An early start. I got interested in cooking at age 7. Mom got a Saturday job at the Marianna post office and left early. I liked to sleep in on Saturday, so I was on my own for breakfast. She showed me how to make eggs & toast.
Eggs any style. I love eggs. I got Mom to show me all the different ways she fixed them: straight up, over easy, basted with bacon fat, scrambled, even her Sunday morning special, shirred eggs. Oven eggs, we called 'em, and she always served 'em with buttermilk biscuits. I learned the basics, then started experimenting.
Eggs & cheese are kinda good together; who knew? Scrambled eggs gave me room to play. First I learned how to make 'em come out nice & creamy. I took that a step further by mixing in more milk then cooking the mix over low heat without stirring. That delicate custard was a favorite. It spawned dessert custards like bread pudding. Then I went the other way, got the pan smokin' hot before pouring in the beaten eggs. Whoa, puffy eggs! I had independently discovered the frittata. But it was kinda dry, so I grated in some cheese. I'd eventually ride puffy eggs to popovers and Dutch babies, many years later.
Pizza ai funghi. My first time in Rome I was excited to eat real Italian pizza. I started making the Chef Boyardee box version when I was 8. Pizza toppings meant meat, duh. Pepperoni was not bad, Italian sausage was better, but what I really liked was Southern-style breakfast sausage with sage. Later on, in Asheville, I discovered Broiled in Butter shrooms, and just loved the flavor. Those became a regular pizza topping too. I was used to very American pizza, so the Roman pizzeria menu puzzled me. I settled on the mushroom; the other names I couldn't translate. I was expecting tomato sauce, and hoping for meat. That pizza was a flavor bomb, all new flavors. Different color mushrooms, no tomato, and OMG the crust! The gooey cheese!
Green bean mushroom soup casserole was Mom's contribution to a covered dish dinner and I loved it. So I had to learn that, starting with the green beans. Her green bean secret was bacon. She'd fried some up then cut it up in the iron skillet, leaving in the grease. Add the green beans, snapped not cut; cutting leaves the strings. Toss the beans in the hot grease till they turn dark green, add water and cover until tender. They made that casserole sing. I made that dish for decades; always got rave reviews. It's the bacon!
Buttermilk biscuits. My Mom's buttermilk biscuits were the best anyone ever made and you can't prove otherwise. Even the uncooked dough for her biscuits was intoxicatingly good, tangy & rich; I would beg for scraps as she punched out the round pads destined to become biscuits. Her secret, I learned, was all butter, no shortening or other lesser fat. I still go by that: there is no cooking fat but butter. Ya, ya, ghee, it's a pain in the butt and not as good. You can't improve on butter. Gloriously tender buttermilk biscuits dripping with yet more butter or holding a freshly cooked sausage patty spread with homemade blackberry jam became another signature dish of mine. Thank you Mom.
Campfire cookery. A whole new realm to explore! My favorite campfire meal, which I also made at home when my dad had charcoal going, was the foil pouch: a piece of meat (cubed steak was my favorite) and some vegetables sealed up carefully in foil and dropped in the coals. Here I learned that how you cut the vegetables was crucial: potatoes had to be cut mighty thin if I didn't want 'em crunchy. I'm still working on my knife skills.
Peach cobbler. The other campfire delicacy required a cooking pot, preferably cheap aluminum, soot-blackened and well-dented. Campfire peach cobbler was 1 box of Bisquick mixed with 1 can of Hunt's peaches, syrup & all. The trick was to cook the gloppy mess until the middle was done but the outside wasn't burned, a trick no Boy Scout ever learned. Of course we ate it all anyway, burned and goopy alike. It was heavenly.
Sunday dinner at the Pagoda. Living in Kenya blew my world wide open in just about every way, and food was a big one. In Nairobi I began to discover the culinary world, starting with China. Soon after we arrived, my dad's boss invited us to join a group of UN staff for dinner at The Pagoda. They're still in business; it was ranked among Nairobi's top ten restaurants in 2017. It's upstairs in Shankardass House, a classic Chinese-style mixed use commercial building that'd be right at home in Seattle's International District, say along S Jackson somewhere. The tables had lazy susans set flush into the tabletop; you might say they encouraged diners to share. I was still using Pagoda chopsticks all through the 10s here in Seattle; instead of pull-apart unfinished chopsticks you got nicely finished bamboo with The Pagoda Nairobi in charming foil printing. They're gone now, along with all my chopsticks; I prefer to eat with a spoon, gweilo that I am.
