chowhound formative influences?
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?
Probably growing up within a very Italian family and then having an eating disorder, even though that sounds strange! But through the bad (eating disorder) I acutally discovered my true love of food and drink. Over coming that then lead to acutally exploring my Italian back round, which lead me to explore restaurants, cafes, bars and then acutally working in them. Finally I think the big push was when I found out who Anthony Bourdain is, I started reading his books and it all went up hill from there.
Wow, this is an ancient thread, but so interesting!
For me, I think I became a real cook and fan of food at 18 when I moved away from my family's home and had my first real boyfriend, who was from Iran. He loved dishes from his home, but was a few years older than me, had a real job and not always the time to cook them. My class schedule was arranged so that several of my weekday afternoons were free, so I got some recipes from his family, shopped like crazy for ingredients, and would just go to his place and start cooking. I learned that if you just followed instructions, you could do it!! I was introduced to so many new flavors and ideas about food, and to the notion that I could make it myself. I fell so in love with the flavors, we even spent my spring break in DC sniffing out all the Persian eateries.
While other college kids were falling apart from stress and stuffing their faces with dollar pepperoni slices, I would just go into my own zone and do my chopping, braising and broiling--my own natural stress relief.
For a girl who had a hideously bland diet all her life, I came a long way during that time!!!
Sure, this thread is more than a decade old.
But then... aren't we?
The topic is timeless because it takes us way back.
For me: Summers... Family. A Mom, Grandmas and Aunts in a close local radius and lots of big gardens and lots of big gatherings and add to that Sundays of potlucks at church.
There was always the aroma and energy of food in the air.
I was a normal exuberant guy who played hard and brought home his fair share of grass stains and ass stains and skinned knees and scabs.
Each dusk I'd return to a babbling kitchen of matriarchs cooking together as if part of a coven. Babbling, laughing, jostling for space on the stovetop or oven.
I took it for granted, as do we all.
When leaving the nest as an adolescent fledgling I took with me the charm of those Southern farms and the ladies that made it all happen.
And then I encountered some first-class Chinese, and soon Vietnam, and then Japanese. Things busted wide open and continued to blossom.
I've garnered some tools from that Matriarch clan, now mostly departed. Things like a roaster, a grater, a frypan. And a dish in which coleslaw has been served fifty years.
Our streams to good Chow all meander quite differently, from springs and headwaters of each to our own.
I have just lost the last of my matriarch aunties.
But I savor the grace that they brought to the table.
I remember the earliest podding of peas
and carving corn kernels on the old wooden table.
and shelling of freshly snapped firm lima beans.
The memory of their lusty and laughing proffered dishes
may yield gentle asuagement
But I sure as hell will miss their chortle and laughter
as they gathered up to do some really good cooking.
Vietnam. I ate so much canned sh*t it is unbelievable. At times we had nothing to eat at all. I swore that if I got out of there alive I'd eat every meal like it was my last. (I eat too for buddies that didn't make it and toast them regularly.) This is why I refuse to eat chains. I did my recovery & PT at a VA hospital in Astoria, Queens. The area was rife w/ Greek "tavernas". I used to talk my nurse into wheeling me out to some of the Greek places for lunch, so I could avoid the hospital crappe. I would latter hoggle around the area Chowhounding. This was 1968. It began a life-long food obsession.
I too was a picky eater in a family full of wonderful Russian foods. I wanted to be "American".
Now I love all cuisines, but have a big pot of Russian kraut, ribs and kolbasi in the fridge. Raised 5 kids all of whom love to eat. One cooked Martha Stewart her birthday meal when he was 16 and was in the resto business for a while, but now bums around the world teaching English and chowing, like his old man did. Now if I could only sleep.....
Good Night Moon
The Dumbest of Kegs
I love reading these posts, even if I do feel the twinge of envy that comes from having a distinctly unadventurous food related childhood. My influence simply came from refusing to believe that food was always boring and bland. My British family just had no interest in food other than being for fuel, which made me think I was a picky eater for years. Overcooked steak, plain chicken coated in breadcrumbs and pan fried or canned tuna was the staple protein always served with an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato and cheese that a mouse wouldn't even sniff at. No wonder I thought I was picky.
When I left home I moved to very remote place in the north of Australia where the main influences were of the local indigenous people and the 3rd/4th/5th generation families of Asian pearl farmers. Hunting was the done thing and local, just caught supplies of barramundi, salmon and mud crab were abundant. The food I ate was no longer calorie driven as my mother was no longer there to promote her drive for malnourishment and I learned that beautiful food was driven by quality ingredients. I discovered my absolute love for South East Asian food in particular and discovered many cuisines that I never had the opportunity to discover as a child.
There was one defining experience, however, that as a child helped me to understand the importance of fresh, quality ingredients. Having been scuba diving with my dad we hauled up our catch of crayfish. A pot of seawater was boiled on the boat, a few crays were thrown in and as soon as they were done and cool enough we ate them whole, no accompaniments, still wearing our diving gear. The flavour was unbelievable and I thought I'd discovered heaven on a plate (or at least in my diving goggles).
I do what I can to promote food positively for my 6 year old son in his formative years. As much as I tell him he wants to be an orthopaedic surgeon he has started telling me he wants to be a chef and has asked me to teach him to cook over these summer holidays. I'm exceptionally proud to be raising a chowpup and I hope he will blossom into a true hound :)
What a great topic! I'm not sure I would describe chowhoundishness in the same way as others but I have noticed that there are lots of different styles of CHers here so I won't worry about it.
I blame my father. He is a cook at home and he did all the cooking and still does (for my mom and himself) actually! His mother was a cook and her father was a cook. I assume it floated down the gene pool.
While growing up, everything my father made was something he enjoyed and made from scratch. He loved to use fresh ingredients-I suspect northern Ontario's lack of really fresh veggies and fruits as the push for this.
