Eggs eggs eggs. I got interested in cooking when I was about six or seven. Mom got a primo Saturday job at the Marianna post office (the postmaster went to our church) so she left early on Saturdays and I liked to sleep in. So I was on my own for breakfast. At first I ate cereal, duh. But pretty soon I realized her absence was an opportunity for me to play in the kitchen and make whatever I wanted. How things start sets the tone: that's how I've approached cooking ever since. I got her to show me how to make basic eggs and toast. I wanted to play more, so I started hanging out in the kitchen while she was cooking. I learned all the different ways she fixed eggs: straight up, over easy, basted with bacon fat, scrambled, even her Sunday morning special, oven eggs. Oven eggs were served with her signature homemade buttermilk biscuits, a serious treat I eventually learned how to make, much to the delight of my future lovers. Pretty soon I started playing around, trying new things. She taught me how to make basic scrambled eggs so they would come out nice and creamy, not dry and yucky. I decided to see what would happen if I mixed in more milk. That was kind of interesting but one day I got distracted and my milky scrambles set without stirring. Breakfast custard! I loved the delicate texture. That version later spawned dessert custards like bread pudding, rice pudding, tapioca, even eventually crème brûlée after I discovered it existed on a visit to Rollande et Pierre in St Petersburg. I also tried to recreate the British custard sauce they served me at the Duke of York in Nairobi. Then I tried going the other way: no milk or just a splash, but get the pan good and hot before pouring in the eggs. Much to my surprise they got all puffy: I had independently rediscovered the frittata. But puffy was dry, so I grated in some cheese, discovering that eggs and cheese are kind of good together; who knew? Later on I followed puffy eggs all the way to popovers and Dutch babies. I first encountered the Dutch baby at Dot's Diner in Boulder. There they call it a German pancake. I see they still serve it. The menu looks mostly the same, but huevos rancheros are no longer called New Wavos Rancheros like they were in the 80s. The German pancake, which you needed to order in advance, was guaranteed to turn my whole day into a depressed sugar crash. I had yet to develop the will required to make sensible healthy choices.
Pizza ai funghi. My first time in Rome I was looking forward to eating real Italian pizza. I first made Chef Boyardee pizza in a box when I was eight. Pepperoni was good, Italian sausage was better, sage scented breakfast sausage was best. Later on, in Asheville, I discovered Broiled in Butter mushrooms. I just love that decadent fungal 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, hoping for meat. That pizza was a flavor bomb, all new flavors. Different color mushrooms, fresh herbs, no meat, no tomato, and OMG the crust! The cool stringy cheese!
Bacon. Green bean mushroom soup casserole was Mom's contribution to any covered dish dinner and I loved it. So I had to learn how to cook that, starting with the green beans. Her green bean secret was bacon. She'd fry 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, cover till tender. They made that casserole sing. I made that dish for decades. Always got rave reviews. It's the bacon.
Butter. 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 and 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 more butter or holding a freshly cooked sausage patty spread with homemade blackberry jam became another signature dish of mine. Thank you Mom.
Peach cobbler. Boy Scouts ushered in a whole new realm of cookery. My go-to 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 all 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. The other camping delicacy required a cooking pot, preferably cheap aluminum, soot-blackened and well dented. Campfire peach cobbler was one box Bisquick mixed with one can Hunt's peaches with syrup. 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. But we ate it all anyway, burned and goopy alike. Heavenly.
Canning. In Asheville I took the homemade blackberry jam idea and ran with it. I became the consummate canner. Peaches pears and plums, blackberries blueberries… loganberries? When I was three of four we toook a trip to a rustic cabins on a lake in northern Arkansas. Must have been early spring; there was lingering snow in shady spots. In the mess hall I tasted jam that made my eyes bug out. It looked like blackberry jam but tasted different, a sort of candy wonderland flavor. The things you remember. Years later I learned that was loganberry jam. I've never made it. Never saw loganberries in a store before Seattle. I probably won't be making any more jam, but I wish I'd found some logans back then, just to try it. Anyway, in Asheville I became the canning king. I made spiced pear preserves, then made them again with a little port for color and flavor. I spiced peach preserves with amaretto. Sad to remember that; peaches taste so regally rich alone. Amaretto? That's as bad as the vanilla flavored coffee beans I would grind and put in my Chemex with the festive wooden beads. I canned Italian plum preserves with brandy, whole bing cherries with kirsch. I had a canning bath with the basket, a steel funnel and jar tongs. And case upon case of Mason and Ball. The straight sided canning jars had recently appeared and I was gaga over them. Heat resistant glass with tasteful designs. Domes with holiday cheer printed on. Threw it all away when I headed off to Boulder in 1979. That life with the cushy state job was done. New lands to conquer.