Curry with all the toppings. But the real culinary heart of Nairobi was Indian. There were Indian restaurants everywhere, at every price point. Meaty samosas were the standard snack food in any bar, and Indian stalls vied for my custom, enticing me with abundant displays in all the markets, colorful mounds of spices and lentils. I learned new words: elaichi, haldi, kalonji, dal. I loved the way curries were served. You got a bowl or mound of rice, and the meat & sauce was served separately in a metal pan. You put some curry and rice together, and then there were the toppings. Even in very humble restaurants, the toppings were lavish: chutneys, pickles, radishes, fresh cut fruit, shaved coconut and other nuts, etcetera. I loved all the toppings, but my favorite was sliced ripe banana. Still my favorite.
Curry on the brain. While I was still in college the UN would pay my airfare so I could go visit my parents in Kenya. I was getting more serious about learning to cook now that I had a kitchen, and when I visited Kenya I'd go soak up all I could in Nairobi's Indian restaurants & markets. I started collecting Indian cookbooks. Early on I learned to scoff at prepared curry powders, buying all the individual spices and grinding them or frying them whole as needed. Indian became my second culinary language after Southern.
English? I also discovered English delicacies in Nairobi. Cadbury bars were the first chocolate bars I liked: Caramello, Fruit & Nut, Royal Dark. I also became fascinated by luxury canned goods that I thought of as English because I found them in very English-style grocers, things like paté de foie gras with truffles, lumpfish caviar, & smoked mussels. That dubious fascination lasted for years, but I survived it.
Sam's spinach salad. Food on the Fish Farm was a team effort. Sam, Gail & I all loved to cook, and we all brought our own favorites. I've already written about stack pudding and fried genoa salami cubes, a couple of Sam's favorite munchies. Sam also made a spinach salad that was to die for. The only salad items were spinach, hardboiled eggs, and bacon bits; the magic was in the dressing. The eggs had to be cooked hard, so the yolks were crumbly; they became part of the dressing as you tossed the salad. The other dressing ingredients were tamari, toasted sesame oil, prepared mustard (usually Grey Poop in our house), and just a smidge of wine vinegar. Oh, and salad oil, usually olive but untoasted sesame oil was also great for that. The secret was in the proportions, and Sam worked by feel. It's a salad unlike any I've ever tasted before or since, just mind-bogglingly good.
Curried pulao. One of my contributions was a curried pulao dinner that combined things I learned in Nairobi with 50s/60s California-style cooking I was learning from Sam & Gail, who lived in Cupertino and other Bay Area burgs for years. French onion soup dip, anyone? You want guac with that? I would fry up a bunch of Indian spices into a tadka. When the spices all got very fragrant I dumped in dry brown basmati rice, and let the rice fry before adding water. Then cover and don't peek! While that was cooking I'd make a very garlicky green salad with a good amount of lemon juice as the acid. You mixed the richly spiced fragrant rice with the tart garlicky salad and ate them as one dish. Everyone loved it, even the kids. A popular vegetarian meal, whoo hoo!
Peach rightside up cake. This was a popular breakfast dish I came up with. I would cut up ripe peaches and simmer them in a cast iron skillet with butter and brown sugar until they began to get soft & syrupy. Then I would dot the surface of this sea of peachy goodness with a hearty California-style pancake batter, whole wheat with lots of rolled oats & pecans. The dollops of batter always looked like they were gonna drown. Then I took the skillet off the stove and put it in the oven. When I took it out, the peaches had disappeared under a bulging brown hippie cake. I served it with a spatula and a serving spoon so you could make sure to get the sweet doughy treasures at the bottom.
Nietzsche was right. In Boulder I learned a new approach to food: grain & veggie-based hippie-style conscious cooking and eating. All the meals were one-bowl meals eaten with chopsticks while sitting on the floor. It probably saved my life; it certainly saved my health. I rebelled mightily against the discipline & simplicity of it, but I actually liked most of the meals. Cooking was spelled out in minute detail: how to cut each veggie, what order things went in the pot, the exact size cube to cut the cheese into, etc. Directions sometimes included attitude/intention: "infuse the eggs with fire!" Proportions of each ingredient were precise, as was the exact quantity each person was allowed to eat, determined via muscle testing. I had a real love-hate relationship with The Diet, as it was known, and I'm so grateful that I had to live with it, more or less, for 12 years. I learned a lot and got healthier, while my coworkers in Tallahassee were settling comfortably into early middle-aged spread. The comfort that never lasts, "a miserable ease" as Nietzsche so plangently put it. The miserable ease I dodged by leaving Tallahassee.