We never had to eat anything we didn't want to but, really, with his cooking it was much more fun to eat salmon cakes and roast lamb and burritos with lots of cheese and shredded lettuce than to cop out and eat mac 'n' cheese.
We often had army rations because it was important to me and my brother to know what our dad went through in Vietnam. We went to the surplus store together, usually just me and my dad--it was a bigger deal to me than to my brother. We only picked out the foods he had available such as SOS, beef and potatoes, stew. He would show us how they had to open the can with a teeny, tiny thumb-sized opener, how to heat the food in the tin can (against my mom's wishes), how to remain crouched down and alert while eating. This meant so much to me and was remarkably fun. We got the piece of gum that came with the food but did not get to put the matches to use lighting our cigarettes!! Oh, well.
Everything my dad cooked, he showed me how to plan, shop for, prepare and cook. He showed me how to care for iron skillets (I still use these, and stainless, and don't bother with non-stick). I learned all my food preparation, chopping, slicing, cleaning...everything from him.
Both he and my gram showed me how to cook by smell. "It is done when it smells done" or "...when it is done" or "...when ti looks done." I probably never would have bothered to follow a recipe if it wasn't for my mom!
Yes, my mom, the un-cook, knows how to follow a recipe. She showed me how to 'properly' measure liquids and powders, and how to sift. "Use the flat back of a knife to make sure the flour is level with the measuring cup. She taught me that a recipe's language will tell me if the ingredient is measured before or after it is cut, if the butter is cold, room temp, softened or melted, do or don't sift, pack or loosely measure the brown sugar. These are little details I would have never come up with on my own. I had been taught to just wing it.
We did lots of eating out too. We tried all kinds of foods, ethnic, traditional, fancy, hole-in-the-walls, you name it. We enjoyed being regulars at restaurants and becoming familiar with the owners, managers, servers. My dad was/is a big tipper which is where I got it from. Service gets tipped, good service gets tipped very well and great service gets tipped even better.
Pressure was non-existent. I ate like a bird until I hit my late thirties. As a kid, I ate like a very small, non-hungry bird. I was allowed to order what I wanted and not made to finish it all. I brought home unfinished food in a take home container and ate it later. I was, however, not allowed to drink my beverage until I was done eating because a glass of water was all it took for me to not be hungry anymore. Seriously, happened a few times and then it was outlawed.
Cooking and enjoying food is a big thing for my family. When we visit, there is much to do about what to prepare, what will my guy make (BF makes the best Indian dishes, he is also from Ontario), where should we eat out...
I could get by hardly eating anything and even just having some veggies with rice or just some bread and cheese and calling it dinner. I often skip dinner entirely. But, I love food and love preparing food and I blame my family for it. Thanks, so much better than just nibbling...
Intriguing question! I was raised on a farm where we were exposed to all sorts of animals, made our own butter and ice cream, sold chicken eggs, butchered ducks and pigs and sheep, milked cows, picked/preserved our own fruit and veg. Plus my dad was a hunter so we always had venison, moose or elk on hand. We also foraged for mushrooms. My Mom was (and is) a very poor cook - she hates cooking (cannot fathom that!).
One day when I was given the option to either gut the chickens or cook lunch I opted for cooking. I was 9 and I still remember what I made - Tomato Dumplings, Roast Beef and doughnuts (odd combination!). Doughnuts were such a joy to make! (I had been given cookbooks from my aunt who was a great home cook.) To be honest I sometimes felt I had to cook out of necessity (Mom didn't care about eating raw pork or allowing raw chicken juices to run into other dishes in the fridge...). This really allowed me to do some serious exploring. We did not have much money when I was little but I had no idea. I started experimenting with game and was making doughnuts, canning raspberries, making pickles all by the age of 10.
My palate has always been extremely adventurous. Cooking has always come naturally to me. I found myself correcting my Home Economics teacher often. She took me aside and first reprimanded me but then realized I needed more of a challenge so I did some teaching from then on. She was sort of a mentor and we still have an excellent relationship.
Since then I have been passionate about food but it grew into an obsession when I began culinary courses and started traveling all over Europe. My appreciation for locally-grown organic slow food truly began with my first trip to Italy. The more I travel the more I have become a sponge, sucking up all the information on technique I can, frequenting markets, learnings phrases in various languages to get by. My husband and I own a house in Europe and love to forage and cook with locals and at the same time try to learn the language. There is so much to learn and I cannot get enough!
We bring back cookbooks from each country we've been to (some without one single word of English). I love the challenge of learning the language that way and replicating dishes we enjoyed on trips.
So, I cannot say I cooked with my grandmothers or Mom; I did not. But I do cook a lot with my small nephews and nieces!
Growing up on a small Ozarks farm, I was exposed to a lot of vegetables at an early age; my mom and her father were amazing gardeners. Sitting down every spring to map out the garden, with me always asking for more corn and more watermelons this year. Being sent out to the garden with a paring knife two minutes before dinner was ready to "get some onions," or out to the cellar under the old smokehouse to bring up a jar of green beans (how old?). The first spring salads! Trying to stay out of the way but wanting to peek when they butchered chickens (like watching a horror movie through your fingers), but it didn't keep me from loving my mom's fried chicken. Going to dinner regularly at my great-aunt's up the road; she always made beef stew (best ever) or gigantic hamburgers (also best ever) and was such a good cook that her family nickname was "Diner." Brushing dirt off strawberries in Grandpa's garden and eating them right there - or picking tiny wild ones in our neighbor's lane. Purple feet from the mulberry tree. Wild turkey at Thanksgiving. Going to the most remote corner of the farm to pick gooseberries ... etc., etc.
Thinking I only liked raw carrots, because the only cooked ones I'd had were from the school cafeteria. Not eating lunch at school because the food was so wretched. Being totally lost on school trips when all the other kids knew how to order from the McDonald's menu. Spaghetti in a restaurant being an astonishing treat. No barbecue, no garlic, no pasta, no rice, no tacos, no spices! Great variety of southern-ish home cooking; no variety or ethnicity otherwise.
