decided to tackle Chinese and Thai cooking, bought the requisite cook gear and books, but have never pursued it. There's just so much diversity of Asian food here, and of such stellar quality, that it's never occurred to me to take out the wok and cook from the wondrously beautiful Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet book that I so love to browse, or any of the others. It's far easier to head to the corner where I can find what I want already plated and ready to eat, inexpensive, and of better quality than I imagine I could produce.

So instead, I spend my evenings and weekends refining what I'm already comfortable with, focusing on the techniques, but also spending real time with new interests. These days I'm working on long term projects such as baking good bread and in making my cheese better (inspired by the great local curd), but also playing a bit with new passions, such as Indian food, because it seems a lot like "back home" food to me, which brings it sort of full circle.

If I didn't move around so much, continually finding myself cuturally so far away from where I belong/crave/come from, then I don't believe that I would be half the cook I am today. I'd be good, but narrow, just as you posit in your post.

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[snip]

What are the influences--cultural, environmental, peers, parents, mentors, training--that helped to make you the cook you are today?

fresco, thanks for starting this thread!

For me, I think growing up in Hawaii gave me a deep appreciation for food. I was exposed to a variety of cuisines, although not the same ones that I'm obsessed with today. Besides holidays and gatherings where food is one of the priorities, the everyday role of food seems to be much more prominent than I find here in California. While I haven't gone to Italy yet, it seems similar in that even people that don't cook very much are pretty discriminating about food.

There are several great cooks in my family. My mom cooked most meals for us while we were young, and she was a great baker as well. She made her own baked goods for Christmas, as well as jams and jellies from scratch. We would drive up to the mountains to pick ohelo berries (similar to a blueberry, but small and red) and also black cherries, guava and lilikoi (passionfruit) from our backyard. My dad had been a cook in the Army, so he knew some basic technique and how to cook for a crowd. The grill was his domain, and it became my job to light it when I was about 13. He also showed me how to break down big pieces of meat and how to clean fish. For a few years, we were into fishing, and I'd say that the fresh fish in Hawaii is pretty special. My grandmother cooked in the cold kitchen of a big department store restaurant, so she also had some background in Western cooking, as well as cooking great Japanese and Okinawan food. My grandfather had a large garden with beautiful produce coming out all the time.

On the basis of who got better grades in school, my sister and I competed for who got to pick the restaurant to celebrate. In middle school, we had to take one semester of home economics and one semester of wood shop. My parents encouraged my early experiments with omelettes, chili, muffins, etc. When I went to college, I began cooking for myself and roommates. The rule was that the cook didn't have to clean up, and to this day, I still use every dish and gadget in the house.

Cooking shows on TV were a huge influence. I can remember watching a locally produced cooking show on PBS called the International Kitchen when I was probably about 13 or so, and it probably set the stage for my interest in Italian food. PBS also aired the Julia Child series that I would watch regularly (JC Entertains at Home? '85 or so) Also, there was a sportfishing show that had a cooking segment every week. Once I got an apartment in college, I got cable and started recording the Great Chefs series and well as In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, among others. Having some early successes with those, and trying to recreate foods I missed from home, I would make elaborate dinners for myself. I began to develop a sense about food based on palate and technique rather than recipes. From there it became a serious hobby and I started cooking for groups of friends.

I have set a goal to at least try everything from scratch at least once. I make bread, spice rubs, sauces all from scratch. LA has it's disadvantages, but it's a good city for developing your palate - lots of ethnic food.

A few years ago, some friends chipped in to get me a Texas-style smoker, and perfect barbeque brisket and ribs has become a life goal. Every so often I think about switching careers, but its hard to give up the security and income of my current job. I still feel that I have so much to learn about food, but at least I can take a pretty good stab at any dish if I do enough research and get the right ingredients.

Thanks for reading-

~Tad

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well..having a mother who hated to cook.

when i turned 13, and she started working with my father at their business, dinner became my responisiblity.

witht he added bonus, of mom leaving me a blank check each day to go get whatever i felt like cookign to make dinenr for the family with.

of course the downside is that i'm completely incapable of making a dinner for 1 or 2. i work best in batches of 5-10 servings.

