Saturday, January 22, 2011

What Makes Food Amazing

So a few weeks ago I asked everyone both on this blog and on facebook the following questions:

1 Do you Love Food?
2 What is your strongest food memory?

I of course expounded on this in much more detail, as you can see here. I had my suspicions on what the answers would look like, and I was not terribly surprised. Though what I found fascinating is that the answers typified my friends' personalities more perfectly than I thought any single inquiry could.

Growing up the question of "Why does food made by grandma always taste better than food made my everyone else?" was asked. Invariably the response was that it was her experience, or the fact that no one cooks the way people used to cook, or that it was some secret hidden away in family recipes that no one else could possibly have. None of these responses ever really stuck. Anyone who has ever made a "family recipe" of anything knows that they are special, but are generally not remarkable in any sort of technical food chemistry way. Experience can be had in many ways from many places, but Grandma always put something greater than that into her food.

There is an answer that was also given that on the surface seemed dismissive in an affectionate sort of way. "Because she makes her food with love." When I was little I always chuckled at that response, because it couldn't be the real reason. For a long time though I have begun to realize how wrong I am about that. Every person who responded to my questions didn't really respond with an answer about food. They responded with a story where food was the medium through which they expressed love of family and friends. The stories I read included simple meals of 3 minute eggs with toast and Jam, white rice and boiled vegetables with chicken, and of simple cookies made with loved ones. The three minute eggs and Jam were the first breakfast made for a new boyfriend, and the chicken and rice was a healthy meal proudly made by a caring father. These are not meals that are filled with any special physical chemistry, or gastonomical innovation. They are the simplest meals, made to share with loved ones.

This brings us back to Grandma. Indeed the food made my our parents and grandparents was more wonderful because it was made with love. When you went over to a friend's house and stayed over for dinner the food was inevitably made for your friend. When you became the second son or daughter at your friend's house, food was suddenly made with love for you as well. The food then became warmer, more robust, more welcoming.

The sense most closely tied to memory is our sense of smell, and nothing is so closely tied to smell as taste. So it is through these gateways of sensation and experience that one of the most quintessential manifestations of love is expressed and received, food.

In my opinion this is both why comfort foods are so comforting and why when we are not waxing nostalgic the true foodies of the world seek out new and "exciting" foods. When we are sharing a meal with a new person, or a new date we want something unique to mark that memory by. We want the unique tartness of ume boshi to evoke memories of the pretty boy or girl we are nervously chattering with in hopes that a good impression is being made. We want our sons and daughters to remember our particular macaroni and cheese because no other one is made with that particular muenster cheese. We strive ever forward, not necessarily for the best food in the world, because taste is as much in the tongue of the taster as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for the food with the most love and passion, and desire to evoke joy in it's consumer.

Of all the people who answered my inquiry there was one person who claimed to not really care about food. He was passionate about beverages, and espoused the social lubricating nature of drinks, both alcoholic and non alcoholic, but food he was not inspired by in it's own right. He also had the one and only memory of food from his childhood that was shared with me of a negative nature. It was a story that began with tacos moved into squabbling parents and ended with an upended table and my friend as a 9 year old boy huddling in the barn with his sister. This particular friend I have the opportunity to cook for regularly, and I care for him dearly. I have been pushing as long as I have known him to try and find the dish he will ask for, the food that will ignite that strong memory in him and evoke that expression of love through food. As with all my friends I seek to embrace and nurture them with my cooking, and try as I might I have never been able to find that food for him. I will continue my search, but when I read his responses to my questions I realized when I read that story that perhaps he was correct and I would never find that food, but I'll still keep trying.

I may not be moving towards any particular point, and I don't think I am supporting any particular thesis. I feel that at it's heart I just wanted to understand the nature of our connection to food a little bit more. I want to understand why I am so drawn to strange quirky holes in the wall, and find high class cooking so rarely satisfying. I think I have discovered a bit of that. The pursuit of excellence in food must be in the spirit of wanting to excel so we can share the very best with those we love. The desire to find new and exciting experiences must come with the knowledge that as with all experiences they are richer when shared, and will enrich you more if shared.

I know I did not really come to a conclusion, and that all structured writers will hate me for that, so as a small gesture of completion I would like to return the favor so many of my friends did for me and share some of my fondest food memories.

1 When I was a child my mother baked cookies with me every Christmas no matter how young I was, and how little I could actually help. We would make cookie cutter cookies and I would get to decorate them. It was a way to give me a sense of true accomplishment, and while I know that the cookies I made at 4 and 5 were unquestionably hideous, but I was left with the feeling that I was making something, and making the food that everyone would consume and enjoy for the holidays.

2 While my parents taught me how to navigate a kitchen I truly learned to cook with my friend Mike. I have had many friends tell me that I never make bad food, and I have to tell them that the only reason that I don't completely fail now, is the collection of failures I waded through to get to my current skill with food. My most epic failure was based on an interesting jambalaya recipe we saw on food network that included mustard greens. We didn't have an appreciation for the power of this ingredient, and after adding an entire bunch of mustard greens and an entire fresh habanero including seeds to the delightful pot of rice we were rewarded with a practically inedible dinner. While some people would consider this a bad memory it is actually one of my fondest. It reminds me that the path to excellence is paved with a willingness to fail and learn from your failures, and to be honest it was kind of hilarious. Mike's mother was there for dinner and she has a very timid palette when it comes to spice. We tried adding sugar and having glasses of milk to temper the ridiculous heat in the dish, but it was all to no avail. I do not remember what we finally made for dinner, but it was not nearly as memorable as that epic pot of inedible rice.