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 2010s 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 spoons and forks, gweilo that I am.
Banana. 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 curries. You got a bowl or mound of rice, and the meat and 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 and 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 Fishfarm was a team effort. Sam, Gail and 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, till 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 and 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. 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 and syrupy. I would dot the surface of this sea of peachy goodness with a California-style pancake batter. Oatmeal, pecans, whole wheat. The dollops of batter always looked like they were going to 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 originally tried turning it out to be peach upside down cake, but it was too gooey so I just served it rightside up with a spoon for digging out the sweet doughy treasures at the bottom. This Scout finally made that campfire peach cobbler right. Then later in my new home on Capitol Hill I made it righter.
The Diet. In Boulder I learned a new approach to food: grain and veggie-based 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 and 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 cubes to cut the cheese. 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 twelve years. I learned a lot and got healthier, while my coworkers in Tallahassee were settling into middle-aged spread. The comfort that never lasts. A miserable ease as Nietzsche so plangently put it. The ease I dodged by leaving Tallahassee in 1979, and then again by moving out of my almost-paid-for home in Seattle in 2008.
Dietary surrender. When I came to Seattle in the 1990s I let most of the dietary discipline I learned in Boulder fade, and by the early 2000s I was getting fat again. But in 2006 wisdom spoke: I got in touch with Leela. The first order of business was losing weight. Being fat was beginning to threaten my health. So I surrendered all my dietary choices to Leela in the form of my newfound ability to muscle test myself. The diet Leela gave me had a new theme: low carbohydrates. I lost the weight by eating a diet based on low carbohydrates, mildly high fat, and portion control: I cooked only the amount I was going to eat. No seconds, no leftovers. My diet mellowed out after the weight loss, but I held fast to limiting carbohydrates and portion control. I stopped eating holiday feasts. I avoided potlucks. I made my meals just the right size no matter what day it was. In the 2010s my diet became an ongoing experiment. I now had enough connection with Leela to avoid disaster, but also free enough rein to try all kinds of stuff. I had a new diet every few months. At one point I tried out full-on keto for a few months: super-low carbs, lots of fat. I moved my metabolism into ketosis and was fascinated by it. It felt like I was in a new world; my body felt so supple and alive, just crackling with energy. But then after a while it began to feel like too much. I was burning too hot, I couldn't handle the energy. So I upped the carbs and tipped myself back into normal healthy metabolism. Weaving through all this happy chaos was a steady process of refinement: I gradually got better at cooking, and I came to understand cooking and food more deeply.
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 and 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 and taste of pot in general. Shit tastes like shit. After some experimentation I settled on mixing my extract 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. 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 pot, 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 few months into my nightmare I found I could tolerate caffeine again, so I began making sweet milky coffee, and tea as well.
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 Leela helped 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 for lunch, and then a meat and veggie dinner where I'd try to cram in all the missing nutrients. 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 back in full panic mode, brought on by too much caffeine, duh. Since then I've learned to enjoy coffee and tea by drinking less. I was following in my dad's footsteps, making coffee (and tea) way too strong. I love my coffee and tea, and I'm so grateful my body does not have an addictive relationship with caffeine.
Leftovers. Some recent refinements in my diet are a lovely low key example of spooky wisdom, guidance that relies on Leela's ability to see through time. For several months I was eating a small amount of oatmeal every day as my only grain or otherwise starchy food. My diet has plenty of sugar in the form of fruit plus ordinary white sugar for my tea, but oatmeal was the only starch. Then right after I bought a new huge cardboard tube of rolled oats, oatmeal had to go, and for a couple of months I ate no starch at all. That made me extra vulnerable, and some important work got done while I was in that vulnerable state. Then it was time to add starch back in. The starchy food Leela gently guided me to was based on two leftovers: the rolled oats and a bag of frozen berry crumbles I had bought for my smoothies, only to discover I didn't like bramble berries (rasp and black) in my smoothies. Too crunchy. I don't want a crunchy, seedy smoothie. That ain't smooth. So for breakfast I've been blending up a small amount of dry rolled oats to make flour, then mixing that with baking powder, salt, sugar, milk, and either an egg or a flax egg: fresh ground flax seeds mixed with milk. I heat up some berries in a skillet and pour that batter over them to make the latest version yet of good old campfire peach cobbler, as refined via the peach rightside up cake I made at the Fishfarm back in the day. Third version's the charm: today's breakfast pancake.