Don’t get me wrong–my parents, all four of them, clearly fed me well enough that I survived into adulthood. It is also fair to say that the kitchens and related environments of my childhood werer not exactly laying the foundation for the world’s next foodie revolutionary. It is true that I’ve reflected more on the down sides of the food traditions and practices I was steeped in as a child, or lack thereof, and it is true that upon digging a little deeper, those roots are still an important part of the foodie I am today. And it is also still true that discovering quiche as a young adult radically changed my understanding of food as a tool for social transformation and enabled me to recognize the value of my childhood food experiences for what they were.
While I do have food related memories from my mother that involve crying alone at the dinner table over cold, mushy Brussels sprouts I did not want to eat, the occasional attempt at reintroducing me to liver, which I also refused after reluctantly picking at some bacon or mushrooms, and her absolute refusal to buy any sugary cereals, Chef Boyardee, Pop Tarts, or other processed foods targeted at children (which as a child I resented and as an adult, I totally appreciate), it is also fair to say in retrospect that she did, in the ways she knew how, instilled some early seeds of the important role that food plays in society, besides simple nourishment. She made food a fun production when she could–the excitement of working together to build a monster plate of nachos, waiting for it to get hot and melty in the oven, then devouring it picnic style on the living room floor, the summer every surface in the kitchen was covered with pizza dough and we all made our own pizzas from the buffet of prepared toppings and they all went in the freezer for later enjoyment, and those nights when she would lay out a similar smorgasbord of ingredients and would sit in the living room with the crepe machine turning out stacks and stacks of crepes while we filled and devoured them. I got more than a small pang of nostalgia just a few days ago when I saw an ad for that very same kind of crepe machine as a hot new must have kitchen item and something I’ve not seen since my childhood in the eighties. And why just make pancakes on the weekend when you can make aebleskivers, filled with apples, bananas, or whatever ripe fruit we had, and how many kids grow up with a hand-crank flour sifter living in a cupboard dedicated to sifting powdered sugar on things, always loaded and ready to reign that soft, fluffy garnish on your weekend breakfast? There was even a time when things were particularly tight and she rolled up a bunch of leftovers in to tortillas, deep fried them, and stuck them in the freezer for quick, on-the-go meal alternatives to shove in my hand when we were running out the door late to something. I honestly have no idea what was in those burritos and I may not want to know; I just remember really liking them and being especially excited when that meal was not an over-nuked hot dog, splitting, curling, and turning hard at the edges. We shared innumerable Big Boy Combos, and even if framed as shameful, many scoops of Thrifty’s ice cream, which she referred to as a “no-no”. She was a single mom and I am especially aware now the degree to which all these traditions and habits were rooted in economic necessity, the very same conditioning environment she was raised in as one of ten children. She learned from her father and showed me the importance of having good basic knives, including a sturdy cleaver, and I remember vividly that she honed them before each and every use and I recall a gadget resembling a can opener of sorts that she sharpened them with. She also could not sing enough praises for cast iron, even if her approach to seasoning leaned a little too far in the direction of “don’t clean”. As a young adult, it just seemed heavy, clunky, difficult to manage, and outdated. As an adult foodie, of course, I’ve reconsidered and absolutely love my cast iron. Learning to properly season and clean makes a world of difference. There were also several food traditions that were extremely important to her, and while I think this is more about her sentimentality and love of traditions, the connection of these values to food is not entirely lost on me–her father’s spaghetti, his German-style potato salad, and the pancake batter recipe that was also adapted for crepe and aebleskiver batter. She nearly got violent when, giving me an Aebleskiver pan, I suggested I could find a recipe for batter online. I wasn’t raised with religion, though the sermon I got that day about using anything other than the family recipe for my breakfast batter needs made me feel like I was going straight to hell.