My mom's midlife crisis when I was about 12, when she started spending nights elsewhere; me trying to cook for my dad & brother because someone had to, coming up with such delicacies as A Lot Of Scrambled Eggs, fried baloney sandwiches, fried *spam* sandwiches ... well, you get the idea. Knowing I ought to be able to do better. (A Lot Of Scrambled Eggs was probably my specialty.)
Going to a Chinese restaurant in a sort-of-nearby college town for the first time as a high schooler, ordering things on a whim, no idea what they were ... thought I was going to die of happiness over the hot and sour soup, had no idea what I was eating, only knowing I loved everything about it. In college, being able to order pizza (!) and having someone deliver it (!!). Going out for Chinese every chance I got. Macaroni and cheese in a hot pot! In grad school I lived on omelettes and stir fry (homemade).
Most of all, just loving to eat and always wishing i could expand my horizons. All still true! Still so much to learn and experience! Also wishing my mom had taught me to cook, or that I'd wanted to learn. All that home cooking ... gone! Slowly but surely, I'm getting there.
I'm another former picky eater. Forcing me to eat things I didn't like did no good, because an overactive gag reflex made things... messy. But my mom didn't want my food habits to dictate what the rest of the family ate. So, starting when I was about 5, my mom came to the conclusion that I was old enough not to poke my eye out with a butter knife and declared that if I didn't like what she made, I could make PB&J. Even a picky eater can only some many PB&J sandwiches before you want something else. So I started learning how to make other stuff. Learning to cook, and being in control of what I ate, meant that I slowly expanded my food horizons.
It was similar when we went out to eat. I was expected to find something on the menu. Oddly enough, even at my worst, I could always find something, even if it was teriyaki beef on a stick and plain rice at the japanese place.
Gourmet Magazine and spending my junior year in France. My mother, not a serious cook, subscribed to Gourmet solely for the beautiful images of table settings and arrangements of food. I read the recipes, starting at about age 10, and tried to make them, mostly without success (my mother kept insisting on shortcuts to keep the kitchen from becoming a disaster area--"You can just use Bisquik for that part"--aargh!).
When I went to France, I lived with a family and those people knew how to cook. My hostess swore otherwise, but I don't think I ever had the same dinner twice in that apartment. I tried mussels, lentils, boudin blanc, cornichons, capers, crepes with mushroom sauce, good cheap table wine, perfect bread, strong goat cheeses that never saw the inside of a refrigerator, creme de marrons, plain full-fat yogurt in a glass jar, desserts with cassis, little yellow-skinned, wrinkled apples that tasted like perfume, and grapes with seeds, all for the first time. When I came home for one last summer before graduatiing and living on my own, I took over the cooking for my family. Not that I knew how to cook, but I sure knew how to eat, and I think that's the beginning of cooking.
ETA: Just realized this is a thousand year old thread. Now I feel more like an archaeologist than a cook!
Gourmet magazine!! Yes, me too. We went to Gelsons every week. I'd add Gourmet, Omni and Architectural Digest to the cart and my mom would add Mad magazine. The clerks took years to figure out the Mad was for my mom and the others were for me.
Plain, full-fat yoghurt...yes, sometimes I cannot fathom why people don't eat more plain yoghurt.
Sounds like you had a great time abroad.
I've posted to quite a few thousand year old threads too. They sneak up on me at the bottom of other posts, maybe some kind of filter that lists similar topics no matter how old they are. I'm glad you resurected this though because it is a wonderful topic.
I'm one of the few replies on this list with a cooking parent (my English mom) who was, in my memory, a very ordinary cook. It made me a little wistful to read how many people had close family ties linked to pleasant food experiences. When I was growing up, mealtimes were stressful not because of food issues---our fussiness was respected and food we didn't like was never forced on me or my siblings -- but because of the tension between my parents. We children evaporated away from the table after dinner.
I became a chowhound by osmosis, living in New Haven, CT, an area with many strong ethnic communities. There was delicious bread and pastries from the kosher and Italian bakeries, fresh local produce and ice cream at roadside stands, legendary pizza downtown. By the time I was thirteen, I refused to let my mom make her Bisquik pancakes anymore (insufficiently mixed and including lumps of flour in the batter), making pancakes and french toast from scratch instead on Sunday morning. At one point, I thought seriously about becoming a chef, and I still have it in mind as a second career if I get burned out/felled by carpal tunnel syndrome.
My mother later told me that my father preferred plain food, which is why she cooked that way. They have been divorced for five years; my mom now has a Greek lover and her cooking has blossomed.
At the same time, I must own that one of my pleasant memories of my father is being about 7 or 8 and going in the car with him to a bakery in a nearby small town, to get just-right donuts and just-baked bread.
At the age of eighteen, I moved to Philadelphia to go to college, and acquired a lover 21 years older than me who was magnificiently fussy about food and loved a good meal. On the weekends, I was spared the campus dining hall as my lover fed me takeaway from a local gourmet shop, Chef's Market, or took me out for Chinese or pizza. Over the weekends and summers, I also cooked from the bowl of love--organic veggie stirfries, vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners. Thinking about the desserts we shared makes me blush.
At the same time, I worked in the kitchen and checkout area of a health food store. And, at my all-women's university, in my circle of friends, potlucks soon turned into cooking competitions, with each woman striving to bring or prepare a tastier contribution.
After I graduated and had more free time, I explored Philadelphia--Reading Terminal and the Italian Market, pizza parlors the restaraunts of Chinatown. I stood in line for bread and flirted my way to antipasto samples and custom-made sandwiches at Italian delis. In my first kitchen in my first apartment, I gleefully stocked my first spice cupboard and tiptoed into cooking risotto. Some of my culinary experiments, like roasting jalapeno peppers, worked suprisingly well.
