Buenos Aires – This is the starting point of a meme. Since starting blogging over a year ago I’ve wanted to start a meme. I participated in a few, but have never actually been “tagged” for one, only picking them up either on my own or when someone tags “anyone who reads this”. For those who think I’m babbling nonsense, a meme is the blogsphere equivalent of a game of tag, but with less running around. The idea is that someone starts a series of questions and answers on their blog, tags some number of folk who also answer those same questions on their blog, and then tag the same number of people. The “anyone who reads this” version is a bit of a cheat, because although it might propogate the meme, it’s not the same as tag. On the other hand, too many folk, me included, might not participate when tagged, depending on the topic, and the meme might die out quickly. Of course, that is part of the idea behind a meme – does it take off or not? On the other hand, it’s more “organic”. I’m feeling organic this morning, so I’m not going to tag anyone in specific, and I’m going to leave it open to anyone out there with a blog to take this up, and any reader who perhaps doesn’t have a blog who’d just like to answer the questions in a comment to this blog (or via e-mail and I’ll post it for you as a comment).
My thought in this meme is food items or events that changed your foodie life. Not some “oh, it’s the first time I didn’t put jelly on a peanut butter sandwich and used bananas instead” sort of change, unless you truly feel that affected you profoundly. That’s the key – it affected you profoundly, in some manner. A moment you can look back at and say “that was a defining moment”. The questions are simple, the answers might be harder – an item, person, event, or place that had that effect on you, and why. They don’t have to be big splashy things – sometimes it’s something very small and simple that changes the way we view the world – the famed “butterfly effect” (and I’m not talking about the Aston Kutcher movie). So, to those who want to participate, copy this and pass it on (and, if you’re so inclined, do a trackback to the originating post). Here are your categories:
1. An ingredient
2. A dish, a recipe
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
4. A cookbook or other written work
5. A food “personality” (chef, writer, etc.)
6. Another person in your life
1. An ingredient. It’s going to sound strange, but it’s the common button mushroom. I grew up on canned mushrooms. You know, those slimy, grey-brown slices packed in water that has the viscosity of some sort of body fluid you’d rather not think about? The same was even true in the first restaurant I worked in, all through high school and into my first year of college. I knew for a fact that I hated mushrooms. Then, one day in my first year of college my dad’s sister made a simple stir-fry of broccoli, garlic, and, sliced fresh mushrooms when I was visiting her. I was stunned. Who knew?
2. A dish or recipe. This brings to mind an interview I did with Craig Claiborne a couple of years before he died. He was talking about food experiences that changed his life, and said something about biting into a dish of Turbo a l’Infante onboard a ship and “I took one bite and my god, I was transmogrified. I decided, I’ve got to learn how to cook French.” – it completely changed the direction of his life. For me that would have to be the first time I ate sushi. I had just moved to New York to go to grad school and one of my classmates, Marcia, invited me out to a sushi dinner at a little place down in Tribeca called Zutto. We sat at the sushi bar and this charming Japanese man started putting pieces of raw fish in front of us. Marcia started happily eating. I was looking at bait on rice. The closest I’d ever had was lox on a bagel. Then I tasted a piece. My god that was good! Now I can’t imagine life without sushi. I even spent a year with a sushi chef learning the basics of how to make it!
3. A meal. A toughie. Part of me wants to point to amazing meals like a 22 course feast as a guest at Tetsuya in Sydney, or a stunning degustacion at Charlie Trotter’s, or even the oddity of dining somewhere like WD-50. There’s no doubt all of those had an impact – opening my eyes to new possibilities, textures, and flavors. But, I think it was breakfast in Acapulco many years ago. A group of friends and I had rented a villa while we were there for a weekend retreat and we stayed extra days. The villa was supplied with a staff, including a wonderful cook whose name I no longer remember. At breakfast we would roll out of bed and sit on a patio looking out over a hill and the city of Acapulco. The table was laden with slabs of giant papayas, tortillas filled with soft cooked eggs, beans, cheese, and chicken, rice with freshly picked and chopped chilies from the garden, freshly squeezed orange juice, and thick, dark coffee mixed with cream that had been separated off the milk that very morning. Simple food, simple pleasure.
4. A cookbook or other written work. If you were to see my cookbook collection you’d know why this one is difficult. There are books everywhere in this place. My first impulse is to say something like The Joy of Cooking or Larousse Gastronomique, but those didn’t change anything in my life. They’re just my most used reference material for basics, for jumping off points. A close call for my copy of The Deaf Smith Country Cookbook which certainly opened my eyes to possibilities in the organic, natural, vegetable world. And I come very close to picking Jim Haller’s Blue Strawbery Cookbook, which is an amazing look at what’s possible if you’re willing to give yourself permission to do things in the kitchen, regardless of what anyone else says – and for published works, it would be my pick, hands-down. But, in the end, it comes down to a handwritten notebook from a step-great-aunt whom I never knew. I inherited her cookbook because no one else in the family seemed interested, and my step-grandmother gave it to me shortly before she died. This aunt spent a year living in Vienna, decades ago, and going to the best cafes, sampling everything, making notes about what she tried, and then petitioning the chefs to show her how to make the things she loved the most. It’s written in nearly indecipherable scrawl, in that strange mix of German and French unique to the Alsatians. It’s one of those things that impacted me to really begin writing about my food experiences and not to be afraid to ask others how to make something totally new to me.
5. A food personality. Given my profession I’ve met many of the best in the business. It’s been a privilege to spend time with people who for many folks out there are unreachable stars. The best part has been both discovering their “human”, normal side, and to be able to call no small number of them my friends. When it comes down to it, I’d have to pick Tom Colicchio. I only worked with him for a short period of time, but he taught me more about the intensity and clarity of flavors, presentation, and high quality ingredients, than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. So even if I kind of make fun of him a little bit in my reviews of things like Top Chef, it’s done with respect and affection for someone who made a true impact on my professional cooking life – now if we could only get him back into a kitchen and cooking regularly instead of signing autographs…
6. Another person in my life. I could start with my mom, who really got me started cooking, who, with my dad created a neighborhood “gourmet club” back in the late 60s, who was willing to try any recipe, any time, from anywhere. I could go to the housekeeper we had later, after my mom died, who couldn’t make boil-in-the-bag peas come out right and forced myself and my sister into cooking in self defense. I could look to non-food experiences like having done est and TM back in the late 70s, and how those changed my life. And, in the end, it is a person who had nothing to do with the food business, but the writing business. He’s the person who started me writing, and the person who impressed on me that even if it wasn’t about anything important, writing something every day was of more importance. So, to Bradley Spencer, my high school journalism teacher, a big thank you for launching me on my way!
Oh hell, I’m going to tag some people after all, just to be annoying – after all, this is sort of like receiving a chain letter. Stephen at Stephencooks, David Lebovitz, Aki & Alex at Ideas in Food, and Chef Paz at her Cooking Adventures. There. Four people, that’ll be the tagging number (it’s kind of five, since Aki and Alex will, if they answer, probably answer separately).