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While I learned to cook when I was little, I realized I enjoyed it during a stint at Chili's during college. While the food there isn't anything earth shattering, I had been complemented on my abilities a number of times by managers in from out of town and by customers. The one thing such restaurants do allow though is consistency in application which gives a good feel for when something is done or the right consistency (OK, no jokes about the inability of chain restaurant cooks to judge done-ness). Plus, at the bigger chain restaurants the menus can be very diverse; at Chili's we had not just Tex-Mex, but pastas, steaks, and seafood. From that I took a rather random view of cooking; I've never really 'concentrated' on any one type/style or technique for anything more than about a week. I've messed around with breads, but I've come to realize that I suck at baking anything. One night I might try Bi-Bim-Bop for the first time ever, the next night I might make Blue-Cheese-Artichoke Bisque. I was never very good with fish so recently I've been trying to perfect that. As far as influences or what-not; it's mostly been creating something other than the boring Ohio food I grew up with. Although, to this day in sticking with my Chili's heritage my best foods are steak, burgers and salad. Go figure.

Edited by jglazer75 (log)
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I feel enviroment will play a vital role in what and how you cook, growing up in white bread rural NJ I never had much in the way of influence other than my moms cooking. She would deep fry the crap out of anything and be afraid to use seasoning, especially salt (talk about a narrow repertoire). It took working crappy restaurant jobs through college to see what else was out there. It was these jobs that eventually gave me a love of food and cooking, and ultimately led me to culinary school once I got out of college. Going to school in NYC was a great experience and influence for me. However, I still find myself concentrating my cooking strictly on what I learned at school and not broading my culinary horizons to influences and techniques (I think still living in white bread NJ keeps me in that culinary rut).

Who you hang out with also has a big part, I am not currently cooking in a restaurant anymore so I don't hang out with anyone who has a love of cooking, which really sucks. I cook for my friends from college who like what I make but I know they would be just as happy with burgers and dogs.

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My cooking track: Reading cookbooks, learning to bake bread

I agree, your background and home have a lot to do with how you turn out as a cook.

In junior high school, read my way through varied cookbooks of my mother's; spent one summer playing in the kitchen, using the "Success with Eggs and Cheese" chapter in Helen Worth's Cooking Without Recipes (the cheapest chapter). Crepes, omelets, meringues, custards. I made a rule that I had to eat all of whatever I cooked--an incentive to do it right! :blink: Gee, I could cook! :wub:

I cruised through the cookbook section of the local libraries, read the local paper's food section, picked up remaindered cookbooks. I tried to make bread (it didn't rise much but tasted fine). :huh:

Then I moved to just south of Washington DC. Came upon the Washington Post food section--a whole new world of food reading. While I lived alone, on Saturdays I cooked recreationally again. Tried bread again -- it tasted...well, it was great toasted. You didn't notice the particleboard-like crust so much. :wacko:

Cooking with roommates from more sophisticated backgrounds, making new stuff: things from Julia Child, using fresh herbs and spices. More, better books on food. Practiced breadmaking: learned to make a loaf with a decent crust. :cool:

Stopped collecting recipes from magazines and newspapers that I never cooked. Started collecting recipes online, cooked a few. Made a rule to toss books I hadn't used or recipes I hadn't cooked after a year. Gave up breadmaking due to low carb dieting. :sad:

Found eGullet.com, lurked for a while. Tried the stock course, saving up stock cubes in the freezer. Hmmmm.... I bin missin' out! And I think eGCI is having a bread class: I may be trying again! There's always exercise.... :rolleyes:

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It's a combination of things. My mom also stopped cooking when I was young, and it becamse my responsibilty to cook for the family. My favorite meal to cook was Sunday brunch.

I grew up in Southern California, and there a ton of Mexican influence. Then I was lucky enough to marry a man who had grown up in New Hampshire, but had then lived in New Mexico for several years. After we moved to New Jersey, I had to start cooking just to have Mexican/New Mexican food. From there, I started in on Thai and Indian. Now almost everything I cook is some sort of fusion food. I'm hoping to go to culinary school eventually. And learn how to bake.

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Quitting my job. All of a sudden, I have time to cook. Cooking changes in the fall, when the kids go back to school, and I have endless hours to simmer, braise, chop, etc. No more getting home at 5:45 pm with three kids all screaming for food and attention and standing in front of the fridge with those groceries that were bought a week ago, looking blankly and wishing for a cook.

