Everyone has to eat to live but eating to survive and eating to enjoy are very different. Gastronomic appetites and cravings mimic how we approach life. Why not approach life actively to try its many flavors and combinations? (A)
My mom was not big on cooking. Well, maybe not that – it’s more that she was not big on being a chef. Don’t get me wrong, she tried to make sure we had at least a hot dinner and that the menu varied, but she was also feeding seven people on a very limited budget and with several of those people constantly underfoot, she didn’t have time for culinary experimentation or complicated recipes. Although, looking back on it now, I have to admit it took some creativity to constantly turn yesterday’s leftovers into today’s dinner. Our food was generally solid Midwestern meat and potatoes fare - some of our most common meals were rotini/ vegetable/ hamburger soup, or a chicken boiled with parsley and onions with white rice, or spaghetti with squash to make it go farther. Some of my favorite meals were sauerkraut with hot dogs and homemade dumplings, grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and homemade pizza. Generally the food was fairly bland and my father put enough garlic powder on almost everything that the smell permeated the kitchen. To this day, I can’t smell garlic powder without feeling slightly nauseous.
My dad cooked occasionally as well and his experiments were usually pretty good, although kind of different. He took a Chinese cooking class and decided that adding white pepper and oyster sauce to anything made it Chinese. Sometimes we would have rice paper wrapped breakfast sausage, eggs, and bean sprouts. Or “Chinese burritos” with black eyed peas, cabbage, white pepper, water chestnuts, and Asian seasoning wrapped in flour tortillas. Both of my parents were fond of food coloring (usually in baked goods), and as children, we were too. It wasn’t uncommon to have green pancakes, purple birthday cakes with blue frosting, or red cookies.
I appreciated my parents’ cooking much more when I moved out. I had not really learned to cook much of anything myself – I “heated” things up. After college, I lived with roommates who introduced me to Thai food and banned me from the kitchen for fear of food poisoning or a fire. I am embarrassed to admit that I tried to inflict my parents’ frugal ways on them. I would buy ramen noodles while they bought pineapple and tofu; they were kind enough to share with me anyway. We were on a tight budget, but I didn’t yet understand that you could budget shop and still eat well.
Then I lived with a boyfriend who cooked simple casseroles and Midwestern foods handed down from his grandmother. When he and I broke up and I ended up living completely on my own for the first time in my life at the age of 30 – I did not know how to cook. At all. For the first six months I usually ate microwave food and hummus/ spinach/ tomato sandwiches. I would look at the kitchen and recipie books with a feeling of overwhelming dread. I was used to eating for survival and was proud that I would generally eat whatever I was given. For the first time in my life, I could buy and make whatever food I wanted and not worry whether it was what anyone else wanted. No one else was cooking for me and I didn’t know what to do.
Slowly, I started trying a few dishes and found that cooking was not as terrifying as I had imagined it would be, in fact, it was kind of fun if there were other people to cook for! I wanted to taste everything. I still didn’t want to cook everything, but found myself using a large part of what disposable income I might have on restaurants and coffee. When I was a child I thought that Pizza Hut was a fancy restaurant, because we only went there on special occasions. Suddenly, I learned about quiche, dim sum, wine, sushi, organic beef – it was very exciting! Then I looked at my receipts at the end of the year and realized I was spending way too much on food and that I needed to scale back on unique eating experiences.
Now, I try to balance between eating simple, healthy, affordable food but still taking time to try new things and occasionally going to restaurants. I learned from one of my bosses that often the best way to network with people or even discuss something challenging is to take them out for a meal or a drink. The pleasure of the palate lowers our defenses. The appetite we have at the table often reflects our appetites in other areas as well. As Ruth Reichl said in her book Tender at the Bone, “At first I paid attention only to taste, storing away that my father preferred salt to sugar and my mother had a sweet tooth. Later I also began to note how people ate and where…I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”
Today, I don’t eat just for survival and I don’t necessarily accept whatever people give me in other areas of my life either. I am learning to cook, to spice, to appreciate flavor. I am learning new recipes and cooking for people, not just offering them boxes of crackers and water. My favorite recipe so far? Fresh vegetables, stir fried with garlic, onions, soy sauce and ginger with or without meat. It’s not too fancy, but it is good. I think I will have to crack open a cookbook this weekend and keep learning to expand my taste…