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Pivotal food moments or how I became a food freak..

Sorry but I loathe the word foodie and chowhound didn't really capture what I was going for in this instance.

I got to thinking about this when replying to the "first food memory" thread. I come from a family who loves food and loves to eat but there are certain food epiphanies that stand out as having changed the way I think about food and cooking and that turned me from just a person who loves food into the certifiable food freak I am today.

Probably the first such instance that stands out is when I was about 9 and my mom took my brother and I to have dinner at her old college roommate's house. It was the 70s and it was the first time I had had real french bread. It was a baguette and it was different in every way from the soft wonder-like bread that I had had up til then and been told was "french bread".

We also had steak that night. There was no ketchup with it. Up til then I had had chuck steak which is why there was always alot of "tenderizing" going on. Also a salad made with red leaf lettuce and some sort of sweet vinaigrette dressing. Not iceberg lettuce, not french dressing (again with the not french french? what was up with that?)

My brother kind of remembers this meal but I've never forgotten it. I think the impression it made on me was that there was a way to cook that was not just getting the most food for the least amount of money on the table but that there were standards at play. I also was beginning to realize that real food was made from scratch and that condiments don't
always improve food.

There were other things, like my grandma's crabapple jelly. It was the most beautiful color
in the jar on the window sill. So food can be pretty too..that started to sink in then. There are more, these are just some of the first ones but I want to hear yours..

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  1. When I was introduced to real food while working as a bus boy in college at a fine, upscale restaurant back in the mid 80's. It was at this time that I was introduced to duck and duck confit and have been hooked ever since...

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sean

      When I was 12 my family moved to the Bay Area and my dad opened a business half a block from Chinatown.There was nothning to do, of course, but try a Chinese restaurant for the first time. I \t was the first time I'd I'd paid much attention to food. Chinese remains my favorite cuisine. I can't fix it at home, though; I've tried many "authentic" recipes and they're all blah.

    2. As a child food moments were always important. Going to the bakery and getting fresh rye bread and apple strudel after church. Going to another bakery that had great baguettes- my very super blond almost white haired sister would start the sneaking off one end and when we got home had to explain that the "Weisse Maus (white mouse)" did it. Then going to coffee with the family on Sunday afternoons at all the distant relations and learning who had the baking skills- some serious Euro pastries. For a time it was the "broasted" chicken and potatos and coleslaw from Slavkos (San Pedro, Calif)- The extra order of potatoes never made it home and I realized that food was an incredible enjoyable bonding experience with the right stuff and the right people. I think exposure was key- I had never had fish until one of my dad's employees started selling his rockfish catch at work. Mom started experimenting. I could go on and on. My very pivotal moments came on a trip to Vancouver in the late 70's- lots of restaurants and a burning desire to re-create not the exact dishes, but the whole food experience. (Valentino and Rex in Los Angeles around the same time added some epiphany moments as well)

      1 Reply
      1. re: torty

        Yeah later on, after I was awakened from my hamburger helper stupor when I was little..It was chinese dumplings made by a chinese friend in college. Eaten with a raw clove of garlic on the side and the ginger..Then an older friend mentor made lots of things that changed me forever, Corn on the cob with umeboshi paste and grilled chicken with something other than bbq sauce. It was at this point that I "invented" a bing cherry jalapeno vinegar chutney that blew things wide open for me as far as what a recipe was. You mean I can just put stuff together and keep tasting and it might work?? I still make that chutney and that was 20 years ago.

        Torty, I remember the broasted chicken craze! There was definitely a palpable buzz about that in the 70s too..You're lucky you're mom was a good cook. I've only recently realized that mine maybe wasn't (sorry mom! but that swiss steak just didn't do it for me! )

      2. When I was little my uncle would make Thanksgiving gravy if he was over. I was probably about 7. Mom or Dad made just fine gravy mostly, but if Uncle John was on the house, he got to make it. And everyone made a big deal about of it. So that sparked interest.

        Then, when I was in college I was making pasta at my BFs house, and his Indian roommate remarked that "In India, my mom boiled rice like you boil pasta." Which sparked "wait, there is more than one way to do things?"

        And lots of little things in between.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ldkelley

          I grew up in your typical meat & potatoes house. No garlic, no spices other than oregano, basil & parsley. Nothing with any kind of spice to it. O…and no fresh vegetables (always canned) except for the iceburg lettuce, carrots & celery salad with Oil & red wine vinegar.

          When I was 19 I got a job in the big city of New Haven and my entire world changed. BUT I have to say it wasn’t until I was having trouble with my marriage and I started to cook and stay in the kitchen as a way to avoid talking to him LOL!. I subscribed to Gourmet magazine and just started cooking. It was also when the Foodnetwork just came out and Emeril was an inspiration to food and Sara Moulton with her simple but elegant every day meals.

          I still have a long way to go before I consider myself a food freak but I can definitely appreciate a good meal and see the nastiness of processed food.

