Weather: 25 degrees, an inch or two of fresh snow
What I’m listening to: Say Something, A Great Big World
I was watching the second episode of ABC’s The Taste. The challenge for the cheftestants was to cook “your life on a plate.” One plate, one balanced bite. A whole life captured in flavors and textures and smells. Brilliant, I thought. I love this challenge. I couldn’t wait to see what they came up with, and even more, I wished I had been there to sample the results.
But, then I got to thinking – If I were there, what would I cook? What would my life on a plate look like?
Then I heard crickets. Chirp. Chirp. Nothing.
Although I lived a childhood diverse in experience, woven with the complexities of many different places and faces, it was not particularly rich in a specific, overarching food heritage (I’ve shared before about childhood food insecurity and my food philosophy here). When I attempted to conceptualize a plate in my mind that might capture some of the flavors of my life, specifically my childhood, I imagined what amounted to a muddled, unfocused mess that didn’t represent me or my food philosophy at all. Sadness. This t.v. challenge vexed me. I still don’t have even the foggiest idea, days later, of what my life on a plate might be.
This all got me thinking about my mother, who died two years ago this month from pancreatic cancer. She was free-spirited and eccentric, and these things translated into the food she cooked – when she did cook – which she did and enjoyed much more later in her life after I was grown. I remember many, many Jello salads. Her favorites included lime Jello with cottage cheese and canned pineapple, or a Valentine’s Day specialty of cherry Jello with Red Hots cinnamon candies, squares of cream cheese, and walnuts. She may have enjoyed stovetop Jello chocolate pudding even more than Jello gelatin, eating it while still hot and straight from the pan. Her favorite comfort food was tuna noodle casserole with a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of tuna, egg noodles and peas, dressed up with sour cream and bread crumbs. Or a pan of macaroni and cheese with browned, crispy, near-burnt edges. Come to think of it, she liked many things blackened and burnt, like hot dogs, marshmallows, and toast. To this day, I stay far away from Jello, burnt marshmallows, and tuna noodle casserole.
Recipes, like rules, were meant to broken, or at least severely bent, where my mother was concerned. Expiration dates were merely a suggestion, measurements a loose guideline. She told me on many occasions that cinnamon should be doubled or even tripled in every recipe that called for it, and added to many other recipes that didn’t. Vanilla, likewise, was never measured, but rather poured straight from the bottle in glugs. Coffee grounds could be used twice to save money. I began very early on to doctor up packaged, processed foods (like a store-bought jar of spaghetti sauce or a package of ramen noodles) in an attempt to elevate them into something better – a survival technique I realize, in retrospect, I got from her rule-breaking, free-spirited ways in the kitchen.
In contrast, if we had the rare occasion to eat at a fancy restaurant (someone else’s treat), my mother would always order prime rib and lobster, with horseradish and clarified butter on the side, and a baked potato. To drink, almost always wine or a Long Island Iced Tea. It was extravagant in comparison to our means, much like her personality was. At these fancy restaurants, I would always order a plate of rich Fettuccine Alfredo, which always made me feel full and well-indulged, along with a Shirley Temple.
While my childhood may be convoluted, and similarly, the food…. I learned a tremendous amount that brought me to where I am today. I learned which kitchen rules can be bent or broken and which cannot. I learned that recipes are like loyal friends that walk with me through the seasons of my life. I learned what flavors work and what flavors don’t. I learned much about cravings and hunger and much more about improvisation and creativity in the kitchen. I learned the comfort a single plate of food can bring and the undeniable kinship that comes with being together around the table. I may not be able to put my entire life on a single plate, but perhaps my story is more like a family meal, a whole table covered in dishes meant to be shared.
Thanks for listening, readers. And thanks, Mom.
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For the New Year, I present you with one gorgeous salad made up of five of the most nutritious super foods out there: kale, quinoa, avocado, pomegranate, and wild salmon. I tossed and drizzled all of it with an acidic and sweet homemade honey mustard vinaigrette.
p.s. If you haven’t tried massaging your kale yet, now is the time. Chop your kale, throw it into a bowl, and give it a firm massage with your fingers for 30 seconds to tenderize it. It makes a huge difference.