Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birth of a Foodie

The other day my daughter was reading to me from a cookbook. Yes, we read cookbooks. Not just the recipes either. Many cookbooks actually make for good reading because the authors tell stories about their recipes and food that help to shed light on origins. I recently finished reading "Cool Cuisine: Taking a Bite out of Global Warming," by Laura Stec and Dr. Eugene Cordero.  This book is as much about--if not more so--the negative impact that our industrialized food system is having on the planet as it is about recipes. There are recipes for sure (a few of them I have tried to great success) but the book is also part education/part inspiration about what our eating can do to help reverse or slow global warming. Another favorite good-read cookbook is "Where Flavor was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route," by Andreas Viestad and Mette Randem. This book, which is a feast for eyes as well as the mind due to the stunning photography by Randem, is rich with history and culture and the part that cuisine has played--and continues to play--in both of these along this exotic part of the world.

The book that Mattie was reading that day was John Sarich's "John Sarich at Chateau Ste. Michelle: For Cooks Who Love Wine." Specifically, she was reading the Introduction. In researching this post I discovered to my dismay that John, in fact, died on October 5 of this year from an aggressive form of thyroid cancer at the the very young age of 67. Damn cancer! I did not personally know John, but I have loved his recipes and have definitely felt his influence at Ste. Michelle winery where he really began--and ended--an illustrious culinary career. At least his public one.  In the Introduction to his book he shares his personal history with food which began at home with what he describes as the "spirited Mediterranean cooking and homemade wines of [his] parents and grandparents, who settled in Seattle after immigrating from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia." As she continued reading I found myself more jealous than intrigued (although I must say also inspired to write a blog post after months of writer's block) by his vivid descriptions. To wit, he wrote, "As far back as I can remember, my family's home meals always had an air of celebration. The Sunday dinners at my grandparents' house were family feasts, where relatives and friends gathered to share lively conversation, homemade wines and succulent food. Indeed, Grandpa's fragrant lamb is my earliest recollection of the sheer delight of eating. He cooked his garlic-studded lamb all day over an outdoor spit, basting it with thick green olive oil and fresh rosemary...the kitchen was filled with the chatter and delectable aromas as Grandma and my mom, sister and aunts turned out mostaccioli, dishes made with sauerkraut and stewed ham hocks, delicious salads and freshly desserts that defy description."

"Stop it!" I thought, "I can't take it any more!" as I remembered mournfully my own lackluster culinary upbringing. In fact, given the paucity of flavor, texture, color and taste of the foods I spent my first 18 years eating, it's amazing that I like food at all! While John and his family were dining on luscious garlicky lamb and rich mostaccioli I was choking down overcooked frozen vegetables, dull iceberg lettuce and tomato salads, and bland boiled potatoes. Our family gatherings were Sundays at my grandpa Pops house where he and my mother turned out overcooked beef roasts, rabbit or chicken served up with grandpa's specialty: iceberg lettuce salad with tomatoes, bananas and mayonnaise. Even though my father helped farm grandpa's 45 acres where we had a vegetable garden; raised chickens, rabbits, goats and cattle and were blessed with an olive grove, apricot tree, almond tree, fig tree and multiple blackberry vines I only remember having to can and jell most of the produce and can't conjure up any food memories that are truly positive. Most of what we ate, I seem to recall, had first been processed, pickled or overcooked. In fact, my mother really hated cooking (probably because the results were less than enticing!) and when my father took over that dreaded task after having to take a medical retirement the results were not any better. Since both of my parents had worked, they were of the grateful generation who welcomed the new time-saving dining delicacies such as Hamburger Helper and Chung King in a can into the kitchen. Being able to open a box or can and create dinner in minutes took priority over good taste. The only fresh herb I remember being exposed to was curly parsley which was most likely used as a garnish on restaurant food. I tell people that I think I actually learned to cook at the age of 12 out of desperation!

Perhaps it is true that frequently art is inspired by struggle. In spite of my lack of a culinary upbringing, while I might never reach the gastronomic heights of the likes of John Sarich I at least can say that I have been able to hone my skills over the years and can put out some pretty mean dishes. I am making up for lost time.