Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Food for thought

I love food. I love tasting new dishes. I love talking with friends about what they eat. I love cooking. I love watching cooking shows. I wander around in gourmet grocery stores with the same lust that I once had for toy stores.

That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when my mom would have to basically force feed me. I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the dinner table until I begrudgingly finished off every single grain of rice. This was in high school.

I used to bemoan the fact that someone hadn’t invented some sort of tablet to swallow that would supplant the need to eat anything for the entire day. “Imagine how much time and energy would be saved if we didn’t have to focus on eating three times a day,” I would fantasize to myself.

I consider my dad to be the biggest eating enthusiasts. Any family event or celebration would inevitably be centered around food. Wedding... Big ass feast. Birthday... Fancy steak house. Sunday... Korean Barbeque. Nothing pleased my relatives more than sitting around a large round table and devouring a menagerie of dishes.

But I couldn’t escape fast enough. Eating was the biggest inconvenience in my life. My friend’s dad once commented that I eat like a bird: “just enough to fly”.

There were a few things I did enjoy, such as McDonald’s and Pizza. But those preferences may have had more to do with the perks, like the toys that came along with Happy Meals or playing video games after choking down a few slices. Junk food and ice cream were typical fares I would tolerate. One vivid memory I have is my youngest uncle teaching me the ritual of finishing a helping of potato chips was to lick the salt and oil off my fingers and then wipe them off on my tshirt underneath my armpit. Needless to say my mom was quite horrified to observe this behavior.

Then something happened over time. I OD’ed on instant ramen in college, fast food take-out didn’t taste as good anymore, and the visual of pools of oil on top of my pizza started to turn my stomach.

Living on my own was a big factor. Spending my own hard earned money on groceries rather than, say CDs, meant that I valued the food much more. I slowly learned to appreciate the effort in cooking. I also noticed how watching friends resort to a dinner of chips and salsa upset me more than I ever thought it would.

There were of course bumps along the way. I once cooked pork chops for my then-girlfriend, proudly presented it in front of her, only to have her exclaim “Where are the sides? The vegetables?! We’re just going to have meat?” It had honestly never occurred to me before what the concept of a balanced meal was.

Moving to New York City also was another integral influence in my foodie progression. Due to crippling poverty at the time, Food Network was an invaluable (and somehow free) source of entertainment. Although whenever Rachel Ray would show her aggravating grin, I’d turn to Friends reruns on the WB. Grrr, just the thought of her again makes me want to punch her in the face. Although I never tried to emulate any of the meals on the shows, I noticed I was absorbing all kinds of tidbits and info that they dished out while preparing the meals. I watched just about every program on that channel with enjoyment. But Iron Chef is just too stressful for me. I notice my hands clenched into fists as I watch the frantic slicing and dicing.

During this time, I also discovered how this city is not geared for people to cook at home. Restaurants literally line every single block. Grocery stores are few and far in between. Even then, the quality of the food is questionable, and the temperament of the employees makes the notion of shopping nauseating. On top of all that, the kitchens in apartments are ridiculously small. Many times in my first apartment, I’d have to prep one part of a recipe, clean up in order to have room to prep the next part, clean up again and then cook. I only really noticed this issue when I went back home to visit family in Texas. The island counter in their kitchens would be the size of my entire kitchen area.

Along the way, I developed an interest in finer things related to cooking, mainly using better ingredients. I realized that the little things go a long way in turning a decent meal into a great one.

One of the things I looked forward to going back to Texas was visiting Central Market, an upscale grocery store, so that I could stock up on bulk spices. Is that totally geeky or what? I also bought a contraption that houses herbs in the fridge and keeps them fresh two weeks longer. Complete dork? Check.

While I’ve become steadily more comfortable with cooking, I’d hardly boast being any good at it. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. Unlike some of my friends who can adventurously whip up improvised concoctions, I need the reassurance of a recipe. Even then, I have to be very organized about my prep work. I once tried to wing Chicken Fettuccini and nearly had a heart attack trying to manage pots and pans on all four stove burners.

I was also lucky enough to find A., who is a food enthusiast that probably rivals my dad. In her, I found a buddy to indulge in all our appreciations. We’d spend lunches together describing the previous night’s dinners. And actually be interested in it. We’d go to Whole Foods and she’d gush over the fresh cheese section. I’d drool over the crab cakes.

We’re such dorks that we’d text each other what we’re having for dinner. And the other would text back and excitedly ask for more details.

For example...
My text: Just made wild swrdfsh n portugese sauce 4 dinnr!!
Her reply: Yay! Is it amazing???

As with everything in New York, no matter how intense one’s obsession is, there’s always someone else that takes it to the next level. Not just aficionados but any aspect of food has been scrutinized. Vegetarians, vegans, fair-trade activists, co-op members, restaurant critics (professional and the internets kind), local-vores. It’s amazing. And 10 years ago I wouldn’t have understood any of it.

But now I do.

I realize that eating (and cooking) aren’t just a chore, but a means for people to connect with each other. Think of all the social interactions that revolve around a meal: catching up with friends, special occasions, family barbecues, and of course dating.

This past Thanksgiving I ended up hosting dinner for all of my friends who weren’t going home for the holiday. There was something very satisfying about having a bustling kitchen crammed with my friends. Not everyone knows what they’re doing exactly, but everyone contributes and there are smiles on every face. I’m lucky enough to have a place that has become a hub for many friend dinners and I’ll treasure the fond memories they bring.

You couldn’t get that with a food-supplement tablet.

So tonight’s menu: Chimichurri Marinated Beef Flank Steak with Bell Peppers, Onions and Yellow Cucumbers over Jasmine Rice. Mmmmm!

(Amazing photos are taken from 101 Cookbooks, which continually has the most tantalizing food photos I’ve ever seen. I drool over my keyboard everytime.)

1 comment:

courtney said...

I just bought a book called Simply Organic. It focuses on recipes for what’s in season. I’ll let you know if I come across anything that stands out.