Monday, November 30, 2009


It's always been about the food.

I grew up in Eastern Ohio, in a community where farmlands abutted steel mills. Men in our neighborhood went off for their shifts with lunch buckets and tin helmets. The women stayed home, cooking and having babies. The farmer whose land surrounded us grew corn and wheat and cattle.

Like some rodent child from Michael Pollen's imagination, I spent my time tracking down and tasting everything that smelled good.

Sassafras root

My parents were political progressives, which meant there was no prohibition against a son loving cooking as much as hunting. My father and I did the traditional masculine things, while my mother showed me baking techniques and put me to work on recipes. On my own I scrounged the neighborhood for ingredients. Prizes found a home in a dish: Ringneck Pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, elderberry pies, morel mushrooms fried in butter, sassafras root steeped into tea.

Elementary school coincided with the introduction of federally subsidized hot lunches. In our district the cafeteria was primarily staffed with "ethnic" cooks: Italians, Poles, Hungarians and Serbs. Their styles opened new culinary worlds. It's strange to imagine today, but at 6 years old I'd never had a restaurant meal. Cafeteria "delights" like stuffed cabbage and Sloppy Joe sandwiches were utterly exotic. I'd sit over my meals mentally picking apart the flavors, wondering how much of each went in at which time.

I especially remember school bread. It was the only item about which I shared my classmates' negative opinions. We called them "Sheets" rather than "Slices" and competed with one another to see how tiny a dough ball each "Sheet" could be compressed. I believe the record was about twice the size of a standard BB.

In junior high came two events that would shape my food love forever: chemistry class and my cousin's marriage to Archie.

Chemistry stunned me with its logic and precision and the way these attributes opened the door to creativity. At the time I was unaware how chemistry intertwined with baking, but the basic concepts of both slid into the same receptacle of my head, clicked into place and stayed there.

And then there was Archie.  Born in Columbo, Ceylon, he had dark skin and a strange accent, slicked hair and a brilliant smile. He was the most exotic thing to come into our living room since the FBI appeared uninvited during the McCarthy years. Dad told the feds to go to hell but he and Mom embraced Archie. As did I, when I learned he could cook.

To be continued 

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