My affaire ended badly, but after that, I took my dates seriously only if they liked a good meal, too. Once, as part of a long distance infatuation, I brought shiitake mushrooms and arborio rice to a crush in Omaha, who said good-humoredly, "I thought there was only one kind of mushroom. Fancy that."
I'd rather not eat than eat bad food, the luxury of living in plentiful times and having choices. I love exploring new ingredients and techniques (I just learned how to boil potatoes well, of all things) and restaraunts, although for the sake of my waist I do so in moderation. I associate food with freedom, pleasure, love, and shame.
It was always a mark of trust if I would allow someone to watch me eat fried chicken, which, if I'm in the mood for it, I eat with exceeding thoroughness. It's one reason I adore my husband -- he's both an epicure and a man capable of scarfing a cheesesteak, with an appetite that ranges like mine.
After reading some of these wonderful posts, am inspired to expand the "short list" in my original post.
My grandparents lived with us when I grew up. Both from Calabria, both Albanese. Food was a major focus, but not in a self conscious way - it was just how life was. Grandpa planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Grandma cooked, often all day. Everything from scratch and nothing processed. One speciality was Italian sausage, all hand made, a process I watched many times. She loved having me around in the kitchen so she could pinch my cheeks (I often had flour or something on my cheeks.) I even got to prick any little hollow spots in the sausage with the special needle. When the meat was prepared, before stuffing it in the casings she'd fry some bits to check it, and I was a test taster. She insisted the pork not be ground, but cut by hand. Imagine reducing pork butt to sausage meat with a knife. Lot of work, but I still do it this way.
Sausage pizza was made in huge black deep pizza pans, came out with an outer crust inches high. The dough would rise in huge bowls covered with towels. I would lift the towels just to smell that yeast smell. These pizzas were a big event, not made often...heck, the sausage alone took hours to make.
Her rolling pin hangs on my kitchen wall, and I also have the only surviving black pan. The bottom is covered with a million knife marks, from the millions of slices cut in that pan. Looking at them now, decades later...how poignant those silent marks are.
Fresh pasta by hand, no machines. Pasta e fagioli might be the usual cannelini beans, or could be chick peas or even limas. Escarole soup with tiny meatballs in it. Braciole had hard boiled egg inside, among other things. Lamb was a staple, often leg, with garlic and oregano - you could smell it cooking a block away. Easter Sunday saw two once-a-year breakfast dishes, one an egg ricotta mozzarella thing full of the above mentioned sausage that had been fried first (she called this frittata, but technically it wasn't one,) and the other an egg bread that is difficult to describe...huge golden braided loaf, very dense but not dry, with a hint of anise flavor. She called it "koo-lahtch" but I never saw it spelled. I believe kulach, or something like that, may be the Albanian word for bread (any help on that question out there?) However you spell it, you would see God when you ate it.
Too many dishes to go on here.
On holidays, Grandma would make so much, and folks would eat so much, that most of the clan ending up laying on the living room floor...aunts, uncles, dogs, cats, all on their backs on the floor after dinner.
Grandma and Grandpa went back to Italy just once, on a ship. When they returned, grandma came down the gangplank in her huge fur coat, even though it was not really cold out. Cuz she had salamis up the sleeves. Not sure why a smuggling operation was necessary, but those were best I ever had. They also brought a whole trunkful of various preserved things. It sat in our basement. I'd go down and lift the lid just to smell the sack of fennel seeds.
I not only got the passion for food, but learned what good food is and is not, and how it is made. I also learned first hand where it comes from. Got the gardening thing from Grandpa and still have it. And if we needed a chicken, he'd take me along to the poultry farm to pick one out.
Grandpa would eat anything, and make it look so good that you wanted it too. He also developed stomach problems. For a while Grandma got on a kick that cucumbers were the problem and would scream (literally) if he ate cukes. The veg garden was at the back of our property, with woods beyond that. So Grandpa planted corn in the next to last row, and the cukes behind the corn. Once the corn got up, he could innocently wander into the woods then circle back and steal his own cucumbers without being seen from the kitchen window.
I know this because he took me into his confidence. One day he waved from the woods for me to come to him. We went to a little clearing, and he had two cukes and his knife...but he'd forgotten to grab a salt shaker on his way out. My mission was to go get one without being seen. Mission accomplished, we sat on a log and ate em one slice at a time...he'd carefully salt one end, cut off the slice, salt, slice. That moment is clear as a bell to me, the garden warm cucumbers, insects buzzing, sun on the leaves, Grandpa's old hands, him holding out the slices to me on the knife.
I am full of gratitude to have had these two people in my life. I was ten when they died. Grandpa died of cancer, and Grandma said "I can't live without him" and died five minutes later. Shock? Heart attack? Or maybe she just didn't want to live without him. Or maybe she felt she better go with him to make sure he didn't have cukes.
Gosh, I've gone too long and there's so many other people and places. But will leave you with that much. And while they can't post here, I'm hoping Maria and Vincenzo are at least lurking on this board somehow. Thanks grandma and grandpa!
re: Bill Pisarra
What a beautiful post!! It almost made me weep. If you are ever in SF. There is a restaurant called Albona. The food is sort of a blend of Eastern European, Northern Italian. The owner is a kick. Some of the dishes remind me vaguely of a few of the good things my Serbian mother cooked.
re: Bill Pisarra
Those are the most beautiful stories about your grandparents. I am most lucky to have heard them first hand from the author & we just savored the homemade sausage pizza just last night :) (I am sure having written that poignant post had something to do with it!) There are no words to describe it, other than you would never order a pizza out ever again! Although, I will never be able to meet Maria & Vincenzo, I have a knowing about them from every dish that I eat that Will has made for me. I am the so
blessed to listen to these wonderful memories & tales and partake of their roots & culture every time I sit down to dine. Thanks for sharing them with me too.