Finally is the food memory that I most strongly connect with where my life is today. I dated my current husband James for 3 months when he was 18 and I was 23 (I know I know, whatever). After 3 months he hit "oh god I'm not ready to settle down" mode and so we became friends instead of boyfriends. He shortly after fell head over heels for this southern boy he met at a Renaissance re-enactment event in Mississippi named Leo. My husband and this sweet southern bell of a boy began a long distance relationship built on the passions of being young. However it became quickly apparent that James and I were in no way over each other even though he was madly in love with Leo. So along came his prom and Leo came up to Indiana so he could attend high school prom with James. James and I decided that we were going to talk to Leo about attempting polyamory (James dating both Leo and myself openly and with everyone's knowledge). Before that conversation actually happened though prom night happened. I made their prom dinner. I didn't work that day, so I began cooking around 11 am. I started a tomato sauce, with a half pound of paper thin sliced crimini mushrooms, and a pound of fresh sausage from our local butcher. That simmered for the next 4 hours while I made melon soup with tiny strips of prosciutto, and melon panne cotta. Then a made 3 eggs worth of fresh pasta, and a cheese mix of ricotta, mozzarella, and kasseri. The cheese, pasta and sauce became the most extravagant dish of lasagna I've ever made. With fresh basil olive oil made with basil from my friend's garden. I cooked from 11 am till after 5 pm. I've never spent quite that much time on dinner before, and most people would think I was crazy for putting that kind of time into a dinner for a boy I wanted to be with and his current boyfriend. I won't lie at the time I felt a little bit crazy, but I also really wanted him to be happy, and he had been nothing but good to me through all the craziness since I'd met him. So my recovering Catholic martyr tendencies turned out to be useful. Who knew.

The dinner was amazing, James fawned over the prosciutto in the melon soup, Leo was completely confused by it. I still say it's the best lasagna I ever made, and the dessert was delicious, among other things that James continues to mock me about to this day and which I refuse to share with the internet.

The next several months were good, and exciting, and laid the foundation on which all the following poly endeavors James and I would be built. That meal though was the moment for me when I knew I could be polyamourous. I could devote myself, and my emotional connection to someone, and love them unconditionally, even while they were also invested in someone else.

I know it seems like a strange story to tell about food, but the meal itself stands out in my mind. Not just how proud I am of the quality I achieved, but what it taught me about myself, and I what I am fairly certain it taught my now husband about himself.

Food is ritual, the oldest ritual in human experience. It is a ritual that we all too often do not take part in anymore. Sitting down with your loved ones and breaking bread is a simple, almost ignorable act, but strikingly powerful and important. In a world where people do not see the importance of food, and all too often do not know how to make for themselves what we have been crafting as survival and communal experience for generations it is imperative that people occasionally take a moment to remember the significance of accepting life giving food from someone, or the importance of giving that food to another.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Little Off Topic

So, I am generally fascinated by food. Much more so than almost anyone else I know. I have 3 friends who are kitchen o philes, and they are each so in dramatically different ways from each other and from myself. I have been privileged enough to experience their food, to cook for each of them, and to cook with each of them. I know this is supposed to be a blog about restaurant reviews in Bloomington, but it's also a place to scratch my personal obsession itch, so I'm going to go off topic occasionally.

In this case, I was thinking about all the people I know who do not cook, who aren't fascinated by food. In all honesty it's most of the people I know. It's a state of being I cannot comprehend, and one that doesn't exist anywhere in my family. My background is German on my father's side of the family and Italian on my mother's side of the family. I have multiple relatives with culinary degrees and relatives who spend their entire vacation fishing in the pursuit of a freezer full of their own personally caught fish every year. Food is an anchor for my entire extended family. So I began to wonder about what causes that, if it's learned, if it's innate.

So here is my request to everyone. Please answer the following questions. Either in the comments here, or on facebook where I will be linking this post. I'm eternally curious. I'll be writing something about what I think of everyone's responses in this blog in a couple weeks (maybe sooner).

1) Do you love food? I'm talking about the crazy love of food. I don't necessarily mean making the food. The passion could be eating, or the growing, or maybe just a special torrid love affair with the nuances of desserts. It could be an obsession with new and exciting, or just a complete need to find that perfectly made comfort dish exactly like you had when you were a child. But do you have a love affair of some sort. And please please PLEASE answer this and the next question even if it's a "meh not really" response. If the answer is yes, I wouldn't mind some details about the nature of your particular love affair, if the answer is no then I'm especially interested in question 2.

2) What is your strongest memory of food? I'm curious about childhood, because I suspect that's where most people's strongest memory of food is, but I'm also hoping to be proven wrong, but because it will be interesting.

I hope to hear from people soon, and you'll all hear from me somewhat soon with my thoughts. :)