chowhound formative influences?
- Will Pisarra
Are there experiences in your background that you would cite as important in forming your present chowhoundosity? Interested in seeing if there are common denominators.
For myself the quick list is...growing up in New York and living with Italian grandparents and their attitude toward food and eating (Italian meaning from Italy)....being surrounded by folks who were always looking forward to dinner....being taught to be open to new foods (ok to not like something, but you should try it before you don't like it)...early and continued exposure to authentic food from various cuisines....lots of restaurant exposure across the spectrum of cuisine and price.
How about you?
My dad could cook anything well, particularly if it swam, floated, or hunkered down in salt water. I still have the shell of an abalone he dove for somewhere along the coast of California. We opened it, extracted the flesh and pounded it with a big rock and cooked it over fire on the beach. This was in the 1940s, kids.
He cooked and we ate turtle burgers, rattle snake, geoducks, whelks, barnacles, the more exotic the better. And we'd talk about how it tasted, what would help the flavor, would anything help the flavor? Not much restaurant exposure. We mostly "foraged". Too bad he seems so much more interesting now than he did then. Ain't that always the way!!?? pat
re: will pisarra
I am amazed at how your childhood can affect your future palate. Some good. Some bad. And thankfully for some folks, they can completely find 'outsourcing' of others passions for food & learn to really become a true "Hound Dog"!! I was lucky to have parents that were raised in the depression so any food is good food!
I was a bit of a picky head when very young...but discovered...good ole stinky fish! I stumbled on cream & wine-sauced herring at supper clubs when I was a child & that started the quest! (P.S. Try the
Octopus Salad at Papagus in Chicago (and Oakbrook, IL) and tell me I am wrong!! I have found that eating in your travels (native food) connects you to the culture
and to the people. What does connect people to other
Love, love, love this question.
My Dad was from upstate NY. My mother a texan transplanted to CA at an early age. They met in Puerto Rico during the war, but that's another story.
Dad loved his seafood. I remeber being very young, around 3-4, and the look of pride on his face whilst my twin (identical)sister and I slurpped down oysters standing on milk crates at Grand Central Oyster Bar. People surrounding us and just staring, amazed. Dad - one big 'ole happy camper.
He taught us to eat lobster early. I also remember being in Washington DC at some very fancy place and my older brother ordering Escargot. We were each given a taste and the very stuffy waiter was, needless to say, overwhelmed when Dad ordered my sister and I escargot for desert. "But Sir!" And Dad looking down his glasses, the way only a Dad can do, and saying "two orders of escargot please. Let's not argue. That's what my girls want." Lord that man was so much fun! If there was a long wait at a restaurant and he had failed to make reservations, he would tell the host the reservation was in the name of Aardvark and then become incensed (!) that the reservation hadn't been taken. Got us a table every single time.
Mother wasn't much of a cook. She liked to read. I often recall going into the kitchen - black with smoke - with her nose in a book - completely oblivious to the well done dinner. So around ten, mostly as a defense, I began to cook. Although I do remember a trip to San Antonio and her Aunt making her all the foods she had missed since her Mother had died - many years before - a table heavy with fried chicken (my first taste of non-KFC - heaven! - greens in pot likker - cornbread - chicken and dumplings - beans with ham hock - green beans with bacon and vinegar that must have been cooked for days - fruit salad - fried peach pie and fried ice cream -sweet iced tea and homemade lemonaide. It was the first and I think perhaps the only time I ever saw her eat like that. Tears of joy on her face. It may explain her lack of fondness for cooking. She simply missed her Mom. Funny, that never occured to me till just now.
I got lucky being raised in Highland Park, IL. The jewish influence was astounding. The talk about food - everything seemed to revolve around it - was so educational. What you were having for dinner was a pretty important topic - almost as important as what you had had for dinner the night before. The "strict" Jewish friends I had making exceptions for Chinese food and taking us to Chinatown here in Chicago - what luck! And right next door was Highwood with a large Italian population and the food was just wonderful - not the white bread, red sauce junk so many remember as their first Italian experience - I'm talkin' gnocci, calamari, seafood stews, etc.
Worked for a wine merchant (Austrian) who owned a restaurant while I was going through college was also an extreme influence.
And last but not least, marrying a Sicilian whose Dad often asked "it's not are we going to have pasta with supper --- it's what kind of pasta are we going to have?"
I love this site, I love you people. You all make life just a little sweeter for me. Thanks.
Growing up, I never liked food. I was so picky, I remember sitting at the table until I fell asleep, because I wasn't allowed to leave until I ate. My mother worked and cooked convenience 1950's housewife food, with a few exceptions: She would make traditional dishes from her Serbian background occassionally, like stuffed cabbage, Christmas bread and killer shortribs and noodles. These I liked, but they were few and far between. Then, when I was 20, my boyfriend's mother used to cook for the whole family. She was (and is) a larger than life super loving person. She loved to cook all day long and chat with whoever was hanging out in the kitchen. She has the true passion. All she ever thinks about is food. Her eyes just gleam. Anytime anyone she knows goes anywhere the question is: "Tell me what you ate" She wants details. She fed me so well and with so much love, I was hooked. About the same time, I got into the restaurant business as a waitress in order to put myself through school. Over the years I worked in many good and OK places and learned to love food and go home and figure out how to prepare the things I loved, but I would improvise and make them the way I wanted them. Now I'm a chef, and my family thinks I'm a freak, and I never used my education, but I couldn't be a happier hound.
Of all the responses, Vanessa's is most similar to my own. I wasn't very interested in food as a kid. My mom cooked Portuguese specialties and made fantastic cheesecakes for several upscale Boston restaurants, but she died before I was old enough to learn much from her. My stepmom cooked lots of convenience foods that just weren't very tasty. (Don't get me wrong-- she tried, but she lacked the knack.)
