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Your Greatest Culinary Debt


Heather
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Maybe they turned you on to good wine, or haute cuisine, or the joy of really fresh produce. Maybe they gave you a favorite recipe, one that you have turned to over and over. They taught you a trick or gimmick that you have relied on for entertaining. Or they just inspired you with their zest for all things gastronomic. It's a big debt.

Who is it?

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Maybe this isn't what you mean, but I'd say my grandmother. She's the one I got the love of being in the kitchen from. She made delicious food--nothing exceptional but it tasted great. She enjoyed the process of making and serving food, and I enjoyed being there to help her. She died when I was about 10.

Her baked goods never came out quite right but always tasted wonderful. I thought of this today when my husband told me about the comment one of his co-workers gave when he took the last of the eclairs into work. She said the eclair was really good even though the shape was "disturbing." ;) (While cleaning out my kitchen some time back, I got rid of the cheap pastry bag I never used. Now I need a pastry bag and don't have one. So I piped the pastry for the eclairs by cutting the corner off a ziplock bag--it worked fine but uniform shaping was difficult. I think the disturbing eclair may have been the one with a tail :blink: . )

My grandmother baked tasty cakes, but they always came out kind of sideways and not quite even. And I loved staying at her house and making pancakes in the morning, since they all came out in these funny shapes (kind of like when people make Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes, except she wasn't trying to.)

And she'd always forget the rolls and remember them halfway through dinner.

ETA: I think one of the biggest gifts I got from being around her in the kitchen was the realization that foods didn't have to come out perfectly to taste great and nourish people. So many people I know are intimidated by cooking. My grandmother made me unselfconscious about putting food on the table.

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Louis Laggy is a friend of mine from growing up who was a little disappointed when he got an X box rather than a Waring blender for his birthday. Eventually he became a sommelier at Bastianich's Becco, and is now at Lupa. He helped me cull a modest food and drink education while I lived in New York.

That, and I got to tag along for rides at big, fun dinners: Bar Jamon's opener, Franny's Brooklyn for charcuterie and pizza, Blue Ribbon Sushi late night, Peter Luger, Planet Thailand in Greenpoint, Mermaid Inn for lobster rolls and fortune teller fish, Jewel Bako. . .And the bars: SRO and Milk and Honey-- two speakeasies that opened in 2003, the Ear Inn, and Grand Central's Campbell Apartment--one of the most special cocktail bars anywhere. Those were the days.

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Pat, that's exactly what I meant. :blink: Knowing that everything doesn't have to be perfect to taste great and nourish people is a great lesson to learn, especially for those of us with perfectionist tendencies.

Melissa, that sounds like a great time.

Yes, of course, Julia...but I was thinking more of someone you might know personally.

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Yes, of course, Julia...but I was thinking more of someone you might know personally.
I sure felt like I knew Julia. I did have the pleasure of standing next to her as she talked to somebody about egg-rolls after she'd been on the Diane Rehm show, when I worked in the same building (on Brandywine St.), around 1997 or 1998. She was incredibly gracious. I wasn't pushy enough to introduce myself, which I slightly regretted afterwards.
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My mother-in-law. I grew up in a family of non-adventurous eaters, my mother was not much of a cook, and I wasn't shaping up to be one either. I still remember eating Easter dinner with my then-boyfriend and his family thirteen years ago: his mother made ham with raisin sauce, which blew me away with its perfect blend of sweet and savory. She's an amazing cook, and makes it look so effortless. No competition, just admiration.

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My grandfather. He was in the restaurant business and all of our family stories include detailed descriptions of the food. It isn't a story unless food was involved. The memory of one particularly tender pot roast eaten 25 years ago still brings tears to his eyes and a smile to all of our faces. Breakfast conversation -- what are we eating for lunch? Lunch conversation -- what are we eating for dinner? My brother was married a couple of months ago and nobody is talking about the ceremony or the dress or temple -- it is all about the food. Food is just an integral part of our family. My first taste test -- comparing black and white cookies from several different bakeries. I've taken it to a higher level compared to others in the family, but that is definitely the foundation.

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For me, it was my mother. Though she grew up in a household with "cream of" soups in almost everything and the most vile Jell-O and vegetable combination molds, she sought out new food experiences and introduced them to me at an early age. We regularly incorporated the cuisine of the countries we lived in over the years and I grew up eating foods from Taiwan, Turkey, the American Southwest and Korea as well as the foods from her Southern roots.

She taught me to be open to foods I hadn't experienced before, and then showed me how to make many of them at home. She was a good mom and nothing brings back memories of her more strongly than those old recipes.