These traditions are, in a way, a more direct connection to my grandfather than the limited amount of time I actually got to spend with him before he died when I was five. Moving in with my grandmother for a few years as a pre-teen, however, gave me ample opportunity to soak, directly or indirectly, in her food traditions. She was my earliest and strongest influence on healthy and frugal eating. She happily ate mostly chicken, fish, rice, and vegetables, and when eatin out, always took her chicken bones and lemon wedges to cram into milk cartons in the freezer at home, which when adequately accumulated, resulted in a large pot of bone broth simmering on the stove all day. After straining out bones and other unwanted debris, she’d toss in, you guessed it, vegetables and rice, and have a hearty, healthy soup to eat for days. She roasted lots of chickens, her secret was rubbing them generously with butter, which no one else in the house was allowed to use because it was expensive–the rest of the house ate margarine. Consequently, there was often a chicken carcass in the fridge, congealing in all its rendered fat and collagen, which as an 11 year old, I wrinkled my nose at, even though she insisted on how good it was for me–Of course, I totally get that now, and my husband and I freeze all manner of food scraps to keep a steady supply of broths in the house; thanks, grandma. She made the same oatmeal for breakfast just about every morning that I knew of–a thick hearty bowl that involved simmering the raisins inwater first to make them plump and cracking a egg into the oatmeal to make it custardy and to add protein, topped off with a pat of butter and maybe a sprinkle of brown sugar, though I don’t think she made it sweet. Her favorite way to eat a Golden Delicious apple, however, did involve putting it the microwave with generous amounts of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. While I never did quite take to habits of hers like eating nearly a cereal bowl of vitamins everymorning, it did get me thinking early about the value of what we put in our bodies and the implications of food choices; thanks, grandma. It was also in this house, back around 1986 that I started eating avocado toast, not because I was some kind of clairvoyant foodie, but because we had the ingredients and they seemd like they’d go really well together–a toasted slice of sourdough bread, generously buttered (I may or may not have snuck grandma’s real butter), half an avocado fork smashed evenly across to all the edges, and garnished with a sprinkle of salt–so good I had to make another with the other half of the avocado every time–I mean, the avocado would just get brown and weird and needed to be used, right? I can say with some note of pride that since those days, I’ve never paid money for avocado toast, save the first time I did so just this past week at a great little cafe downstairs from my office, where other patrons raved about it so much, I just had to try it. It didn’t disappoint–a chewy slice of lightly toasted bread, covered with little segments of avacado nestled among threads of arugula, drizzled with olive oil and topped with a fried egg. It might be worth observing here that I also shared this household with a cousin, just a few years older than me, who was stoked one Christmas to get his own frying pan and showed me how to make a Bullseye Breakfast on it by cutting a circle out of a slice of bread with a glass, buttering it and cracking an egg into the hole and frying the egg inside the bread, who got his first crappy high school job at the Foster’s Freeze down the street from our house, and went on to work in various areas of the food world–manager at an Outback Steak House, private chef, and now adventures in wine and pairings. How was grandma to know that all those Totino’s pizzas were fueling a future foodie, not just eating her out of house and home?
My mom remarried when I was 13, and my step-father’s mother and aunt happened to live in the house across the street from his. His father had passed away some years before, his aunt never married or had kids of her own, and the lifelong mothering of the only child, the prized son, never really ended, and we ate dinner at their house most nights, his mother in charge of all things kitchen. Suddenly, a formal and structured dining experience became a part of my daily routine–the house had a pristine, museum-like quality, with its hardwood floors, oriental rugs (can we still say that?), built in bookshelves lined neatly with volumes of hardcover books, and a few decorative items, like glass or ceramic art and figurines, everything dust free, everything neat and in order, all standing quietly in the dim glow of some standing or end table lamps. The dining room table, a beautiful dark hardwood, was meticulously set by me each meal with cloth place mats,, matching dishware, and heavy sterling silverware extracted from a similar beautiful dark hardwood dresser in the dining area, and of course, I helped ferry food items from the kitchen as they were ready for serving. It was in this house that my palate was introduced to more elevated foods like green beans almandine, chutney, pickled watermelon rind, and tomato aspic.. She baked fresh dinner rolls from scratch, squeezed into a round cake pan and waiting to be pulled apart, and she introduced me to the delights of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day–slow roasted in the oven instead of boiled, and basted with a brown sugar butter glaze–it inspired me to try my hand at my very own first roast. Rather than boil to death, carrots, potatoes, and chunks of cabbage were roasted alongside our glazed roast and generously drizzled with caraway butter once plated. I hardly recognized caraway seeds beyond their appearance in rye bread–who knew that you could infuse butter with them and they’d be delicious poured over roasted veggies? More importantly, it didn’t take me long to realize that, as much as I loved my biological grandmother for all the no-nonsense wisdom she shared, This new grandmother filled an entirely different role in my life, even if it did stil revolve around food. She was the always-smiling, rosy-cheeked, long, gray hair piled into a bun, forever sharing new and delicious foods, and just always cheery and joyful, no matter what. As a twenty-something going through an extended phase of vegetarianism, when others in my life just couldn’t understand my dietary choices, she was delighted at the culinary challenge to try something new and curious about the possibilities of making meals without meat. My step-father wasn’t too stoked about it, my mom was undoubtedly also soaking in the bliss of the moment, and my Hallmark grandma beamed at the wholesome, complete and savory meal she’d had so much pleasure in crafting for me.
