Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Origins of the Foodie

I often wonder where this fire began.

Where does it begin for anyone impassioned with food?

Early transference of food and culinary traditions came from exploration and invasions. In recent times, immigration and widespread travel has opened the doors on global cuisine. We find it understandable that someone from Italy or France, the accepted centers of gastronomy, have a passion for food coursing through their veins. (I'd have a lot of caneles coursing through my veins if iI lived in Paris!) Yet, all other countries and every region within them have strong food traditions or customs (some more well-known than others). And depending on where you are blessed to live or travel, the real cuisine isn't in restaurants though they may serve fair to even exceptional examples of where I believe food comes from.

I think real food comes from a kitchen with nary a star.

More and more, people are seeking out taste and experience. In "A Cook's Tour", Anthony Bourdain is in search of the perfect meal. For me, I think such a meal should transport you to another place, and there is no place like home. That essence is in the cooking of a mother, grandmother, aunt or community kitchen and it can remind people, no matter where they may hail from, a little of home.

Home. Whether you have lived in the same place all your life or had some circumstance that has taken you far from whence you came, the power of smell and taste can conjure images of that place. Most people can attest to this. If I were blindfolded and taken to my parents home just before dinner, I would know where I was.

And I wasn't born in a part of the world renowned for its gastronomic delights or at least, I never considered it to be. We ate meat and potatoes, fiddleheads (tender new shoots of the ostrich fern) in spring and I took the occasional lobster sandwich to school (I had a teacher make an off comment to me about it once - the nerve!) but I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. (Besides, they were rather ugly creatures..)

My grandfather used to tell me about taking lobster to school. He'd hide his lunchpail away from the others lest they smell the lobster and he be made a spectacle. Lobster, you see, was a by-catch and the food of the poor.

Looking back, I was a lucky kid. Living on the bay, despite the fog, had its benefits.

So where does someone from a small city with conservative tastes get this fire?

First, I have to credit my mother even though I cook different things compared to what I would have eaten while growing up. That said, there isn't a birthday that goes by that I don't make the moist chocolate cake and pillowy Italian meringue icing that I first stuck my whole arm into at the age of one, or crave blueberry muffins that have that crunchy, sugary topping everytime I have a cup of coffee. Ditto rhubarb custard pie. She still makes the best fried haddock I have ever tasted and, now that the local fishermen have long since pulled in their boats, continues to hassle the local fishmonger for the freshest fish available.

Second, travel. Ever met someone who visited Rome and raved about a fast-food mega chain? Or someone who ate there simply so they would know what they were eating? Both are sad and unnecessary. Wandering around markets in other countries certainly puts the regional cuisine in perspective and an impromptu lunch with fresh market gatherings can be the stuff of memories. Arming yourself with a few recipes (and food words in the local lingo) from research prior to travelling makes all the difference. This way you are able to get the most out of the local cuisine. And if you are of a certain diet persuasion (or ant eggs aren't your thing), you can avoid an unpleasant surprise. Most surprising was that they tasted like an incredibly savoury rice.

And to give credit where it is due, however reluctantly, I have to credit Food Science. University has given me the drive to communicate in other languages and try new (and sometimes frightening) things.

So I study. And cook. And eat. I devote what most consider an insane amount of time to all of the above.

And why shouldn't I?

Meal preparation can now be measured in minutes. A large percentage of the population of developed countries take less than an hour to prepare an evening meal (and only wants to spend half that). It is well documented that takeaways (and inactivity) are rampantly having ill effects on health. So, when there are a plethora of cookbooks available and we don't have to ready the coals (although I have) to make dinner, why not use the extra time to enjoy making and eating the meal with family or friends?

Not to get into the politics of "Supersize me", but I do have to mention Jamie Oliver's School Lunch Program in Britain and the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Junior School in California. I hope it catches on. We know the detrimental effects a poor diet has on health, learning and behaviour. And we know that healthy habits are best formed at a young age. This should be fire in the belly of every parent and school administrator with any sense of responsibility.

These are only a few of the reasons.

It has to come from somewhere.. So maybe my own mother, oblivious to the effect she was having on me, cooking evening meals, making homemade bread and preserves, always extolling the importance of fresh seafood, was the beginning. My father, helping me plant lettuce and always conveying awareness of nature and where food comes from, was the beginning. Now, I revere the freshness and quality of ingredients (often growing my own) and scrutinize the manner in which they are obtained from the earth or ocean.

We always ate in the kitchen, at the table (unless I was stealing a warm biscuit before dinner) with no television. I used to hate that but no longer. There was always discussion.

I can take recipes from her cookbooks but know I have gathered more than recipes from my experiences in her kitchen. Her cooking for us was an act of love. And it continues as I prepare dinner for my husband and hopefully one day, my own family.

Eating is one of the small pleasures of life that I am determined not to lose.

Maybe it is that simple.

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