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Before I became an adult, I never lived within 1,000 miles of ANY relative, and that is a conservative estimate. The only person who cooked in my family was my mother and I never understood where she got her information. Her mother would visit on very rare occasions and make Hush Puppies, but other than that, she didn't do any other cooking. We didn't have Public Television in El Paso (until fairly recently), BUT the local ABC affiliate showed the Julia Child show in the 1970s. My mother and I would watch what turned out to be the "Julia Child and Company" series (sandwiched in between Sesame Street and the Jackson Five Cartoon (!?!?) in the afternoons, after I got home from High School. We certainly had HEARD of and read about her, but never saw any of her shows until then. She was a revelation. Interestingly, after I moved to this area, my Aunt in Springfield gave me the "Julia Child Menu Cookbook", which had been combined two of the series. I still use it after all these years.

Face it, St. Julia paved the way for absolutely everyone else. SHE was the one who taught me how to cook. Jaques Pepin, Madelaine Kamman, etc. just refined my knowledge.

Do I WISH I had a Grandmother to show me the way? Sure I do. But, that wasn't my experience. There were no Sunday dinners with the extended family. No, I had Julia and the example of her marriage to Paul Child. For those two, I am forever grateful.

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Without question, a family friend (who shall remain nameless here) who when I was nine made the most succulent roasted chicken. Having grown up on dried out pork chops and green bean casserole, it changed the way I thought about food, and the next day I begged my mom to take me to the library so I could look at cookbooks for a few hours. Later that year, in the summertime, he grilled steaks that were so simple yet so remarkable, I still remember them to this day -- nearly 30 years later. I remember what they smelled like, what it felt like to cut them, and how juicy they tasted.

I still see this man frequently and now that I'm an adult, it is such an honor and a true pleasure to cook with him at dinner parties and other family gatherings. He's one person I can call and talk to about a cheese I discovered, a wine recommendation, where to find All-Clad on sale, or figuring out a new marinade for pork.

But it all goes back to that roasted chicken. I can still see the herbed butter he used under the skin, and I can still remember how it made the kitchen smell. It's one of my most poignant memories.

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For me it was Jeff Smith. I watched his show my senior year (year 6 for those keeping score at home) of college and started cooking in my cockroach infested kitchen. I bought a couple of his cookbooks in paperback and started making a lot of Italian food. I still use his "gravy" recipe from time to time when I want a really heavy duty red sauce. He may have been a total perv, but the guy had a way about making cooking interesting. I followed recipes pretty closely back then which eventually gave me a pretty good understanding of the principles of cooking. Now I can improvise quite well.

I owe something to DC too. Once I moved here I could get my hands on better and much more varied ingredients, and going to good restaurants on a regular basis gave me all sorts of ideas.

Hanging out in eG-land for quite a while didn't hurt either.

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Jimmy Boukas, deceased owner of Zorba's on St. Thomas. First place I ever worked that was a step above. Not only did he make the best bread in the Caribbean (one customer regularly had loaves flown to him in Miami), but he introduced me to the non-Sysco world of food.

Rick Bayliss, who's brief fling with Burger King brought about an article in the Post food section which is where I first came across the name "eGullet".

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My parents, for teaching me that the best food in the world comes from the home and that the family dinner (while not always pleasant) is incredibly important. They're the ones that had me doing all their prep by the time I was 12. And especially my dad, for teaching me that it was completely natural for a guy to cook.

Oh, and the Galloping Gourmet. I used to watch Graham Kerr back in the late 60's when he was completely sauced every episode. I was a kid but I was fascinated by what he did (the cooking, not the drinking).

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Dad was a sargeant in the army, and we got posted overseas several times. My parents' house was always where the party, or Christmas dinner, or bridge gathering was. Both of them love good food and entertaining. After their divorce, Mom taught me to cook and was supportive when I went to culinary school, and Dad broadened my horizons by taking me to fancy places and teaching me about wine.

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My mother and grandmother who were and are great cooks. To Jeff Smith, the frugal gourmet, who taught me to go beyond my little world, to America's Test Kitchen, Julie and Jacque, and Alton Brown who taught me mechanics, and to the countless souls who suffered through the early part of my journey.

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Madame Dowling.

When I was growing up, just about every adult in my family cooked well even though standards were different back then. For example, asparagus and Le Seur peas came in cans and green beans were frenched and clumped together in blocks of ice. I loved my grandmother's pies, Dough Boys, hamburgers and salads of sliced bananas and oranges sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and macerated for hours; the entire family drove to her house almost every Sunday for long afternoon meals and board games as the sun set. Rhubarb grew in a patch on the far corner of her front yard and it remains one of my favorite things to eat in the spring.