        2. Forgive me if I've told this story on these boards before (being in your 60s can do that to a person): I grew up near Pittsburgh and, while my parents and grandparents were tremendously influential in teaching me to taste everything - and to like most of it - there was one moment when I realized the power of food - and of the preparer. I was probably 8 or 9 and we were at our favorite Italian restaurant. After a fabulous meal, I asked Alex, the chef/owner, if he was too busy in the kitchen to make fresh, hot zabaglione for dessert. "Not at all! You, come with me," he said, and pulled me into the kitchen. He cracked a few eggs, tossed the yolks into a bowl set atop a double boiler, handed me a whisk, and ordered me to start whisking. He added sugar, which he measured into one of the cracked eggshells, as well as sweet Marsala wine. I whisked like crazy, after he showed me how, and watched as the golden liquid transformed into a pale, puffy cloud. Alex spooned it into short glasses arranged on a tray and we proudly marched back into the dining room to serve my family. When I saw the looks on their faces as they spooned it up, I was completely hooked on the magic I'd just helped to perform.

          I know this sounds all mushy and poetic and s**t but, 50+ years later, I still feel that way when I put homemade food down on the table where friends and family are seated.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Deenso

            What a great story! And what a great guy Alex was to take the time to really interact with a child like that.

            I recently catered an anniversary reception. The hosts granddaughter, a very intelligent, delightful child - had asked if she could assist. I made her a special anniversary apron, went over the tasks and expectations,and she was a real trooper and a big help! She is very interested in food - I like to think this experience will be one that helps her increase her interest and bring back fond memories someday!

            1. re: Deenso

              Deenso, ny eyes teared up as I read your story. That was one of the most touching posts I've ever encountered on Chowhound. Thank you.


              1. re: maria lorraine

                What a nice thing to say, maria. And, yes, meatn3, Alex was a wonderful, generous man. My family moved from western PA to NYC when I was a teenager. When I graduated from high school, my mother planned a surprise party and Alex and his wife, Josephine, drove all the way from Pittsburgh with a cooler full of all my family's favorite dishes! They're long gone now, but the memories - and flavors - linger.


              2. re: Deenso

                Not quite the same context and perhaps not as auspicious, but I know what you're saying, Deenso;

                For me it was perhaps 33 years ago when I was 10 or so. My folks were 40 somethings and would have the occasional all night drink fest with friends. Maybe they'd start out playing cards or board games, but it would boil down to drinking apple cider or tom collins or wine until well after the sun came up.

                Within reason, they'd let me do what I wanted around the house until I went to bed. I started making snacks in the kitchen to feed the group, usually around 3 or 4am. Trying to replicate pizza, I would slap a kraft single on bread, top with sliced tomato and oregano then bake until melted.
                Going around the table, people would grab a slice and say 'hey, this is really good, what are they?"
                (thinking back, I probably could have made refried sawdust and they would have liked it...)
                I named them 'cheese dreams' which brought smiles.

                The thing I remember most is how people simply enjoyed something that I had made. It seemed incredible and I got lots of satisfaction from that.
                Fast forward 12 years and I opened my first restaurant, a second 7 years after.
                The single most driving factor was making food that people enjoy.

                I'm no longer in the business (the stresses can lead to nastiness, but thats for another thread...), but the creative process of cooking is still overwhelming.

                Yes, Deenso, putting homemade food down on the table with family and friends is an extremely rewarding endeavor. Watching others enjoy my food, well, like you say 'mushy and poetic' gets me all fuzzy with satisfaction...

                1. re: Deenso

                  Well, Deenso, you're reiterating your recollection of the legendary Alex, so I'll do likewise.

                  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. (This was before discovery of the word "black".) 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.

                2. My father really taught me how to taste and think about flavor, texture and presentation. But he was a busy man with little patience to have a child in the kitchen on the rare times he cooked. Our lessons were conducted through his critiques of each meal.

                  As a child, one of my neighborhood friends father was from rural Louisiana. Every Saturday morning he would make a big pot of something, usually a gumbo. I would hang out in the kitchen with him. We would have coffee with chicory and breakfast sweets (he could whip up sweet rolls like magic), talk about anything and everything, and make roux, stir, taste and season all morning. And then we would eat!

                  His kids had no interest, his wife was embarrassed by his "country" cooking (they divorced a few years later) so I think he enjoyed having someone to share his tradition with. I was too young to think to take notes - it was just something fun, like a special club with just me & Mr. Brown, but I like to think I absorbed some of his techniques on some level! I think of him fondly every time I make a pot of gumbo!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: meatn3

                    Grandma had a deep drawer in her kitchen that was one third sugar and two thirds flour. My cousin and I would be tasked with measuring these for her as she baked and I loved the feel of silky flour and scratchy suger and the baking smells. Gradually we were able to do other tasks and by 8 I was baking cookies on my own from mom's Betty Crocker three ring cookbook - which she has to this day.

