Why I like cooking so much…

I’ll warn you…this is a long story of why I am so interested in food. Once I got to thinking about how it all got started, I kind of found it impossible to stop.

I want to start by saying that I don’t really like the term, “foodie”. Aren’t we all foodies? Don’t we all have to eat, and beyond that…love to eat?

As much as I don’t love the word, I guess that is what others might call me. I have always been interested in food.

It could have started at birth. My cousins have teased me forever that when I was a baby my mom would say she was giving me ice cream, when in fact I was eating plain yogurt. She would make me pureed potato-leek soup, which my relatives found repugnant, but which I happily guzzled down. My extended family was most pleased when on my first Birthday they stuck my hand in my Birthday cake, and my lips finally got a taste of real sugar.

My early love of vegetables aside, I certainly went through a picky eating stage. My mom would try with the best of intentions to enforce good eating habits. My Dad, however could not stand me crying, and when I would pout and sob that I was hungry (after refusing to eat the healthful food my mother had prepared for me), my Dad would declare he could not stand it, and inevitably cave to my picky palate. But this phase was not destined to last. My family moved to Naples, Italy for two years when I was in preschool. I think that trip was probably the beginning of my culinary awakening. When we got to Naples, we started out in a rental house with no refrigerator. The US dollar was strong at that time, and so we ate out…a lot. The Italian people were warm and welcoming and loved children. Many times when we dined out, I would be led back into the kitchen by the waiter, where the staff would pinch my cheeks, saying, “Ciao bella!”, and send me back with gelato. Sure, I may not have wanted to try everything at first, but by the time we left I was slurping up spaghetti vongole, and begging to take home the empty clam shells. During our time in Italy, we also travelled extensively in our white VW pop-top van with yellow curtains (later known as, “the big twinkie”). We went to Turkey, Greece, Spain, Germany, England, and I am sure other places that I can’t remember.

While in Italy, I attended my first cooking classes with my parents at the home of an Italian women named, Miriam. My mom remembers that although many children my age might have been bored, I was extremely interested in the class. I sat on Miriam’s kitchen counter and watched as she taught my parents how to roll gnocchi, and make other Italian delicacies.

I have been lucky as a child (and an adult) to travel quite a bit, and to get exposed to many different foods and cultures. My parents were the type who loved to get lost on a road trip. They loved not knowing exactly where we were headed, and ending up in some local dive with no Americans or english-speakers anywhere in sight. This unscheduled, unplanned adventurous spirit made me crazy as a teenager, but is now something I am so thankful for. All of those great memories and experiences just can’t be found at the museum cafeteria. They were teaching me at a young age to get excited about the unexpected, try new things, and really experience everything I can in this world.

I can’t talk about my food philosophy without mentioning my grandmother, known to me as Mema. Mema was a gracious and (mostly) soft-spoken women who wore skirts everyday, sang hymns nearly constantly, and loved,cared, and prayed for her family as her life’s work. All that being said, she would not hesitate to tell you if she thought you were on the wrong path. She would come to stay with my family for a couple months here-and-there throughout my childhood, and she would often travel with us. When we travelled she would carry a paring knife in her purse, so that she could peel fruit (usually an apple) for a snack. I laugh now to think what the TSA would have thought about my Mema’s knife! She took a long walk everyday she could, ate an apple everyday, and drank a tremendous amount of water (out of a glass- NOT a plastic cup). She cooked in a southern manner, although not in the way other people talk about southern food. It is my understanding that sometime in the late 1970’s her cooking style changed, and instead of using meat to flavor and cook her food, she began using olive oil in an effort to maintain her health. She would (after much begging, to be sure) make fried catfish and the most heavenly hushpuppies you ever ate! She made biscuits- with smooth tops on a cast iron baker using White Lily flour. She would make delicious pies, and on special occasions a coconut layer cake made with fresh coconut she had grated after smashing it open with a hammer. Mostly, she cooked vegetables. I remember thinking, “no one else I know has a whole meal of just vegetables for dinner!” We would have a meal of cornbread, lima beans, yellow squash cooked slowly with onions, and spinach or cabbage. That would be our dinner. It’s funny how your views on things change as you get older. That type of meal that I complained about way-back-when, is something I would trade 100 fine dining meals for now. Vegetables cooked with care in a cast iron skillet with loving wrinkled hands. That is the food legacy my Mema gave me.

My parents have always followed a mostly vegetarian diet, sprinkled with fish, bacon, or other such delights. The food we ate most at home had to be pasta. We ate out a lot as a family growing-up, and I still enjoy trying new restaurants and foods with them. I have also been blessed with aunts and an uncle who strengthened my food memories. When we get together we eat food, then we talk about food, then that makes us hungry…and we eat again. Maybe it is because I am an only child, but I have always liked to watch my mom in the kitchen with her sisters. The way they joke with each other, and the inevitable stories that get told as they are preparing the meal are the really special part.

As a teenager and young adult, I started cooking more and more. It probably started with making my own afternoon snacks, and morphed into creating whole meals for friends and family. I sometimes tried to re-create what I saw in the pages of Martha Stewart Magazine. I started developing a love for Thai food, Sushi, and Indian food. Luckily, living in the suburbs of DC you can find nearly any cuisine your heart desires. I even got a job cooking food for demos and handing out samples at the local health food store. It was during this time, I also started appreciating the relationship our food system has to our environment and our health- something I am still passionate about today.

Today I am a busy wife and mother of three. As with most of the moms I know, I am constantly juggling family, work, and an active lifestyle, while still trying to have time for my favorite pastime- cooking! My cooking style is healthful, but not restrictive. I occasionally flirt with vegetarianism, and have even been vegan for months at a time, but only when that was what my body was craving. I try to cook with whole ingredients as much as possible, but I also love my guilty pleasures. I try to keep a balance- lots of exercise, and  healthful eating most of the time, sprinkled with treats like cherry pie and creme fraiche ice cream.

Recently, I have started taking cooking classes and I am absolutely hooked. Not only am I signed up for local classes, but I have started to plan trips around classes I read about online. I can’t imagine ever learning all there is to know about food. Every country, culture, and family does it a little differently. Everyone has their tricks and memories, and I never tire of learning more about them.

This is a blog created for family, friends, and anyone else who might be interested in my cooking class notes, my kitchen trials and errors, my favorite links, and other observations.

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