July 07, 2009

Foodie Family Philosophies

The more I write and, by default, reflect on the role food has played in my life, the more I'm made aware of just how important a role my family has played in shaping my relationship with, and love for, food.

In no particular order, the family foodies who have made an impact:

Granny: Although I hate this expression, my grandmother is 94-years young. Aside from being just about the classiest person I know, this amazing lady lives alone, in her own house, and is of the generation that cooks thoughtful, complete meals no matter whether it's one or seven at the table. Rarely have I eaten better food than at Granny's house--her Lobster Newburg has, on more than one occasion, left my mother and me licking our plates. Rich and decadent, Granny's cuisine is always a treat, as is her warm and loving company.

What she taught me: Having watched Granny cook all these years, I have learned to prefer natural ingredients in all dishes. No, Granny doesn't frequent farmer's markets or Whole Foods. What I mean is that, rather than slather her food with one of those creepy "dairy product" spreads, she uses a little butter and isn't afraid of it. I'd much rather be able to recognize and pronounce the food I'm putting in my body than use some product filled with chemicals that tastes like a cafeteria tray.

Carlotta: My mother is one of the most talented artists I've ever met (above is a rug she made with her own two hands), a quality that certainly translates into her cooking. She has a talent for combining leftovers into combinations that, as a child, scared the bejesus out of me. I distinctly remember coming home to "Salad Soup" one night, and praying that there were some Spaghettios in the cupboard that I could pretend to be craving. While Salad Soup didn't exactly inspire me, I also remember my mother combining a can of Campbell's French Onion soup with hamburger meat and grilling up the most savory and delicious burgers I'd ever had. Most importantly, I have my mother to thank for teaching me to make Cucumber Soup, a dish that means far more to me than any other I've learned.

What she taught me: Never be afraid of experimenting in the kitchen. Let the contents of your refrigerator and cupboards inspire you, and create something instead of just following a stupid recipe.

Spike: My father has a remarkable way of never letting anything go to waste. For example: instead of tossing a stale piece of garlic bread, he lets it sit for a few days (the oil prevents mold from even thinking about growing), gives it a whirl in the Cuisinart, and has amazingly flavorful breadcrumbs to put on fish, meat, etc. He also makes the best. omelette. ever. Curried crab with scallions and cream cheese. There is nothing like it. And let's not forget the Sacher Torte.

What he taught me: Be willing to learn from those who want to teach you, and be confident in the kitchen. Sharing family recipes is a way of sharing the pieces of family history that can be evoked again and again in a very concrete way. For my father, one of the most important things to teach me as I graduated and started living alone was how to roast a chicken. It scared me, the idea of a whole chicken to ruin, but I tried it when I moved into my first post-college place, and it was glorious.

Ted: My stepfather has always loved to cook, and was often in charge of dinner during my childhood (although my mother and I never trusted him with the salad). He made dishes like Miso Soup and Ratatouille, both of which I hated as a youngin' and now would kill to have prepared for me at home. Ted also shared with my mother and me the most sinful and absurd dessert ever to exist: Grilleds With. Grilleds With are a standby from his...hippie days as a student at UVA. You take a plain glazed donut, put it in a pan with a little butter, let the glaze harden with the heat, and then serve it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Then you have a heart attack, but it's worth it.

What he taught me: Eat the foods that make you happy. Ted is the source of my comfort food when I go home, whether it's chili or beef stew. He genuinely loves food, and loves planning meals. His best advice, from a recent e-mail: "I always did find eating the food to be the actual purpose of cooking. Always remember that presentation is really nice and all that, but like Alton Brown sez: I'm just here for the food."

All in all, not a bad group to have as teachers. Of course, three are in New England and one is in Minneapolis, so the delight of eating their food will have to wait a while, but you get the idea.

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