                    You'd think I'd be just into baking from that story but I learned the basics of cooking from mom over the phone - I was a latchkey kid before they coined that phrase. My after school chore was to call mom and find out what I was supposed to start for dinner. Baked potatoes? cut the ends off, rub them with shortening and into the oven. Moose roast? Season with the simple stuff - pepper, salt and garlic and into the oven. I created my own fried chicken and was off on my love of cooking and I've been fortunate over the years to have friends from all over the world and have been able to learn a little about their local food from each of them.

                    This led to my true love - other peoples' family recipes - nothing is better than asking a friend what one dish they loved growing up and being able to make it for them. The look of contented diners - that does it for me.

                    1. re: AlaskaChick

                      Nice! And they say time travel doesn't exist.

                  2. 1988. I was six. Mom's kitchen in the house where I grew up. For dinner? Fried octopus. After that, mac n cheese just didn't seem as interesting.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: madgreek

                      I love these stories. Chowhounds are chowhounds because of the way their love for food comes through when they talk about it, I think.

                      I'll never forget the first time I really cooked for my dad. I was in high school and made lemongrass chicken. I saw a look on his face I'd never seen before. He was impressed and was maybe having a little food epiphany of is own! I think he'd been proud of me and had expressed it before but this was different. I still really love cooking for my dad because he's not at all an adventurous eater and has been known to refuse to try things. I can almost always drag him out of his meatloaf and pork chop world and into our crazy eating everything under the sun world...

                    2. Spending one summer with my Grandparents. My grandma and mother are both wonderful cooks. But back then, I was about 9, my folks didn't have a lot of money so the food was good just not fancy. But staying with grandma... linguine with shrimp, clams and cream sauce, going to my first farmers market (actually on a farm) to get produce, cooking fresh caught fish on a grill, taking me and my sisters to an Indian restaurant, showing me how to can vegetables and Grandpa making sauerkraut...
                      That summer was the turning point. I became a foodie.
                      Oh yeah, and my Uncle brought me to see The Exorcist, which has nothing to do with food other than he ate enough for 5 people and lived with my Grandparents until he was about 45. We haven't heard from him in over a decade. Last we knew he just got fired from 7-11 and was a hermit in a FL trailer park.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: P.Andy

                        Gosh, you should write a short story or a screenplay about this.

                      2. Mine didn't involve anything exotic - quite the opposite - but it nonetheless had a profound effect on me.

                        I was about 3 or 4 years old - able to walk and talk but not yet old enough to make myself a peanut butter sandwich. My favorite aunt was about to make one for me, but before doing so she asked me: did I want the peanut butter spread thick or thin?

                        For some reason that simple question was a blinding revelation, one that still reverberates within me to this day - the realization that the same food (PB sandwich) could provide two vastly different eating experiences, depending on its method of preparation, and that I, through an exercise of will, could affect that outcome!

                        My answer, after a moment of awed reflection, was "thick."

                        1. I was 10 years old and this was my first year of school in the new, better neighborhood (safer, more affluent).

                          My teacher would throw us holiday parties. I believe this was thanksgiving. I don't remember who brought food but I believe it was a few parent volunteers.

                          All I had eaten my whole life was my mothers filipino cooking.

                          I tried deviled eggs and mashed potatoes for the first time. OMG

                          1. Honestly, my story is a bit somber (in contrast to my usual posts). I came to really delve into and appreciate food and flavor after recovering from anorexia in my senior year of high school... I had dropped to about 80 pounds, was only eating steamed broccoli and cauliflower, and was totally not myself. But before then, as a teenager, I was just into whatever was quick, easy, and familiar. French fries, popcorn, chicken fingers, the like. During my eating disorder, I introduced more veggies, but *only* veggies. No fats, carbs, proteins. During my recovery, I needed to gain weight. My mom made a pizza with olive oil, pesto, artichokes, tomatoes, feta... As ridiculous as it sounds, this pizza changed my life. Not only did it help my recovery (learning delicious food could be relatively healthy and a part of a normal diet), but it also expanded my tastes...Greek, Mexican, Thai, Korean, Lebanese, Japanese...I sometimes wonder, if not for my eating disorder, would I still be eating french fries and chicken fingers?? haha

                            1. I grew up in Minnesota. My mom didn't seem to enjoy cooking until my brother and I went to college and my dad was often gone on long business trips. We ate a lot of bland foods and frozen family entrees. I wasn't particularly picky, but I did hate things like mustard, mayo, fish and shrimp.

                              One summer when I was about 12, my friend's family invited me on a road trip to Montana. My folks gave them money to cover my lodging, food and gas. I was invited to try anything my friend's family ordered and given the opportunity to really order anything I wanted to eat.

                              I found that I didn't actually hate seafood. My first bite of a fresh from the fryer jumbo shrimp was a revelation and I became excited about also exploring the world through meals. I also ate my first chicken fried steak and bone-in pork chop. It was a gift of an experience.