Monday, June 08, 2009

What is good food?

Tonight I steamed some mussels in a broth of spring onions, garlic ramps, butter, soy sauce, and saki … oh! And a couple of Serrano chiles. Eating Maine mussels in North Carolina violates all the sacrosanct rules of localvorism – and yet. Landlocked in this part of North Carolina – what are my chances of getting local mussels? Plus the price? $3.58/lbs is pretty darn good.

As I sat down to eat the mussels – and dunk pieces of wonderful French baguette into the juices – I thought about my meal. Clearly I thought it was amazingly good. Then I tried to think of who all I could have invited to join me. I think the majority of the Thursday night girls would have been ok. The Sunday night dinner group? Oh no! I think all the men would have elbowed each other for the last drop of broth – but a few of the women would have stood back – and just nibbled on the bread.

Some of these thoughts were prompted from my visit home in January. I spent time with family – and I have two nieces and a sister-in-law who are picky eaters. It’s a challenge to feed the picky. I think one of the reasons I like cooking is because it’s a way to share a gift and a talent. But if they don’t LIKE what you’re making, how much sharing are you doing? And by insisting someone MUST like something – there’s an awful lot of judgment calling going on, isn’t there? And how much love, affection, and community can you build if someone is gagging on the meal you spent time and money preparing?

Now – in all fairness, I must tell you. Me? Pointing at picky eaters? TOTALLY the Pot calling the Kettle black. And probably not for the reason you think. I mean NOW I’m a food snob. But as a kid?? Let me tell you, I think I made new rules for “picky eater”. The first time I noticed … that I didn’t fit in with the other kids … was nursery school. Like all pre-school programs, Jack-n-Jill had “snack time”. I don’t think many kids in the 60s considered Kool-Aid and Ritz crackers torture, but I did. In fact, my mom used to send along my very own Tupperware glass of milk for me. I think I just drank the milk at smack time. If they had Wheat Thins or Triscuits, I would have snacked along – but NOOOOO … it was hideous Ritz crackers, or celery and peanut butter, or oatmeal raisin cookies. I think they were trying to poison us with. GAG.

Of course, you never believe your family when they tell you, “You are weird.” I mean, that’s the definition of a sibling relationship, right? But perhaps I should have listened. I clearly recall our family going out for “Pizza”. It was a “big treat”. The second time we went? That I can remember? There was the glass of milk – and another Tupperware bowl of cold cereal. Mmmm – cold cereal. Now that was good eating!

One of my Dad’s favorite stories about my childhood eating habits is going down the Campbell’s soup aisle of the grocery store and me yelling out with enthusiasm, “Dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner!” It would seem I lived on cold cereal, milk, Campbell’s soup, scrambled eggs, and Jell-O. Now I’ve dropped canned soup from my repertoire, but remain a committed fan of the other four items.

Clearly – this is not the introductory story of a gourmand. Or is it? I’m not sure when I got adventurous in my eating. I remember snippets of “new tastes” from here and there. My first kiwi, piece of pita bread, handful of granola, and avocado – were all sampled before the mid-70s. However, I refused to eat tacos that weren’t made of hamburger, I didn’t want cheese or lettuce on them (and can I tell you? Taco Bell doesn’t understand the concept of a “meat only” taco), I didn’t like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, baloney, grilled cheese, or ice cream. Yes, I know!! Ice cream … what kid doesn’t like ice cream? Or at least that’s what the neighbor lady asked my mom after I refused some after lunch.

And that’s not to say there wasn’t good cooking going on. My Grandma Mitter was a GREAT cook. My dad – can make me breakfast ANY DAY OF THE WEEK! Mr. Mitter’s sourdough creations are not to be missed. He’s pretty amazing with a Weber Kettle too. His chicken and pork chops are the best.

My mom? My mom likes to eat! She is not a timid eater – it’s because of her I ate Samosas, Quiche, alfalfa sprouts, and yogurt. Although, as a kid I was sure she was trying to poison me with tomatoes, oysters, lima beans, seven bean salad (gag), cottage cheese, and French cut green beans. Oh! And cooked raisins! Not to mention dried dates and plums. Blech, blech, blech. And I must confess. Although she like to eat? She does not like to cook. There is always a shortcut with her. Or a combining of unlikely ingredients. Or – the dreaded clean-out-the-refrigerator “stew”. Uggg.

So – when did it all change for me? Or more importantly WHY did it change? I mean, now I’ll eat raw fish, couscous, tomatoes, dates, goat cheese, and most veggies. (NOT LIMA BEANS!)

You know what did it? Reading. Yep. Somewhere along the line – as I read, I found these amazing descriptions of food; food that people liked and rhapsodized over. Laura Ingles Wilder and Little House on the Prairie, Zane Gray and his cowboy stories, and Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. Yeah, I know. He wasn’t a food writer. And yet I’m sure he talked about food.

And suddenly I wanted to try lox and bagels, stuffed grape leaves, escargot, venison, faerie cakes and treackle pudding.

I’m not really sure how to open this world up to other people. I certainly didn’t believe anyone who told me, “here – this tastes good.” Of course, I’ll have to say – presentation and mouth feel go a LONG way in making something palatable. But still – what makes you take that risk? How do you encourage someone? Because honestly? I cannot imagine a life without all the amazing food I eat and cook. Good food. Food that takes time, and care, and thought.

\What about you?


mamie said...

Great post, Mit! I'd write more, but I gotta go get something to read...I mean eat! Love ya

Elisa said...

You know, I am STILL a massive picky eater -- but I LOVE reading your posts and reading about food for the same reasons as you -- it doesn't make me adventurous enough to try new foods (or, I did, and still couldn't take it), but it makes me feel like I *could* love them.

As for the sharing thing, it's hard on both ends. I want to be the gracious guest and not insult my host, especially the one who puts so much love into the food. But just being at the table is where the love and the sharing is. Even if I'm not physically eating it, there's something to be said for being there.

Great post!

I H8 24 said...

How do I encourage people? Pull out the Kitchen Kettle and throw in some fresh bass or crappie, or cook up some fresh garden veggies, and slow cooked southern dishes. It all goes back to the way we were raised. I look at what you post about eating and think, "I'm not so sure about that", and you sit down at my table and have this look on your face like "I can't believe they eat this"!! It's all in what tickles your taste buds. I've come a long way from beans and fried potatoes (in bacon grease). My "Paula Deen" roots grow long and hardy, but I am willing to try new things. Thanks to you, I have ventured out past the "cream of" isle in the grocery store!! Love the post and love you!!!

Robert said...

I am sooo making lima beans next time I see you

MitMoi said...

@IH824 - I'm glad I rescued you from the "Cream of" Aisle. I'll eat your bacon-fat fried < insert food item here > anytime you fix it!

@Elisa - you totally crack me up, "I *want* to like them.

@Mamie - we need to do some eating and sharing the love with Elisa and Gina.

@Robert - you can make all the Lima Beans you want. I will still be sitting at the table 'till the end of my visit with them uneaten. lol