My Dear Son: As I write this I have tears in my eyes and joy in my heart having discovered this site and seeing our past life before me. Your mom, grandma and grandpa I`m certain are sitting in heaven rejoicing to see what a great influence they were in your life. I rejoice also in having been a part of it all myself. How lucky can one be? Love Pa P
re: Bill Pisarra Sr
As the parent of grown up children too, I can share with you the tremendous gratification you must have felt when reading the touching tribute written by your son. His post brought tears to my eyes too,but yours absolutely destroyed me. I needed a good cry anyway.
I hope we hear a lot from the Pisaras around here. pat
re: pat hammond
re: Lisa Z
To one another`s homes. Of course with Bill Jr. in Moline.Il and pa in Portland, Or., there is a small problem. However Bill Jr`s sis Sue lives across the street from Pa P so guess who has the greater problem? On the other hand the better cook is the kid with olive oil on his cheek who has refused to wash it off since his grandma put it there 30-40 yrs ago.So we all have a problem but we also have great memories! Bill Sr.
re: Bill P Sr
A belated to welcome to Portland, dottore Pisarra e famiglia.
There are actually a number of Italian restaurants here that are better (in my opinion, of course) than il Fornaio. At the top of the list is Genoa, pricey and mostly for special occasions, but arguably the very best restaurant in town, Italian or otherwise. For less expensive but very good cucina italiana, try Bastas on NW 21st (owner Marco is toscanese), Papparrazi Pastaficio on NE Broadway (x-street 21st, Nick Medici makes all of the pasta...nice trattoria-like spot), il Piato on SE Ankeny (less authentic, higher priced, and slow, since they cook everything to order....but the soft polenta with gorgonzola is amazing), or Fratelli in the trendy Pearl District (about 11th and NW Hoyt...chef is actually from Amstersdam but the food, as I heard an Italian caller say on Car Talk the other day, is the vero McCoy).
Or bring some of that sausage over to my house. I'm Italian by marriage (my wife's grandparents were siciliani, chiame Rizzio) and inclination. My garden is overflowing with favas and rucola, I've got a stash of really good olive oil, and I love to cook.
re: Lisa Z
Having answered your query in a facetious manner I realize I really did not answer your question about nice Italian restaurants. I live in Portland,Or., and my daughter lives right across the street. We have been here about two years and so far the best Italian food is at Il Fornaios`s which is actually a California chain. Keep in mind we do not go out that often and we are always on the alert for a lead that would answer your question. Hence when I get a good lead I will let you know hoping you are not in Fairbanks,Alaska. I came here from Moline.Il.,(the quad cities area) and we did not go out for Ialian food cause that`s where my son lives. However his taste is very eclectic and when he goes out it generally is for food other than Italian. However having said that I must tell you that we did make several pilgrimages to Iowa City to a bistro called Mondo`s which is simply the greatest. It`s in a college town, the help is all young and very knowledgeable and the food is incredible. I believe they are also in Des Moines and if you ever get the chance go! I must tell you that as a retiree one of my pastimes is to read the obituaries daily. My purpose is to compare the number of Italian deaths to the number of Pizza parlors. Quad cities definitley has more place to eat pizza than italians. My son insists that simply proves that pizza is not an italian dish. Hope I`ve helped! PaPisarra
re: Lisa Z
I'm in Moline, Illinois, one of the Quad Cities, not exactly a cosmopolitan hotbed of chowhound activity. I came here from New York and the Island by way of a couple of years in the Chicago area, but most info I have for those places is far too dated.`
When I came here a couple of years ago, there was an utter dearth of Italian...just a couple of pretty sorry Italianoid joints, billions of "pizza" places, and the obligatory Olive Garden, replete with crowds up with wazoo.
That's started to change recently. I did float one Italian place recommendation here on the Midwest Area board. You can use "Quad Cities" on the search feature
to see it. But I suspected the online Chowhound population is low here, and sure enough there has been no response. So I am loathe to post any more unsolicited local info. But if somebody is coming to town and asks, I'm ready with the List, Italian or whatever (you can do alright here with Mexican, Vietnamese, gyros, and a few other surprises.)
I also posted about a recent visit to another new local Italian joint, as I needed chowhound help. You can read about this by searching on Biaggi, if you're interested.
Also put an Italian place post on the Chicago area board entitled West Burbs, DeMarco's. Really liked that place, but again, not terribly fresh info from me...was really wanting to hear from other hounds who might have something fresh about it, as you'll see if you read it, but nothing yet.
Which is surprising. There's a lot of people and a lot of good places of all kinds in the Western Burbs of Chicago, and would really like to hear folks in that area BOL (bark out loud.)
re: Lisa Z
And just so you understand where I am...
It's not uncommon for me to select the least too-big- and-overripe crappy eggplant in the supermarket - cuz there is no option if you gotta have eggplant - and have the cashier say "what IS this thing?"
and, on my mother's head, one day I bought artichoke hearts, the bagger read the label and asked what kind of animal is an artichoke?
Like I am buying pickled hearts of some exotic rodent or something. I almost committed suicide right there, but held on. I am still here.
On my mother's head, this is true. So, no, I don't have many Italian restaurants to share here in this place. Ya folla?
Big city folks, count your blessings.
re: pat hammond
Thanks for the message and the tears. Tried your email without success. In any event life is so short and so many good things happen that we do not appreciate til much later! I`m sure these are all things you are not aware of and your tears disprove such a dumb statement! Sorry and again thanks. Pa Pisarra
re: Bill Pisarra
This is an incredible thread.
Like many of you out there, I was exposed to good food at an early age. My mother was a superb cook and could cook just about anything--ribs, seafood stews, beans, roasts, casseroles, chops, salads, etc. My favorite was breaded veal cutlets baked in a creamy wine and mushroom sauce.
Her dad had been a sausage maker, trained in the old country, and her mom was great at peasant cooking: lentils with ham hocks, spaetzle (home made dough slice thinly by hand into boiling water), oxtail soup, meatloaf, braised lamb chops and so on.
