I have often read with great interest the story about how other
people developed a passion for food. Many say they were influenced by their parents or grandparents at an early age, whether through spending time at their side in the kitchen or by simply inheriting their
enthusiasm for fresh, wholesome and exciting food. Others had a food epiphany at some point in their lives, maybe while travelling or when cooking for themselves for the first time. I can’t seem to fit myself into any of those categories. When people ask me where my interest in food comes from I don’t have an answer to give them. I simply can’t link it to any particular person or event, or even time in my life – I just know it’s been there for as long as I’ve been making memories. In fact, many of my very first memories concern food, and my family often teases me because my memory for food seems so much sharper than my memory for anything else.
As a kid I loved food, which translated means I loved to eat. Cooking wasn’t really in the picture yet, unless you count the time I tried turning my cereal-milk brown with blackstrap molasses in an attempt to make it taste like chocolate. I grew up eating SAG, which is my abbreviation for ‘Standard American Grub’. It was relatively healthy, I suppose, but it wasn’t terribly exciting. It was quick and based on a minimum of ingredients, and incorporated a variety of melting-pot ethnic elements tamed down for American tastes. My mother hated to cook, and so developed a rota of dishes she could churn out with minimum hassle: chicken noodle soup, mashed potato salad, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, burritos and spaghetti. When she had company to impress, she made chicken curry enriched with bottled curry powder and raisins. I hated it. The one thing I drew solace from was frequent eating out in cheap ethnic places, usually Chinese or Mexican, the latter being my favorite because I was allowed to order orange soda, and because their mantra of ‘What dish was that? Never mind, cover it in cheese!’ was dearly close to my heart. I have no doubt these joints were somewhat lacking in taste and authenticity, but they sure beat chicken curry.
I helped out in the kitchen from time to time, but it was more a chore for me than a privilege – cooking was just the hurdle to cross on the way to eating. Then something happened when I was about eleven years old. I can’t remember the exact moment, but one day I must have been fiddling around in the kitchen, probably having been told to make my own lunch, when it dawned on me that if I was making the food, I could make it as tasty as I wanted! That must have been *the* moment (though I honestly can’t remember it) when my life was irrevocably altered. The only problem was that I didn’t yet know how to make food tasty. I do remember taking over occasional dinner duty and experimenting with our usual meals, but adding little things to improve their taste. I started with the basics, like herbs and spices. I made all the usual things, but for a month I added handfuls of thyme to everything. Then I moved on to dill, and after that oregano. When I had emptied our dusty spice cupboard, I experimented with adjusting salt and sugar levels. I added so much sugar to one particular can of chili that no one could eat it (but I wisely kept my mouth shut as everyone sat around shaking their heads and scrutinizing the label). Thinking back, I’m amazed my family didn’t rebel, but having someone else do the cooking must have been worth eating those dubious results. It was a constant learning curve; by the time I was thirteen and my family was moving from California to Washington, I could cater a four course farewell meal for our friends and neighbors, making my own soup, pasta, fish with herb sauce and chocolate raspberry tart. I was also lucky at that age to have a friend who was just as interested in cooking as I was, and we spent hours poring over recipes in her mother’s cookbooks looking for interesting things to make.
And I never stopped cooking after that. My family got luckier and luckier with their meals every night as I got better at my experimentation. When I acquired my first couple of cookbooks I was
able to create things I had never even imagined before, and I found
myself visiting countless countries and cultures through their
cuisines. I found new interests and hobbies, I moved away from home and traveled and learned new skills – but cooking has never relinquished its place at the top, and if anything, has continued to intensify its hold over me since those early days. I can’t get through a day without reading about food, digging up new recipes or daydreaming about tastes I’ll create. It’s like breathing or sleeping or talking for me. I can’t live without it.