I have the time now to read cookbooks (for inspriation), shop more frequently, without the pressure.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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When I graduated, the manager at the local grocery where I worked as a carry out told me that if I wanted to get laid in college, I needed to learn to cook one dish that would wow co-eds. I began experimenting with Risotto until I got it down pat, but it didn't seem to help my social life much. I continued to cook through my adult life, paying attention to the "peasant food" that I sampled during travels around the globe. In the last year, as part of a book project, my family has been eating only food grown or raised locally. It's changed the way I cook, limiting me at times, but pushing me to simplify, concentrate on technique, and to become a more patient cook. I now spend at least an hour cooking dinner every day (I wonder how many "kit dinners" I fed my family while pretending to be a "foodie"?)

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Interesting question. I enjoy telling people I don't cook much, which is true. But, when I do I'm pretty good at it, and do enjoy it.

First thing I can remember making is oatmeal cookies. Then, as a young wife and mother I got up and made breakfast for my husband every morning, and prepared well balanced, traditional meals for the family ever day. (rare were the trips to McDonald's - partly 'cause the nearest one was 30 miles away!) Still fondly recall making blueberry pancakes on Sat mornings from freshly picked blueberries. But, I had better things to do after a few years of that.

When I started working part-time in a restaurant I watched and learned from CIA trained chefs. (I didn't work in the kitchen, but liked to know what I was serving, and have always had an inquiring mind.) That led me to make things at home like quiche, roast duckling with blackberry sauce or stuffed mushrooms, that I otherwise might have thought too complicated.

I still stick to pretty traditional dishes using fresh ingredients whenever possible. I like to read new recipes, but usually improvise as I go along.

My friends and family give me credit for being a better cook than I claim to be (or want to admit to anyway, :wink: that way I can limit my time in the kitchen to my own choice).

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Interesting topic.

I grew up on the standard meat-potatoes-and-veg. My mother was a German immigrant who was a wizard with gravy--I almost said "with meat and gravy," but then I remembered the many well-done bottom round roasts I ate as a child. Vegetables were usually overcooked.

Then I got interested in Chinese food as a teenager and learned to stir-fry.

Then I hung out with vegetarians in college and dropped my fledgling meat repertoire altogether for a few years. Gained a ton of weight eating rice and beans and potatoes and bread. Eventually the steak cravings won out and I caved.

Went through a brief and lukewarm flirtation with the low-fat trend, then embraced "eat whatever you feel like," and eventually wound up turning to a lower-carb approach because my weight is starting to affect my health and unstable blood sugar was wreaking havoc on my mood. Dang, just when my garlic scalloped potatoes recipe was getting really good!

In the last few years I've been poring over Cook's Illustrated, which has been reinforcing my natural tendency to go for the basics--I want to make a perfect roast chicken, roast beef, pork chops... In a way it's the stuff I grew up on, perfected. A medium rare top round roast, or if I have the cash, a rib roast with a crisp, crackling crust. A juicy roast chicken (Beard's recipe). Fresh green beans. Omelets, but with better cheese and not all browned and puffy.

I don't know, I don't get bored with those things. The jaded-palate approach -- one bizarre ingredient in every dish, unusual combinations -- never appealed to me. I remember reading an essay where the author disparaged the idea of serving guests humble fare like roast chicken. Well, that's what my guests get, and they're usually just thrilled to have real homemade gravy. :smile:

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A key influence was my mother, in a negative way. She didn't like to cook. And she did not cook unless my father was home for dinner. So we three children were left to fend for ourselves by scavenging the pantry and fridge for lunches (father was at work) and for dinners (on the nights that father was working late). As a mother of two now, I make sure to prepare meals and snacks for my kids. I never want them to feel that I don't care and that there is nothing to eat in the house, the way I used to feel. Today my mother thinks I spend too much time and effort in cooking and cannot understand why I go to so much trouble.

Another key influence is being a Southerner married to a New Yorker and transplanted to the mid-Atlantic after having lived in New England. I am always mindful that I should cook the traditional foods of the South, so that my children don't lose touch with that side of their family background. It is a bit of an up-hill battle because my New-Yorker husband fails to appreciate, even disdains, many of these Southern foods, which makes me all the more chauvinistic about pimento cheese, unsweetened cornbread, sweet tea, etc.