The Wicked Step-Mother
Also around age 13, I moved to live permanently with my father and step-mother. My step-mother never claimed the kitchen s her favorite place, and to be fair, she didn’t really spend a lot of time there until her mother, who did all the cooking for the family until shortly before she moved into a full-time care facility and, shortly thereafter, passed away, did she get deeper into the kitchen out of sheer necessity. The menu for the entire duration of my time under that roof varied seldom–spaghetti with garlic bread and salad every Friday, Saturdays often meant tri-tip with salad and garlic bread or just ordering pizza. Sauce was butter, seasoning was salt and pepper; salad was iceberg lettuce topped with a few sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and drizzled with one of a few pre-made dressings kept on hand. Roast beef impossibly dried out in a slow cooker with Lipton Onion Soup mix made regular appearances, vegetables were usually mashed potatoes, or corn, carrots, or green beans, warmed from a can. In her more experimental moments, we got Chicken Tonight, or stuffed pork chops, which she bought from the grocery store deli just for my father and I, not for her. Scalloped potatoes used up leftover fried ham steaks from the night before and somehow never contained cheese–just sliced potatoes, chopped ham, and milk warmed in the oven. Perhaps the cheese deficit was a blessing, for the only cheese food product ever in the house was Velveeta. Bread was always Home Pride Split Top Wheat and her breakfast was always an Oscar Mayer bologna sandwich with Miracle Whip and a side of green olives and pickles. Candy was kind of a weakness and was available in dishes all around the house in decorative glass and crystal dishes–Starburst, Hershey’s Kisses, and atop the entertainment console, always a well-stocked supply of See’s Candies–Bordeauxs, chocolate covered raspberry cremes, caramel patties, mint patties, and molasses chips, and the cookie jar was always stocked with Oreos. Beverages were Coke, Mountain Dew, 7-Up, and Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Coke, in a bottle, whenever and wherever possible. I think the last out of the way excursion to feed this particular habit was a road trip to Winters, CA sometime when I was in grad school, where they bought the entire available stock by the caseload. When there was a Hagen-Daaz store in Santa Barbara, before it was widely available in grocery stores, they’d drive nearly an hour to buy it and drive it home in a cooler. On the brighter culinary side, the union of my father and step-mother brought me into a kind of middle classs confort that was new to me, and included regular visits to nice restaurants. Granted, this was a time when Sizzler was an upper middle class treat, though living in this household gave me exposure to and appreciation for restaurants with cloth napkins and ice water served in goblets and where the servers and my parents knew each other by name and I got to order filet mignon, minestrone soup, Sunday brunches with cheese blintzes and petit fores, and Monte Cristo sandwiches. After visiting Hawaii and developing a taste for expensive Kona coffee, it was special ordered by mail from somewhere, and other coffee needs were fulfilled by driving to the little gourmet coffee store in a strip mall in the next town over, Starbucks was barely branching outside of Seattle, and third-wave coffee culture was still more than a decade away. On our weekend trips to Coffee & Co., owner & operator, Steve, a friendly, stout bearded guy with glasses would orient us toward his newest roasts, pouring samples off into little paper bags as a bonus to whatever we purchased that day, knowing we’d sample, review, and get back to him with feedback. Meanwhile, I ran from table to table, lifting lids on the large glass jars lined up uniformly around the edge of each table to inhale the aromas of all his roasts, savoring all manner of fruits, nuts, spices, and desserts, all in the form of coffee beans.
