I have been very sad this week. Two of my first and best mentors have died. Rich Vliet and Norma Sowell have been friends, teachers and touchstones for me from the very beginning of my professional culinary career. Both were incredibly supportive, delightful, determined people with vision. Both impressed me deeply and I’m going to miss them so much.
I’m sure you all have heard the phrase, “The Cobbler’s children have no shoes.” Sadly for my family, the chef’s children have no food. In the house, that is. I haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks. Something has died in my refrigerator, which is an entire ecosystem I am only marginally in charge of. It’s like Biosphere 2 in there. Our pantry looks like a tornado hit the Asian market and left ravaged bags of rice noodles and shiitake mushrooms scattered everywhere. I just have not had time to cook at home lately.
I devour books. When I find one I love I’ll read it cover to cover, as fast as I can, and all other activities pale in comparison. I have a particular passion for food essays that started when I was a little girl. I would read about exotic places and food and imagine myself eating it, and then beg my mother to make whatever it was I was reading about. She was busy, though, so she let me try to cook some of it myself.
I just returned to Kansas after a week in Connecticut. I went for a bellydance teacher training and was hosted by a friend who grew up here, but has since put roots down on the East Coast. My friend Pajes and her family made sure that I got a good sample of the wonderful food from the area…and there was lots of it. They are blessed with proximity to New York City, so their standards are very high and there was incredible diversity of choices, from Moroccan to regional Italian and the some of the best pizza I have ever eaten.
I don’t normally go to really expensive restaurants, for no other reason than I am usually too broke to do so. If a meal costs as much as a pair of cute heels, I will almost always choose the shoes. Most of the food I’m drawn to is inexpensive, spicy, and can be eaten standing up. I love great food at any cost, though, so once in a great while, we go crazy and splurge on something really special.
Italian food is almost universally accepted as America’s Favorite Ethnic Food. It’s so mainstream nowadays that we forget that as few as 50 years ago it was considered a very foreign cuisine. We are so saturated with pizza in Wichita (Italian cuisine’s gateway drug) that we have acquired a taste for tomato sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella. We love spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna. We want our pasta drenched in sauce and cheese. This Americanized Italian food is delicious, don’t get me wrong. I grew up on Ragu sauce with Kraft Parmesan cheese and ground beef meatballs.
Sushi has been the subject of many a dinner negotiation. I adore sushi and will bargain outrageously with my non-sushi-loving family to get to go eat it. I’ll promise to fold laundry, or dance a little jig, or even listen to Steely Dan to get to eat sushi. They have gamely tried to enjoy it but it’s just too weird for them. Too cold, too many textures, the unforgivable presence of seaweed…not to mention the raw fish part. That just puts it over the edge.
We live in difficult times. Because we are wired the way we are, when we are stressed, we turn to foods that feel comfortable, reassuring and safe. Some people turn to soft, creamy things like macaroni and cheese, or ice cream, or oatmeal. “Mom Food” is what others want: meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or chicken and noodles, or chili. We turn to our country of origin when we need reassurance, as well.
I was one of those kids whose craving for candy was so intense that I would search not only my own couch cushions for loose change to buy it, but the couches of waiting rooms, neighbors’ houses, and church as well.
I have heard many Midwestern people complain that they don’t like the taste of curry, and therefore will not eat Indian food at all. I can relate to that, but I just find curry powder pretty boring. Curry powder itself isn’t Indian. It is an invention of the British that was made to export during their colonial occupation of India. It is a blend of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, celery seed, and other spices. I think it’s the fenugreek that people respond negatively to—it has a weirdly earthy, sweaty smell that you either adore or find repellent.