All my avid cooking today can be traced back to the red Betty Crocker cookbook that I mail-ordered through a book club in 1972 at the age of eight. The first recipes I tried were the shortbread, lemon squares, filled turnovers, rumballs for my teacher at Christmas, pear pie using windfall from the Bosc pear tree in our backyard, and a garlicky vegetable relish that I made and brought to third-grade class for a pot-luck and that was waaaay to0 sophisticated for that crowd!

Edited by browniebaker (log)
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  • 6 years later...

Why and how did you become a foodie, a chef, a home-based cook, a chocolatier, whatever it is that defines you in your relationship with food?

For me, the 'aha' moment occurred about three years ago when I found that strange word ‘ganache’ :hmmm: in a recipe in our local newspaper for a Chocolate-Covered Banana Mousse Freeze. What on earth is a 'ganache' I wondered? I looked it up and a long-shut door blew wide open.

Of course, I have always cooked. Fifty years of marriage…you cook. But I’ve also made beds, done laundry, raked the lawn, cleaned toilets…and somehow cooking fit into just about the same category. A chore. Give me any other job to do…let me stay out of the kitchen.

My Mother didn’t like to cook either. What I learned at my Mother’s knees was my French and German vocabulary. Not how to cook. My parents were originally vegetarians and the paediatrician told my Mother…either feed her meat or I won’t take care of her. Little Darienne, that was. And so my Mother fed me meat every night of my life: either a Porterhouse or a T-bone steak, broiled to shoe leather. Until I was old enough to say, ‘Hold. Enough’. How I hated steak. :angry: An only child and not too socially bright, I had no idea that other people didn’t eat that way.

And then as soon as frozen dinners came onto the market…well, that was Nirvana for Mother. And all that cr*ppy ice cream. A freezer full. Every night for dessert. No wonder I never liked ice cream. Who on earth would want to eat either steak or ice cream unless forced to? Ate differently at other people’s houses and at camp…yeah, every summer for the entire summer…but never put 2 and 2 together. Bright..but somewhat blank.

And so my DH, Ed, taught me to cook…the way his Mother cooked a la Canadienne francaise. Sugar Pie. :raz: Gravy on everything. Deep fried stuff. My Mother-in-law made Boston Cream Pie with butter-laden custard, not Crème Patissiere.) …nothing like the food I had grown up eating. But then I hated cooking and so Ed did much of it.

I personally have never cooked a turkey. Or roasted a chicken. I seem to recall doing roasts…I know I made wonderful Yorkshire Puddings and I could make Biscuits with my eyes closed. Angel Food Cake, pie crust, bread…these are things I had never made. Learned to make a Bechamel Sauce in Grade Seven, but of course I knew it only as a Medium White Sauce. Had no idea of what couverture was, or gougeres or macerating (sounded like pulverizing something) or mise en place or a thousand other terms. Had two cookbooks. My Mother gave me The Joy of Cooking. Don’t know where the other one came from.

But then a few short years ago ‘ganache’ came into my life, and all that was before is now different. Cooking! Baking! Confections! Chocolate! Ice Cream! And on and on. Even scratch bread and Mexican crema. All is new and wonderful…with such awful mishaps and mistakes. We eat ‘em all.

eGullet has played a major part in all this. Here I have asked a thousand questions and received generous answers from so many people. And I found mentors: andiesenji, Kerry Beal, Chocolot, paulraphael, jon, Heidih, gfron1, and many others. :wub: Who could believe that such a huge and informative forum actually exists?

And so now each day dawns with thoughts of what new dish to make that I’ve never tried before. Seriously. What new cooking culture to find? Hey! What flavor of ice cream to make? Rum and raisin, I think.

I have missed two chocolate conferences in a row but now I AM GOING TO MAKE IT to the Heartland Gathering in Ann Arbor in August!!!

What about you? What is your cooking story? Parents own a restaurant? Grandmother was a baker? Went to school? Drifted into it? Come and share. I really do want to know and others will too. :smile:

Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

Cheers & Chocolates

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That is facinating Darienne. We were UK pig farmers for nearly 50 years. The first part of my cooking life is to be published this week I will post it shortly. :biggrin:

Pam Brunning Editor Food & Wine, the Journal of the European & African Region of the International Wine & Food Society

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I grew up in Mexico. We had a maid who doubled as a cook. She was okay for simple homey stuff, not so great on anything that included ingredients she wasn't brought up on (like beef). Mom can't cook to save her life (she lives on frozen dinners and readymade food from the grocery store) and Dad -thinks- he can cook based on vague recollections of his Jewish-Mexican-American heritage. Sometimes he does remember how to make something accurately and it comes out wonderful, others are epic disasters that would make Dr. Rand Paul pause and reflect that federal intervention in private business might sometimes be necessary.