Occasionally, though, my dad would make some Polish specialty like pierogues, and then I would sit up and take notice. I loved to watch my dad cook, and, since desserts were always my favorite thing, it was natural that I would start making them. I started with cookies and by the time I was in high school, I had worked my way into candymaking. I loved the intricacy of having to watch the boil something for an hour, constantly watching the temperature.
Money was always an issue when I was growing up, and we very seldom went to restaurants. When we did go, it was to one of those terrible all-you-can-eat buffet places. And the guys I dated thought Denny's was a great meal. So I guess you could say that my most formative influence was a lack of formative influences, coupled with the vague notion that there HAD to be something better out there.
It wasn't until I got to college that I discovered food in all its glorious multiplicity. I had sushi and Mexican food and decent Chinese food for the first time in my life. What a revelation! And once I had eaten great food, there was no going back.
This is a very interesting thread in that some people found the "faith" through real childhood influences around food, and others found it because of something lacking that they somehow realized was lacking and sought it out or it found them. I hope a lot more people post on this, as I find it fascinating. How did we all get here?
Coming from Greek parents I grew up eating a lot of
food that my playmates thought were "weird" -- lamb
kidneys and rice, octopus stew, porgies with plenty
of tiny bones, Avgolemono soup, sweetbreads,
stinky cheese, baked calf's head, etc. Also we never
took our meals for granted because we were not well
off financially. So the early years of my life gave
rise to my "try anything" attitude.
In addition, dinner was a family ritual every
night at my house. Even if we weren't hungry we'd
all sit down together at 6:30 p.m. It was like a
daily meeting where we might just chat quietly or
have heated arguments. That activity imprinted
upon my brain the feeling that eating is an almost
intimate, social activity and that food brings people
together in a truly sharing experience.
I just realized I'm reminiscing too much so I'll
stop here. Great topic. I'm looking forward to
reading more responses.
The fact that I grew up in family that prizes a good meal and a good bottle of wine above almost anything else definitely had a strong impact on me! Also a factor is that as a child I was never given special "kid" food, like many of my friends who would have pb&j or a hot dog while the grown-ups ate weird fish or veggies. This, along with frequent trips to lots of ethnic restaurants (say what you will about Cleveland, but I do miss its concentrated chow diversity), gave me virtually no fear of trying new foods. Growing up with enthusiatic cooks helped, too. I learned plain and fancy, and particularly cherish a very early memory of my father holding me at the stove while he made scrambled eggs one-handed and explained the process to me. No processed convenience foods - I didn't taste Rice-a-Roni/Kraft mac/etc. until college. And though she was a handful, I am forever indebted to my Czech grandmother, whose way of keeping me occupied was teaching me Bohemian pastry arts. She gave me what I consider to be one of my most valuable skills: the ability to produce a batch of apple dumplings or kolace at a moment's notice. OK- I'm a rambler today, so I'll stop before you all totally nod off...But what a great, great thread...
What a great question! Inspires nostalgia and rambling. Here goes ...
Elements of my background are similar to what others have posted:
Picky eater as a kid. (Favorite sandwich as a kindergardener was Hebrew National salami with mayo; hated tomato sauce -- would only eat spaghetti with ketchup)
Great ethnic cooking at home. Jewish, in my case: pot roasts with those awesome potatoes that turn orange from cooking with the meat, chicken fricasee, pea soup with "flanken" and carrots, corned beef to die for, kugel, potato pancakes, sponge cake, rugelach, bow tie cookies and seven layer cake from the bakery, and of course chicken soup. Sundays we'd often get deli to take home, and, like one of Philip Roth's characters and "spatula", as a kid I actually thought "cold cuts" was a Yiddish term.
There was a strange family reverence for certain pieces of kitchen equipment -- as if they were icons in the religion that was food. There was the one pan with the glass cover that was used for chicken fricasee; the Farberware coffee percolator; the old waffle iron; dented blackened cookie sheets that my mother will never replace; the knife that my grandmother brought over with her from Poland 70-odd years ago, worn razor-thin from years of use, which always seemed on the verge of breaking. She said when it went, she would too. Sadly, the blade held out longer than she did.
My mother was trained as a chemist and later became a cooking teacher and caterer, and she emphasized experimentation and tasting when it came to food. We'd order things in restaurants just to try them and get desserts "for the table" even if everyone was stuffed by the end of a meal. There was never the exhortation that one had to finish a dish -- if you tasted something and didn't like it, that was fine. However, to refuse to taste was a crime. We once went to Baskin Robbins and got one scoop of every one of the 31 flavors. We'd do home taste tests to compare different products. We got to choose the color our nightly vanilla "malteds" -- light purple, blue, pink. When the microwave oven first came out and there were no cookbooks to explain how to use it, my mother put just about everything in it, just to see what would happen. Try a marshmallow -- pretty cool. Too bad she didn't patent her discovery of microwave popcorn.
With food, there was always an emphasis on quality. As kids, we ate at the Peter Luger's in Great Neck what seemed like every week. I grew up thinking that that was how steak (and home fries and onion rolls) always tasted. My mother is an amazing cook, so I never really had a bad meal growing up. (Of course, as a child, great home-cooking isn't always easy to appreciate -- we longed for the foods we saw on television. We would beg to go to Jimbo's, the closest thing to McDonalds in our town, and getting TV dinners was a huge treat. Our most lavish praise for a cake that my mother baked was that it tasted just like a mix. I still have a bizarre belief that if I ever tried Shake and Bake or Rice-a-Roni, they would be delicious.)