But when you're fifteen, you're usually not clicking the heels of your ruby slippers together and chanting "There's no place like home". You're scrambling into hot-air balloons or in my case, getting out of your seat in Southern Indiana to dance on the bridges of Avignon and sing about planting cabbages, led by a large Moroccan woman whose ankles were swollen with gout.

Mr. Reed had a terrible accent and Mr. Ritz, so-so. Yet they were rigorous teachers whose students were mistaken for natives on the streets of Paris by the time they were in college. Madame Dowling was fluent, but indifferent to drills or discipline and basically a lousy French teacher all three years that I was assigned to her classes. However, she was in charge of the French Club and it was there that we learned of her powers.

If you looked through the pages of my high school year book, you'll see a picture of well over a hundred stringy and frizzy-haired kids standing on a hill outside their lime stone building as members of the French Club. Look across the page, and Frau Jaeger is standing at a table with maybe four or five of students from her German classes. The reason was food. French Club meetings were essentially excuses for handing out mimeographed recipes. We chose what we wanted to make and proudly brought our creations back to school in the evening to share.

Thanks to Madame Dowling, I made my first chocolate mousse for an All Desserts night since schools were not yet fearful of parents sueing them over raw eggs. My mother and I learned how difficult it was to find Gruyere even in a college town back then when I tackled gougeres, and after the night I used up a bottle of Lancer's to make coq au vin, the latter became a household staple. Since we owned a few volumes from the Time-Life series on cooking, I began to explore more dishes on my own. This was also a time when Ms. was a new, fat, and important magazine and M.F.K. Fisher was celebrated on its pages. I therefore was quite impressed to see that Ms. Fisher contributed the recipes for Provincial France to the Time-Life series, and more inclined to believe it was okay for a feminist to cook. It was Madame Dowling, though, who taught me that food was a way to look at the rest of the world and it was probably a good idea to spend a part of one's life eating far from home.

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An odd choice maybe, but Rick Bayless. My mom was/is a great cook but I never believed that I could do that. Cooking was always something that was a distant skill that I never anticipated being able to do well, much like learning how to play the violin or ride a unicycle.

Someone recommended his Salsas That Cook book to me and after trying several recipes, the revelation that I could indeed make delicious food that didn't involve pressing microwave buttons or flipping a burger really fired my imagination and opened the possibilities to the happy journey I now find myself on.

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I have three - maybe four:

1. Dad - for his love of wine, and family meals. We now have almost completely different tastes in wine though, go figure.

2. Mom - for always taking the time to answer questions on what we were eating, and for continually broadening our culinary horizons.

3. Bouley - was given some lessons from him as a HS graduation present - I've been hooked ever since...

Honorable Mention: My friend Porky, who had the courage to break the Northeastern prep school mold and follow his dream to culinary school and a life in professional kitchens. He's still among the happiest people I know.

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For me, the editors of Time-Life Books, or whomever it was at TL back in the 60's that conceived the Foods of the World series and hired the best culinary stars of that era to get it done, including Michael Field, James Beard, Richard Olney, and many others including IIRC Julia herself. For my money, those are still among the best cookbooks around--they cover just about anything you might want to do, and the recipes are really good and they almost always work.

I was living in NYC when they came out and was just starting to get serious about cooking, wine, and eating. I subscribed to the series, which took over two years to get done and evolved some along the way, and used them to cook well enough to achieve high praise from all my guinea pigs friends at the time, which I'm sure was important to solidifying my interest in cooking. I still use them often; for example I'm currently working on my Chinese cooking skills and used the TL Chinese book recently when I did a big meal for some of my local guinea pigs neighbors here in NC; the recipe for red-cooked pork shoulder blended quite well with things from Fuschia Dunlop's and other more current books.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

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For me, the editors of Time-Life Books, or whomever it was at TL back in the 60's that conceived the Foods of the World series and hired the best culinary stars of that era to get it done, including Michael Field, James Beard, Richard Olney, and many others including IIRC Julia herself.

MFK Fisher wrote the text for at least one of the French volumes. I do know that Richard Olney was involved, but I'm not sure whether they worked on the same or separate volumes.

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Great memories, everyone. Thanks for sharing them. :blink:

It occurred to me after writing my above post about my parents that the time in my life they did a lot of entertaining was very short - their marriage went south and got ugly when I was around eight years old, and they rarely had company after that. Wonder if their self-imposed social isolation made their marriage fall apart faster?

On the other hand, their separations and divorce played a big part in my learning how to cook; we were latchkey kids and I frequently had dinner ready before mom got home from work.