My dad wasn't much of a cook, but he loved eating, and food was always important in our family as I was growing up. Plus my mom insisted on eating out one night a week, so I was exposed to what variety of foods there were in Southern Oregon (Cantonese, Italian, Mexican, and some fancy dining). The first cooking I ever did was barbecuing steak, but when my mom took a job cooking in and running a small restaurant, I learned how to do lunches for myself and my brother. And later when I got married, I decided if I wanted to eat adequately on a graduate student's salary, I would have to learn how to cook. I am no great chef, but I like a lot of what I fix and I do pay attention to food and what I eat. Chowhound and SOAR are two of my very favorite sites on the internet.
Thanks for letting me share some of my memories.
I wrote this for a New York Times essay contest a couple of years ago, asking for a brief description (150 words or less) of a restaurant or food memory that had a strong influence on us -- and won an autographed copy of Ruth Reichl's autobiography, along with 19 other entrants. It suddenly came to mind again, reading this thread, which I've so enjoyed.
Year: 1957. Place: Napolitanos, a long-gone Italian restaurant near Pittsburghs long-gone Forbes Field. Players: Alex, owner/chef; Dena, shy 10-year-old.
I asked Alex what was in my favorite dessert-his miraculous hot zabaglione. Come! I show you! he bellowed, leading me into the mysterious world beyond the swinging doors.
Alex ladled a few inches of boiling water from a huge spaghetti pot into a saucepan, nested a smaller saucepan in it, and lit a burner. He cracked an egg into his hand, let the white drip out between his fingers, and plopped the yolk into the empty saucepan. Now you! and I followed suit until there were eight yolks. Using half an eggshell, he poured in several measures of marsala, then added sugar. Now beat! Alex ordered, handing me a whisk.
As our concoction evolved into a pale froth over the simmering water, I learned that I, too, could perform magic.
Alex's earlier location was the Meadow Grille, corner of Larimer Avenue and Meadow Street in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. Late forties, we Carnegie Tech music students would always go there. One time we showed up with our newbie colleague, who was colored. (Pre-black days.) Alex quietly expressed an uneasiness, given the then nature of that neighborhood. Gentleman that he was, he proceeded to render extra jolly service, and took one of the first steps toward the integration of East Liberty.
Then there was the time a bunch of us went to the food festival at the St. George Orthodox Church on the Boulevard of the Allies. There, seated at the table, a customer this time, was Alex. When it became apparent the church ladies were suffering gridlock in the kitchen, Alex leapt from his chair and took over. You can bet he restored order in two shakes of an agnello's tail.
We had very few restaurants except the Okie-Lebanese BBQ, but had a veggie garden with fruit trees & pecans, so I knew that "fresh" really means something. We also bought our meat by the half-whatever, from ag-teacher friend-raised livestock my dad would choose himself, the way other people choose lobsters from a restaurant tank.
But I think something specific happened in my brain the evening a houseguest from India gave me a bite of what I now suspect was a kofta. I would have been about six years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. Lights came on. After that I started remembering how specific things tasted, like how, the vacation after first grade, the gravy at the hotel restaurant in Arizona was made from instant beef bullion. And my dad would tease me about how the first thing I remembered about a place was what we'd eaten there.
Like a lot of others, a childhood of varied eating, good cooking, and being surrounded by enthusiasm for good cooking and eating was the source of it all. We, too, weren't allowed to refuse something without trying it (but then refusing it was okay). I'm now quite grateful for some of the food rules I grew up with: a lot of homemade baby food a la Pat Hammond, no fast food, no sugary cereal or soda at home, no squishy white bread or ice cream in a cube, scratch-cooking (nothing from a mix, no meals-from-a-box or frozen dinners; the house-made ravioli from the local Italian deli that my mom stocked certainly don't count!), and milk delivered from the dairy in glass bottles (and this was the '70s). Unlike a lot of people I know, I never craved most of the junk that my friends got to eat, either. Insistance on good ingredients--sweet butter, real maple syrup, natural peanut butter, fresh produce--has had a major impsct (can't stand margarine or Log Cabin; I'd rather eat my pancakes plain). Eating out was varied and decidely middle-middle class (not much "fine dining").
My own cooking history goes back to when I was two and my mom would sit me on the counter while she made bread, giving me a little piece of dough to make my own little loaf (I always wanted raisin bread). As I got older I started first with baking sweets, as many do, then the occasional dinner for my family, then started reading cookbooks and looking for new things. No one made a point to teach me to cook, I just got interested and was around good cooking. From ages about two through eight, I lived in a household with four adults, and three were good and somewhat adventurous cooks (one vegetarian). Between their mishmash of backgrounds, traditions, and interests, home cooking ranged from occasional homemade doughnuts, to latkes, to tofu and chiles, to fried green tomatoes, with plenty of American standards as well. My mom canned applesauce and apple butter, chutnies, and jams, and made her own (vegetarian) mincemeat. Homemade Danish pastry, fig pudding, and fuitcake--with no candied fruit--soaked in rum for a month were Christmas traditions that originated with my parents. The man who shared the house would make kulich and pascka at Easter, and every Mardi Gras, he'd throw a huge open house and spend the whole day in front of the stove cooking crepes for everyone who showed up. Mashed potatoes were preferred with skins and lumps, and pineapple upside-down cake was always made with gingerbread. No one ever had a birthday cake from a bakery, even if it was a marjolaine. Only so much of this remains, after evolution of lives and diets, and my working parents didn't always have time for the more elaborate, but the food ethic stayed (and is still) in place.
And if I were a different chowhound, the fact that I grew up around the corner from Jim Leff's beloved Flint's would have had a much greater impact!
The first half of your posting describes my childhood nearly to the last detail - even the part about making little loaves of bread! Are you my brother or something? Even the part about never having birthday cakes that weren't baked at home. I desperately wanted an ez bake oven, but my parents would say, "you wanna bake a cake? we'll bake a cake." So they bought me little pans, and I would make miniature heart shaped layer cakes with jam between the layers and buttercream frosting, with real ingredients in the big oven.