The only real exposure I had to the culinary arts was a great-aunt who made the most wonderful criollo food for her catering business. Unfortunately she passed on before I could learn anything from her, and I believe hers was the last generation of cooks in that tradition.

My culinary consciousness first stirred when I moved out to go to college. Even fast food took out too much from my beer budget, and I soon discovered being the only person in the building who knows which side of the frying pan the food goes in gives one a certain status. Even so I kept my meals simple, having no budget for exotic ingredients I didn't know what to do with and no way to learn the skills.

Then, circa 1998 AD, I discovered the Internet (yeah I'm always the last guest to show up at the party). There it was, all the information I always wished I had, right at my fingertips. Tutorials covering every imaginable skill. My local stores don't carry this book/tool/ingredient? No prob, Amazon will deliver it to my front door overnight if I'm a hurry, with free shipping if I'm not.

I started by relearning the most basic techniques. I'd spent my entire cooking life holding a dull knife the wrong way and nobody had thought to mention it. From there I've worked my way along, always more interested in picking up new skills than formula recipes. My current project is baking, which I am absolutely horrible at. I'll get good at this though. All it takes is training and practice.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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My relationship with food is closely linked with my ethnic heritage. My mom is Chinese, from Hong Kong, and my dad is Jewish from a region that is now Ukraine, was (when he was growing up) the Soviet Union, and had been part of Romania. I don't speak either of my parents' native languages, so what I have is food. When I travel and I'm unhappy with what I've been eating, the first things I crave are things like char siu bao or schmaltz herring.

Not that I only cook traditional dishes from my ancestors; far from it, really. My mom wasn't taught to cook by her mother, so she learned most of it from public television. I watched those same programs with her when I was growing up. She cooked stir-fries and rice a lot of the time (oh how I wish I had room for a rice cooker!), but my parents are adventurous eaters and we ate everything, both in terms of cuisines and animal parts. Not too many people my age that are quite as adventurous as I am with offal and different kinds of meat, I have to say.

I use the internet a lot to look for new recipes, especially since I don't really feel like I have a set dish I like to make at this time (partly because many of my favorite go-to vegetables are not appreciated by my husband, who likes only the more uncommon things). Seeing all the delicious desserts to be had has forced me, a mostly savory cook, to start trying to bake, and I have to say that I love it now. Easier to share with more people, too.

"I know it's the bugs, that's what cheese is. Gone off milk with bugs and mould - that's why it tastes so good. Cows and bugs together have a good deal going down."

- Gareth Blackstock (Lenny Henry), Chef!

eG Ethics Signatory

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What a great thread! I started cooking at an early age, when my mom encouraged my efforts to make concoctions in the kitchen. My first claim to fame at age 7 was potatoes sauteed with onions and water chestnuts! Just kept going from there... Butterflied stuffed leg of lamb when I was around 12... Made thanksgiving dinner of individual stuffed cornish game hens when I was about 13... Didn't cook as much in college, but since then its been an explosion... I've just loved learning to cook from different cuisines -- Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Greek... The thing that has helped my cooking the most in the past three years has been the new year's resolution I started... I vowed to make at least one new recipe a week and to keep track of them all in a log book... That effort has yielded amazing dividends, both in stretching my cooking, keeping me excited to keep at it, etc...

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I don't really know when I started cooking--cooking, like reading, just seems to be something I have always done.

I guess I started with cookies and cakes when I was 8 or 10, much to the delight of my younger siblings. My mother went to work, on the evening shift, when I was 12, and I was in charge of dinner. I remember some dismal sloppy joes and chicken and dumplings, but I learned.

I cooked every night for my husband and children, but my skills really started to improve when I divorced and began to live alone. For one thing, I bought good tools--knives, a food processor, a stand mixer--things that were considered frivolous when I was married. (Good tools were only necessary in the garage!)