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For those who thought they would learn how to make their own snake oil: Sallie Mae and the Gov't.
Very interesting. There are fraudulent schools out there. The school I went to here in DC got sued by former students for peddling snake oil and shut down for student loan fraud back in the early '90's. The article is absolutely right that getting a first-rate, high paying job with a 3rd-rate culinary degree is a pipe dream.
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My 5th grade teacher Ms. Cole brought in escargot. Once we realized they were snails, the dares started up and so did our adventures in eating. Once every couple of months she'd bring in something new for us to try like cavier. She'd usually ask us to try it before she'd explain what it was.

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Living outside of Cincinnati in the '70s and '80s, there was NO ethnic food, actually very little good food at all. I learned to cook from my father for the day to day -- egg salad with raisins, dill pickles and sharp cheddar cheese (don't knock it), amazing curries from his college days in the UK, and for special occasions from my mother from Brooklyn. We would have extravaganzas with friends and cook for days. I loved cooking and was the sous-chef. We made Mexican, Chinese care of Florence Lin, all sorts of things from Bon Appetit and were always looking for new and different ingredients. I have a fondness for Lobster Newburg that they are responsible for!

We found the old market in downtown Cincinnati where the butchers had butchering in their blood, and made souce with hot peppers, all sorts of sausages and head cheeses! My Aunt Sara always had a huge garden and so we would experiment with ratatouilles and recipes from the NY Times cookbook. I found arugula at a young age. We would also buy 2 fresh lambs every spring around easter. Friends raised them on their farm. We would go out at Christmas just after they were born and feed them from old glass coke bottles with nipples. Back again in the spring, we would get fresh eggs, frogs legs and the lamb wrapped in white paper packages. We ate lamb twice a week for most of my childhood! I had no idea how expensive it could be, since we got it for 99cents a pound.

Food is meant to be enjoyed with wine and we did. My parents kept a small wine cellar in the crawl space. Everytime we went to Nashville, of all places, my father would go with friends to an amazing wine store and buy a few cases to take back. My first duty anytime a friend came into the house would be to offer them a "rum and coke, or gin and tonic" Cocktail hour was an institution for atleast an hour before any meal. We tried cordials after dinner. My sister and I were always encouraged to have a small glass of wine -- so we would learn to drink responsibly.

Traveling also involved food and my father was at the center of those pilgrimages. Castles and Distilleries in Scotland. Gazpacho and riojas in Spain. Pork pies, sausage rolls and blood puddings in England. Nothing was too offal. (sorry bad pun).

I give my both my parents credit. Their only rule when eating was "we won't cook more than one meal, but you only have to have one bite." If you didn't like something, you starved! Needless to say, I didn't starve. They taught us to be adventuresome and for that I am very very thankful.

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My 5th grade teacher Ms. Cole brought in escargot. Once we realized they were snails, the dares started up and so did our adventures in eating. Once every couple of months she'd bring in something new for us to try like cavier. She'd usually ask us to try it before she'd explain what it was.
Gosh, I wish I'd had Ms. Cole! Did she bring in real caviar, or that Romanoff lumpfish stuff?
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Mom and dad for self-critiquing their own cooking constantly, which taught me how to evaluate food. And my mom who smells every food before eating it - a crucial part of the cooking and eating experience. Never measure, cook by sight, smell and touch.

My sister for buying a cookbook that described the amazingness of duck so well that it was the first time I drooled at the thought of food.

My aunt for encouraging me to try all sorts of "odd" food an offal - fish eyes, tripe, eel, duck tongues, shrimp heads, etc. Taught me that you can usually make everything at home, and better.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. The food descriptions... yum.

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My old good friend and mentor Chris, with whom I've unfortunately had declining contact since moving away from Seattle in the late Eighties. He is an Englishman but studied for years in Spain and France while reading linguistics at Oxford. At the time he rescued me from the bedlam of the University of Washington dormitories, he was living on the campus of Lakeside School, where he taught French and Spanish and was also the fencing coach. It was a small, rickety house and the kitchen was nothing but a stove and a counter, but he turned out really good meals night after night while I watched and, through a kind of whiskey-gin-claret-port-infused osmosis, learned the basics of good cooking. I remember springtime picnics in the University arboretum: paté and baguette washed down with Cotes de Ventoux and accompanied by Hardy or Baudelaire. He became a good friend of the family and we went on holidays together to Venice, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. These were fundamental and formative culinary experiences; the cliché of Halcyon days applies in full measure. I think in the meantime the student may have outgrown his teacher, but there's no way I could have cooked for myself as well as I did through all those later, lonely years in graduate school without the things I had learned from him.

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Gosh, I wish I'd had Ms. Cole! Did she bring in real caviar, or that Romanoff lumpfish stuff?

No clue. We ate it on ritz crackers with some Philadelphia cream cheese. Probably with her salary and the area we grew up in, it was lumpfish. She was an awesome educator.

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