I have a notion that a food blog is highly topical and not particularly autobiographical. Every writer has his or her own take on how to approach the topic of food, but the idea of separating cooking from life is, indeed, rather artificial. After all, eating is one of these practices that is universal among human beings, and therefore cooking, whether you do it yourself, or you rely on your mother, a servant, or the hot dog stand guy on the street corner, is something that is a part of all of our lives.
For me, cooking has been a deeply important part of my life, one that at times offers a clarity and order to the chaos around me, for years and years. My grandmother Ethel was a remarkably talented cook and baker. Her sugar cookies, and many other recipes, were published in Betty Crocker cookbooks. She was always the one to prepare elaborately architected layer cakes for the wedding ceremonies in her community in rural Minnesota. My mother is a very fine cook in her own right, and her berry cobbler recipe made it into a Junior League cookbook in the 1980s. I have very fond, though somewhat vague, memories of the old farmhouse kitchen in which Ethel recruited my brother and me into cookie-cutting at Christmastime. My mother, however, kept us far from the kitchen, where she liked to watch the evening news while she prepared a family dinner every single night as I was growing up. We always sat down to the table together. It was always brief, but it was always together as a family.
That is, until our family house burned down in the Oakland/Berkeley Firestorm of 1991. I was fifteen at the time, a new sophomore in high school. Suddenly, we were thrown into a complete tailspin as a family, and we moved six times in just three years, as we waited to return to our newly rebuilt home. Family dinners were just one of many practices that fell to the wayside in our house. In fact, my mother stopped cooking entirely for a while. She suffered from illness, undoubtedly from the stress of what we were enduring.
And so, I learned to cook.
That may sound callous in the way I frame it, but in the end, you have to eat, and if you aren't going to live on cereal and takeout, somebody has to enter the kitchen. So I did, and I had an unusual entree into the experience of cooking. After all, I had seen two other generations of women in my family prepare food. But I had had very little hands-on experience with food preparation. So, I began very simply, and I stuck with vegetarian foods. I bought pasta and cooked it according to the instructions on the package, and learned the basics of preparing a tomato sauce. But quickly I was inspired by the wide array of new-to-us cookbooks my mother was rapidly accumulating at garage and estate sales (since literally everything we'd previously owned had been incinerated). I explored the various techniques for preparing omelettes, through traditional French cookbooks. I tried my hand at fondue, at lemon cream sauces, at French onion soup. I was off and running. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a palate that was curious and accustomed to a rather wide variety of foods, including many types of ethnic cuisines and a large array of fresh fruits and vegetables. I may be one of the only kids who grew up loving Brussels sprouts! By the time I was in college, I felt confident picking up a cookbook and tackling just about anything I had directions for. But travel and life in Europe, India, and Morocco broadened the horizons further, and they just keep expanding. Every close friend I've every cooked with has transformed my practice in the kitchen, especially when we have had the gift of living together for a period.
So, you see, life has always been intimately enmeshed in my cooking; or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that my cooking has always been woven tightly into the fabric of my life. So you're never going to be able to avoid me in this blog, even when I'm talking about creme brulee or pasta alla puttanesca.