It used to be a problem for me to go to some of my friends houses for lunch, because their parents would make mac & cheese from a box with margarine. Then and now the smell of margarine literally makes me gag.
Special gifts my parents would give each other were kitchen appliances and family treats were expensive foods at home - pates, cheeses or freshly squeezed oj. My parents somehow figured out food themselves - their mothers are both pretty awful cooks and have regaled me with stories of the foods they would slip under the table to the dog.
I know that my parents didn't feed me commercial baby food - this was in the 70's - they just put whatever they were having for dinner in the food mill. To this day, my brother and I are eating machines - we love everything. The foods we don't like can be counted on one hand. My cousins, on the other hand, who had parents who probably cook like my grandmothers, will eat only "kid food" - pizza, spaghetti, mac & cheese from a box, hot dogs. Show me a baby who doesn't like chicken liver pate or burgundy meatballs!
Food was important growing up, as a sign of well-being and abundance, but much of it wasn't particularly good. My mother was an indifferent cook at best, and when she began to work full-time her cooking was far from that. My father's mother was an excellent cook. Standard Litvak fare (Northern Ashkenazi), but everthing was made with love, and I have yet to taste gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage or chremslach which rival hers. (Her cholent, though good, could not compare to the Hungarian variety.)
Though I always have had a weight problem, I was actually a very timid and limited eater when I was young, and this began to change in early puberty, when I was around 14, for several reasons. Perhaps appetites of all kinds began to blossom. Also, I went on Weight Watchers and lost a fair amount of weight, but got very bored by the food, and to compensate, I started reading cookbooks in the school libary. When I came off the diet, I found that I was eager to try what I had read about. The food boredom factor was compounded by my mother's increasingly limited cooking, and I started cooking out of desparation. My first dish, very successful, was a Hungarian goulash (actually more of a porkolt) from one of my mother's cookbooks. At about the same time came my first trips to Chinatown. Much of my adult consciousness and political and philosophical opinions emerged from sizzling deep fat with the sweet-and-sour fried sea bass at Hong Wah on the Bowery. I would probably disdain their food now, but it was magic to me then, and opened up my world.
With the exception of a few deserts, my mother was the worst cook in the world. My father didn't cook, and had no interest in food. Wine and beer were never served. Because my family was poor, we rarely ate at restaurants, and when we did it was at a cafeteria, an all-you-can-eat buffet, or an Americanized Chinese restaurant. So I didn't have much to compare with the food served at home. Food was simply not an important part of my growing up.
One of my first influential experiences had to do with wine, not food. In 1969-70, while living in Washington, D.C., I had the good fortune to discover a wine shop named Mayflower Wines & Spirits. The proprietor's name was Aaron Millman. I told him that I wanted to learn about wine. His technique for teaching me was to select various wines with instructions to come back and tell him which wines I liked best, and, more importantly, why I liked wine "A" better than wine "B." Millman's "assignments" caused me to concentrate on what I was tasting while drinking the wine (a new experience), and to try to identify and describe which tastes I liked, and which tastes I didn't like. Over time, Millman taught me to be attentive to new and different aspects of the tasting experience, expanding my sense of taste. He helped me to draw increasingly subtle and nuanced distinctions as my education about wine progressed. I also began to pay more attention to the tastes and textures of food. I became intensely curious why some food was so much better than other food, which resulted in my efforts to learn about cooking. Obviously, my fascination with food and wine has continued. But a lot of the credit for starting me along this path goes to Aaron Millman, whose generosity, kindness, patience, and passion I'll never forget.
I grew up in the restaurant business. My mother was the cook (chef was never used) She is an excellent cooker of simple homestyle dishes including Rare Roast Beef with killer gravy and mashed potatoes and great soups
My dad dragged his three young sons to fine dinning establishments, where we learned to eat Escargo and how to dismantle a lobster all before the age of 8.
The real explosion into full blown Chowhounding came when I moved to 200 Mott Street above a bread bakery with Chinatown and Little Italy at my doorstep, I began to eat things I had never seen before. AND I LOVED them This led to an expanssion into the myriad of ethnic eats that NYC had to offer.And so it goes.
My parents were first-generation Americans, both children of Russian Jewish immigrants. Food seemed to be the center of the universe to the whole family - perhaps because my grandparents were all poor and hungry most of the time until becoming successful (in a small-town way) in America.
My mother was a marvelous cook and meals at my grandmother's table were always enormous -- it was considered embarrassing to run out of something when someone might want more. We always started with a relish tray (carrot and celery sticks, radishes, cucumber spears and black and green olives). There were at least two main courses. Frequently, my grandmother would call every member of the family individually (her two married children, their spouses, and four grandchildren) early in the week to ask what we'd like for dinner. And, on Friday night, the table, with all its leaves in, would be literally covered with platters: spaghetti and meatballs, a chicken stewed in spaghetti sauce (heaven!), fried chicken, stuffed derma with gravy, pot roast or brisket, grated potato balls (like dumplings, only much heavier, and the recipe is lost forever), cholent, potato pancakes and homemade applesauce, a couple of broiled steaks, and hot dogs for the two youngest. Not to mention my grandfather's homemade health salad.
We also ate out often and were not, if I remember correctly, ever given a childrens menu. Whatever restaurant existed in Pittsburghs greater metropolitan area in the 50s, we ate there from top-dollar, formal French food to the best chili-dogs in western Pennsylvania. My sister and I were instructed to taste everything. "I don't like that" was only legitimate if we'd actually tried it once.
Then, when I was 12 years old, I went to boarding school near Philadelphia, where the kitchen was staffed by an incredible team of Southerners. I was introduced to real American cooking: roast beef with watercress and Yorkshire pudding: fresh shad and shad roe, broiled with bacon; roast Cornish game hens with wild rice stuffing. A small crystal pitcher filled with simple syrup was on every table during warm weather, for use in our iced tea. I gained twenty-five pounds in the first semester.