Nicole the Giver of Quiche
My palate didn’t stray too far outside my world of meat and potatoes until after I moved out on my own and started college in Santa Barbara, slightly larger and a little more cosmopolitan than my hometown roots. I had Japanese food for the first time, and Thai, and Indian, and in 1998, my palate really started to travel when I went to work a summer job in Germany and ended up in Indonesia. Travel is what ultimately pulled me away from vegetarianism, mostly for health reasons at first–as a low vision traveller who’d not yet quite encountered the alternative skills of blindness, it didn’t take much in the way of cultural and language barriers to result in meat on my plate. It didn’t take long, however, for me to view this as culturally important, both in terms of honoring offerings of hosts and showing respect for generosity, culture, and traditions, and also to take advantage of new experiences these opportunities offered me–new tastes,new traditions, immersive cultural experiences. Salmon chowder at the wharf in Helsinki, goulash in Budapest, and rice porridge with shredded chicken, goat satay, and beef bacon in Indonesia. There was also the opportunity to partake in traditional New Year’s fare, fugu in all its forms and glory, fried octopus balls, and roller sushi in Japan. It was on a study abroad trip in 2001 that I got to sample all manner of real Chinese food and many Vietnamese delights. It was also where I met Nicole, who shared staples of El Salvador and Central America with me, and changed my life forever by teaching me how to make quiche.
I met Nicole on that study abroad trip to China and Vietnam in 2001, and though we didn’t really get to know each other well until near the end of the three month adventure, we decided to do some traveling together for a few weeks following the program, overland from Saigon through Cambodia to Thailand, where she went back to Hanoi to live the expatriate life for about a year, and I spent a week in Japan and headed back to my cat, apartment, and college education. Nicole had a unique childhood by my experience as the daughter of a Mexican-American (“It’s complicated,” she’d try to explain in regards to her father’s background) and an El Salvadoran mother. While born in Santa Barbara, she spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Costa Rica and El Salvador, returning to Santa Barbara around age 17, and not feeling quite like she fit in, either. When she returned to Santa Barbara about a year after our Southeast Asia trip, we picked righ up where we had left off and she quickly became one of about half a dozen of the best circle of girlfriends I could have ever asked for. Lacking appropriate blindness skills to keep up with my ambitions and, therefore, spending unhealthy amounts of time studying, Nicole waas that friend who’d call out of the blue and pull me away from my desk for some much needed beauty, chasing sunsets from the mountains to the beaches, dining out for the company of friends and delicious food, or out for a night of live music. Then one night, this call: “Serena, I have to make cheesecake and quiche for 300 people, come help me–I’m coming to pick you up.” “Me? Wait, what?” I was still that person who felt accomplished managing to pick up hummus and pita chips from Trader Joe’s on my way to a party. I had moved beyond thinking of food as much more than a vehicle for nutrients–I totally enjoyed good food–I just still preferred to pay someone in a restaurant who knew what they were doing to make it happen. Nicole, on the other hand, was raised in a family that ran a series of food-related ventures in Central America–restaurants and coffee roasting, and grew up in a world affluent enough to immerse her early in the skills of entertaining and hosting. On more than one occasion, she’d tell me, she’d still be prepping food as guests arrived while her mom had snuck off to shower before they arrived, and she’d quickly step into the shoes of host, getting them drinks and nibbles while her mom finished getting ready. Back in Santa Barbara, her mother owned antique stores, so the circles she mixed with were similar. “Why are you making cheesecake and quiche for 300 people? And remember, I have no idea what I’m doing in a kitchen.” “It’s a community art walk coordinated by a collective of antique stores for a special event–each store provides some light refreshments and I’m making them for my mom’s store. You don’t have to know what you’re doing–just come keep me company.” And so I did, and I helped where instructed, and mostly provided company and learned a lot along the way. I don’t think I’d ever actually had quiche before that night; I hear it’s something my mom made on a few occasions, though I don’t remember it, and I hear it was way more cheese, probably government, than egg, so does that even count? Not only did I experience authentic quiche, a food I’m not sure I could have spelled correctly, I watched and learned how it is made, and was astonished that