Because I didn't have to worry about kids who picked out every shred of green, I could be adventurous. I could add garlic and onion and herbs and lemon zest and wine and red pepper, and I did. I live way out in the country, so finding exotic ingredients can be difficult, but I stock up when I hit the big city. My garden supplies almost all the fresh, frozen and canned vegetables that I use, and of course, from the garden foods just taste better. I also added chickens to my menagerie--for real free range eggs and meat. My beef comes from a neighbor who uses no antibiotics or growth hormones.

I love to cook, love to feed people--you all are invited, any time!!

sparrowgrass
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Such interesting stories! Here's mine:

My Mom was and is an indifferent cook. Dad was an enthusiastic but downright bad cook (if a little of this seasoning is good, a whole lot of it must be better!). I made the mistake of earning a Girl Scout badge in cooking, and overnight became the family cook - and hated it. I was competent, but resentful (I mean, my brothers got to use the cool riding mower to cut the grass, and they got paid for it!!).

Then I married a wonderful man whose Dad was the excellent family cook, and DH took over the cooking -yay! He was and is very good at whipping up a very decent meal in under an hour, and he's a genius at pizza. But although he loves him his sweets, he doesn't bake. After I became a lady of leisure I took a desserts/breads course at the local community college and had a great time, even though I landed in a nest of militant vegetarians. :shock: I have nothing against vegetarians, of course, but as an omnivore I did get kind of tired of their tirades. The other problem was that I don't eat sweets myself - awkward! :raz:

Then a wonderful thing happened! I did a two-week rotation in the culinary side of the school, and I loved it! The culinary people cooked everything. I learned more in that two weeks than I'd have believed possible, and I have never looked back. In fact, I've pretty much muscled DH out of the kitchen (which seems to be just fine with him -- he is still the Pizza Man). I could have switched over to culinary school, but this was a real training school for serious professional cooks, and I knew I didn't want that, so I just sort of learned on my own (yes, we do love the Internet!) and I took the occasional two-hour class in whatever interested me.

Then I found eGullet!

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Julia Child.

When I was a kid (say around 8 or 9) my older brother and I would watch the French Chef on PBS. She always had us howling with laughter, but I also loved it when she did desserts. I think the first thing I made was her chocolate mousse. I stepped up to a pound cake with strawberries and cream creation crowned with a net of caramel for one Mothers Day. (I think I was 15 when I made that).

I remember spending the better part of Saturday afternoons (our day to cook) with my brother making spaghetti sauce. We were very exacting about the amount of herbs. We were big on oregano, as I recall. Which was kind of astonishing, now that I think of it, as I come from an old New England family whose idea of seasoning was salt and pepper, with an occasional hit of tabasco as seafood demanded. Mom taught me how to cook pancakes and french toast, roast chickens, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, sauteed and stuffed mushrooms. Baked beans, clear-the-fridge soup, and boiled corn on the cob. Boiled veggie, period.

I learned to cook over a fire in Girl Scouts. We dug a huge pit for an old cast iron dutch oven, built the fire in the pit, and slow braised dinner over the hot coals.

I asked my parents to take me to a French restaurant in Pembroke MA for my high school graduation instead of a party. Beautiful meal. Too bad I can't remember the name of the place. It was in a beautiful old Victorian house, as I recall. I don't think it is still there.

In college I cooked when I was rich enough to afford groceries, otherwise existed on soft pretzels (Philly style).

After graduation, I finally got my chance to really cook. Living in Philly, we had access to a phenomenal Asian grocery off Washington, Reading Terminal, the Italian Market. I had money for cookbooks and utensils. I met a fabulous someone who loved going out to eat as much as I did, and introduced me to Indonesian food. We had freedom, and a modest amount of money to have fun with.

Then, medical school happened. Ten years later, two tots later, I barely have time to post, let alone cook without a disgruntled baby protesting my lack of attention. I know it will happen again. In the meantime, I wait. And lurk here.

Off to intervene.

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If someone had told me six or seven years ago, that cooking would become a passion, I would have fallen over laughing. Sure, I knew how to cook, but I had gotten lazy over the years and found it far easier to heat up a frozen pizza or some other type of packaged food than to actually spend time making a meal. Fortunately, I happened to marry a man whose culinary skills far surpassed mine and could whip up a yummy dinner using fresh ingredients in about the same time it took to heat up something from a box. Would wonders never cease? Not being completely stupid, I more than willingly let him run the kitchen. But then a funny thing happened. I quit my job and finally had time to experiment with food and recipes. And as my husband, David, was still working a very stressful job, it seemed just a tad bit bad form to assume he would want to whip up dinner when he came trudging home each night.