Weight loss. When I came to Seattle in the 90s I let most of my dietary discipline fade, and by the early 00s I was getting fat. But in 2006 I finally got in touch with my wisdom, and the first order of business was losing weight. The diet my wisdom gave me had a new theme: low carb. I lost the weight by eating a diet based on low carbohydrates, relatively high fat, and portion control: I cooked only the amount I was going to eat; no leftovers, and of course no seconds. My diet mellowed out after the weight loss, but held on to limiting carbs and portion control. I stopped eating holiday feasts and avoided potlucks. I made my meals just the right size, no matter what day it was.
Experimentation. My diet in the 10s was one huge crazy experiment. I now had enough connection with my wisdom to avoid complete catastrophe, but also free enough rein to try all kinds of crazy stuff. I had a new diet every few months. Hidden in all the happy chaos was a steady process of refinement: I gradually got better at cooking, came to understand cooking and food more deeply.
Keto. At one point I went full-on keto for a few months: super-low carbs, lots of fat. I succeeded in moving my metabolism into ketosis, and I was mesmerized by it. It felt like I had entered a whole new world; my body felt so supple and alive, just crackling with energy. But after a while it began to feel like too much, I couldn't handle the energy, so I upped the carbs and tipped myself back into normal metabolism, with mixed feelings.
Detox diet crisis. My big crisis in diet, really a series of crises, came with cannabis detox, which began in December 2019. In the latter part of my yearlong pot glut I was having a harder & harder time consuming the smelly crap. I didn't want to mix it with my food and make that taste awful; I really detest the flavor of extract, and the smell & taste of pot in general.
Red bush tea. After some experimentation I settled on mixing it into sweet, milky (mostly whole milk) rooibos tea. The flavor of the rooibos and the fat of the milk made it less onerous to get down, and gave me some nutrition.
Panic food. When I entered cannabis detox in December 2019, I couldn't bear to eat anything. Everything tasted dreadful. But something led me to try the rooibos milk tea without cannabis, and I found it tolerable. So I drank a lot of that; I've had my fill of red bush tea for this lifetime. As I tired of that, I tried flavoring my milk with spices. That was OK, but only just. A couple months into my nightmare I found that I could tolerate caffeine again, so I began making sweet milky coffee, and eventually tea as well, real tea.
My indulgent meal. For most of my adult life, I had a favorite indulgent meal: a giant mug of sweet caffe latte and a pastry to dunk in it. I've never much liked donuts, so I'd dunk a cinnamon roll or giant cookie. I started making this meal at home, and my wisdom was quite helpful, encouraging me and helping me work out a home-baked sweet bread that was especially good for dunking. Every week or two I'd bake a big yeasty pan of it. The diet I settled into consisted of my indulgent coffee meal for breakfast, a chai version of the same meal for lunch, and then a meat & veggie dinner where I'd try to cram in all the missing nutrients. Oh, and a midnight snack: an even bigger mug of whole milk. My diet was so bad I couldn't make it through the night otherwise. As bad a diet as it was, I'm grateful to milk for providing accessible high-quality food all those months when I couldn't anything else. But my milk diet came to an end in October 2020. I woke up in the wee hours back in full panic mode, brought on by overconsumption of caffeine, duh.
Gullible. You'd think I'd be onto this trick by now, yes? My wisdom encourages me to drink up, enjoy the booze, drink more & more until I create a crisis that scares the bejaysus outta me so I quit drinking. Then basically ditto for pot a few years later, now caffeine. But if I were onto the trick it wouldn't work. Thank god I'm such a chump. Caffeine may not be addictive, but caffeine withdrawal still sucks. Thankfully it was very short compared to booze or pot, just a few miserable days.
My wisdom's new diet for me. I'm creating a new diet for myself now under the watchful eye of my wisdom. It's simpler and far more demanding than The Diet. I eat the same meal three times a day now, just varying the protein. Every detail has to be just right, e.g. cutting technique and maintaining inner silence while I cook. Each meal is based on sautéed non-starchy veggies combined with a larger quantity of fresh fruit, mixed in with the veggies right at the end of the sauté. Banana is a favorite, just like it was back in Nairobi. The fruit & veggies form a base that I mix with a small amount of protein: eggs, cheese, or meat. Fruit gives my meal a subtle underlying sweetness, a base flavor to receive big top notes, like garlic and a squeeze of fresh lemon. I've stopped using spices; I just use salt and pepper, substituting cayenne for black pepper. The recipes and flavors are simple and vivid. Every meal is a feast, just over-the-top delicious; I love my new diet. Oh, and there are also treats.