something that seemed so elevated, so fancy, so complicated, was actually so simple to make. This was truly a moment when all my culinary planets aligned–I had a tool, a great tool, for social transformation, I had a new and amazing way to bring people together, a legit excuse to invite people to my apartment, like a real grown up. I played with the recipe, and Nicole was right, I’d always come back to her classic spinach, mushroom, and feta. I was having swinging dinner parties fueled by wine, classy foods, hip music, and wonderful, eccentric people–quiche taught me the value of food as a tool for social transformation, and so much of who I am today goes back to this pivotal moment in my life. Nicole also turned me onto the wit and wisdom of Anthony Bourdain, who set standards for harnessing the relationship between food and community and took it to unprecedented levels￼.￼￼
Gratitude and Reclaiming Holiday Mojo
As an adult, I’d long lost holiday spirit for a lot of dumb and complicated reasons, and in fact, over the last decade or so, I’ve learned to manage the tension that evolved between my holiday anxiety, usually as soon as the calendar turns October without cessation until January 1st or 2nd, with living in a home with a young couple, newly married, starting a family, both with parents still married and family-oriented to the core–especially around holidays. Because of the very special bond and relationship I’ve had with this family, and because I know it’s the healthy thing to do, I’ve been actively working to make the holidays work for me and let go of the stress I allowed them to create for so long. New Years was the first major holiday I could get behind–like birthdays,there’s something satisfying about celebrating cycles. I really wanted to get behind Halloween for all its whimsy and frivolity, though it requires a level of work and commitment that I’m clearly not up to, and I’ve embraced my role as holding down candy distribution so the whole family clan can go door-knocking together. It’s now the one time of the year that I will drink wine and cram candy in my face with reckless abandon and not feel too bad about it. I also let go of the costume stress–having my nails done for Halloween, digging up a pair of Halloween socks or earrings, or some other small, easy marker of celebration is a-ok with me. Now There’s Thanksgiving. It has become more and more clear to me as the years have gone by that this is absolutely my favorite holiday of the year, celebrating three of life’s most important things–delicious food, community and loved ones, and expressing gratitude. When I think about my contribution to this year’s festivities, especially in contrast to those of many years past, my heart and soul are truly full of the real meaning and value of the holiday. When once upon a time, what I was able to contribute was stopping at Trader Joe’s for hummus and pita chips, I now dive enthusiastically into a contribution that took two fall family excursions, much recipe searching,careful planning and scheduling over the course of six days, and execution that relied on the support and coordination of several others. My contribution to the menu alone was homemade cranberry sauce, cranberry pumpkin bread, apple butter pumpkin pie, caramel apple brie, coconut mango panna cotta, and my new favorite Thanksgiving tradition, sauteed pears with bacon and mustard dressing. All the apple ingredients came from a 5 gallon haul of apples acquired on a family apple-picking excursion to a local orchard, all the pumpkin ingredients came from fresh roasted sugar pumpkins gathered on a family trip to the local pumpkin patch, and even the caramel was homemade as a positive externality of Costco shopping for heavy whipping cream–turns out I just needed a half cup for the Nanaimo Bars–I had to do something with 60 oz. of extra cream. Each time I added another item to the list of things I’d bring, I felt only joy and anticipation of playing with food, using abundant ingredients I had on hand, and sharing them with others. It didn’t bring the standard stress and anxiety of having yet more things to do and think about on top of an already busy workload–it felt like a vacation from it, which I now recognize more than ever, since the Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to really understand that the kitchen is my happy place.
I still credit that night nearly two decades ago in Nicole’s kitchen sharing the life-changing magic of quiche with me as an extremely important pivot point to the person I am today. Reveling in the most recent magic of this year’s Thanksgiving feast and marveling at how I’ve almost effortlessly upped my food game, because I found my happy place, has given me pause to dig a little deeper into my food story and there is clearly a lot more BQ, Before Quiche, than I’d previously considered–all those childhood experiences and influences. Now I know, in addition to quiche, I have so much more to be grateful for, and yet, it really did start with quiche.