So left to my own devices, I picked up our chef’s knife, cracked open some cookbooks and forged ahead. While most of those first forays were more misses than hits, I was learning about not only food, texture and taste, but also learning aspects about myself. For starters, I had to learn patience. You just can't rush some recipes and taking shortcuts sometimes come back to bite you. Another area was learning to trust my intuition. Sometimes a small voice in my head would tell me to do something different from what the recipe called for and it was usually right. Giving myself some creative license to put my own thumbprint on a dish has taken some time, but I realized that most recipes really are only guidelines, not sacred scrolls never to be altered. But probably the most important thing was letting go of the expectation that everything I made was going to turn out perfectly the very first time. Often they didn’t and sometimes don’t even today. But over the years, I realized it was okay to screw up and not feel like I had to walk around in sackcloth and ashes because I botched a meal. I found when I got over myself and out of my own way, the recipes usually come out way better.

In fact, I have fallen in love with cooking so much that I started my own blog to document my hits and misses. It's been a great resource when I'm thinking of making a recipe again and taking a look back on what worked/didn't work the last time. My latest challenge is to move from "just" making new recipes to really focusing on getting a better handle on techniques.

The Wright Table

The Wright Table

Becoming a better home cook, one meal at a time.

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  • 2 months later...

I grew up with cooking parents - one Portuguese American who was raised in California and one Southern, through and through. We lived in Tennessee so the Southern side dominated and I was standing on a stool cutting out biscuits or mixing cornbread as far back as I can remember. My father concentrated on all of the exotic Mediterranean dishes, my mother and grandmother on the Southern cooking and my grandfather on the butchery.

We lived on a working farm where we raised our own chickens, pigs and cattle for meat and eggs, and grew most of the vegetables we ate throughout the year - potatoes, onions, beans, squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, radish, peppers, cabbage, and turnip greens (we didn't eat the turnips, they went to the pigs). While I learned to can, freeze or store the vegetables in the cellar, the processing of our own meat is some of the most memorable and valuable experiences of my childhood.

The annual hog slaughter was a two day ritual of butchering, lard making, sausage making and curing. The hams and bacon when into the smokehouse and the red formica kitchen table would be piled high with ground pork, handfulls of spices and a pile of canvas bags. Everyone helped hand knead the sausage mixture and stuff it into the long canvas sacks so that it too could be hung in the smokehouse.

Likewise there was a day long ritual around the chicken processing and the cows were sent to a local slaughterhouse.

My mother and I would watch Julia Child's French Chef series and continued this tradition together right through the 70s and 80s with Julia Child and Company and Dinner with Julia. I received a copy of The French Chef cookbook when I was 12 and fumbled my way through a four course dinner from it shortly thereafter. I never stopped cooking after that Sunday dinner. I learned everything I could from my parents and just kept going. Entertaining friends throughout college and graduate school and then living in Malawi, southern Africa, for two years where I started cooking Indian and African dishes.

In the 1990's my family moved to San Francisco and my access to ingredients and cuisines expanded greatly. I spent about five years trying to master the entire volume of The Italian Baker by Carol Fields. I also worked on the cooking forums for CompuServe Information Service, where I staffed the Tools and Techniques, Breads, and Ethnic Foods topics. I also ran online conferences for the cooking forum, hosting a special guest each month, including a show with my mother on canning when she was well into her 70's and fascinated by the whole "social network" aspect of the computer.

CompuServe opened up doors that led to the opportunity for me to meet Julia Child four times. The first time I was too nervous to even speak and as I tried to squeak out a few words, she patted me on the hand and said, "That's okay, it happens," in the most unpretentious way. The second time was at an IACP event and that went much better, actually holding down a conversation with her - about what I can't remember - but a conversation never-the-less. The third time was after a public interview in San Francisco when I asked her who her hero was. She told me it was Escoffier and that the two of them would have made a marvelous couple. The last time I met her was at her 90th birthday party at Copia in Napa. I cherish all of the minutes these four encounters add up too and let them wrap me up in a blanket of culinary inspiration.

Over the past 10 years my life has focused more on my career in medical education and my family, which now includes raising an energetic boy, but eGullet feels like an opportunity to get back to what stove.

Kevin H. Souza

San Francisco, Calif.

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