I think it was pre-determined: I really had no choice but to become food-obsessed. And Ive turned out to be a really good cook, too. If you truly love to eat, I think thats a natural progression.
I didn't go to boarding school, and I'm not a particularly talented cook, but otherwise your story could have been mine.
Food is inextricably intertwined with celebration to me. Food equalled conviviality and fun. I still find the kitchen and the dinner table the best place to have a conversation (that's the main reason I resent loud music and cruddy acoustics in restaurants).
Even as a small child, my brother and I appreciated the love and hard work my mother put in to her cooking. We manifested no such gratitude for her cleaning, or carpooling, or other nurturing -- she was rewarded most for her cooking. Her mother was a rather bad cook, and my mother taught herself how to cook healthier and more adventurous alternatives. Even my father, who typically did nothing to help around the kitchen, dove into barbecuing with a passion.
And I must admit that I enjoy feeding others. Chowhounding in restaurants becomes a form of "fantasy cooking," allowing us to lead non-Chowhounds to great food. For me, the process of sharing great restaurants exceeds the thrill of the find.
re: Dave Feldman
Thanks for reminding me that celebration & breaking bread with friends & family taught me that food was important, and good cooking an act of love & friendship. Maybe I didn't think of it because those parts of my life haven't changed with adulthood. All our "events" centered around really good food. My mother is an excellent cook, and made her college room & board baking for her landlady. My grandmother cooked for wheat-threshing crews. Our extended-family autumn gatherings are still groaning boards of roast venison & pecan pies and chicken & dumplings and whatever amazing dessert (like this year's 4-layer walnut cake) my cousin Wayne the Kansas mechanic has discovered. And covered-dish dinners in the church gymnasium were and remain a monthly event and the main place where new recipies are passed along, and where cooking reputations are made.
When I was 13 we moved to Mexico. Suddenly, we had relatively way more $ than we had ever had before, so we ate out a lot and took trips all over the place. Everything was an experiment; everything was exciting.
Once we followed an unmarked dirt road near Veracruz and ended up at a little shrimp-fishing village. Our mangled Spanish mattered not at all when we were offered the freshest shrimp imaginable, served by people who couldn't quite believe these crazy-happy gringos who had descended upon them. I want to figure out how to recapture that chow-elation with my own kids.
re: Sharon A.
>I want to figure out how to recapture that chow->elation with my own kids.
This sounds like a good question for a post in its own right. One common element in this thread seems to be that folks come to chowhoundry through exposure to the beauty and the love of food and eating from another, be that directly transmitted from a mentor, a relative, a family, or absorbed after transplantation from a desert to a passionate chowhound oasis of some kind or other.
If that is so, then parents are in a profoundly powerful position to pass this beautiful part of life on to their kids. In fact they are probably in the primary position.
This is a great question. Post it up! Most folks won't find it if it gets pursued here, buried under this thread.
re: will pisarra
What I do is expose them to lots of different stuff and have them at least taste it. I demonstrate excessive enthusiasm whenever they find a new food they like.
My husband and I eat lots of things with great relish and try never to say we don't like something (at least in front of the kids).
We go to farmers markets and have the kids pick whatever they want, and then we take it home and eat it. It makes them very proud to have selected a "new" food on their own.
Of course, they still prefer chicken nuggets. I bet other parents of small children (mine are 7 and 4) will be able to relate.
re: Sharon A
My son (age 3 1/2) shows definite signs of chow-puppy-ness. While he will eat almost anything (e.g. chicken nuggets) except leafy greens (even specks of parsley in sauce get rejected) his favorite foods right now seem to be noodles of any type, octopus and squid and mussels. And he'll try ANYTHING. Sometimes he insists on trying things.
My wife and I both enjoy eating, and I, in particular, am an adventerous eater. Other than that, we haven't done anything in particular to foster this love of food in our son.
re: will pisarra
Both of my kids are grown and living in New York. They both love food. When they were just babies, I had the best time cooking for them. Pureed food was real food that I'd put through a blender for them, with less seasoning of course. But the most fun was when they graduated to finger food and I could give them a variety on their high chair tray. At about 3 they became balky and had food fixations. One summer in Maine the daughter would only eat hamburgers. The son had a very picky period as well. But if you just hang in with the little guys, these phases pass like all the others. They have developed very sophisticated palates over the years and I like to think I helped that along with interesting foods at an early age. pat
re: will pisarra
I am blessed with two wonderful children, an almost 13 year old girl and an eight year old boy. They are kind, interesting and unique, and their close and caring relationship with each other is a constant joy to my wife and me. We expose them to a wide variety of foods, and bring them to many exotic places to eat. We do not force them to eat what they don't like, and try not to make food an issue, figuring that it didn't pay to in any case.
My children have perhaps the narrowest diets of any two primates living in North America, or perhaps it only seems that way. Their four major food groups are salt, sugar, fat and starch. The bulk of their diet consists of pizza, bread, pasta (with a bit of butter for my son, but with only air and salt for my daughter), bread, dessert, and some raw fruits and veggies. A friend (who thinks that I should be keeping kosher in any case) and I agree that this is a sign of the existence of G-d, though I at least have not decided whether it is indicative of divine justice, vengeance, or just a sense of humor.
There are signs of progress though. Both kids enjoy cooking, if not eating. When the weather was a bit cooler we made chapatis, moroccan bread and pita bread, which they ate with relish. My son has developed a taste for chicken in many varieties, and is something of a conoisseur of chicken kebabs and sate. Both kids love going to restaurants, even when they eat just plain bread or rice, and esp. chowhoundy type places. (My son loves Nyonya, predictably for the sate, while my daughter likes Captain King.) As I noted in my earlier response to the formative influence postings, my own appetites did not broaden until puberty, so there is always hope.
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.)
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...
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.
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?
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: pat hammond
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.