Reminiscences

I don’t remember a lot about my childhood, but what I do seems to be inextricably linked to food.

In a way, I suppose I was destined to become a foodie, though at the time I wouldn’t have thought so…

When I was around 4 or 5, I was standing on a chair at the stove, watching my older sister preparing something delicious for me to eat.  Completely oblivious, I put my hand down on the glaring red element to reach for a cookie jar in the cupboard above the stove.  Lesson number one; always pay attention in the kitchen.

I recall how my parents used to refer to me as “chipmunk cheeks” because this foodie never liked to eat.  I’d sit at the dinner table for hours, stuffing my face until my cheeks ballooned.  My parents would often attempt to wait me out and sit there trying to coerce me into eating my supper, but eventually they would give up, leaving me alone at the table to finish, at which point I would spit all of the food into my napkin and flush it down the toilet.  Lesson number two; not everything that is put in front of you is worth eating.

Being sick always meant I got my two favourite foods; buttered bagels and chocolate ice cream, and a chance to watch Mary Poppins on the living room couch.  I’d like to think I was ahead of the curve on that whole dipping fries into chocolate shakes trend, as I used to dip my bagels into the melty ice cream.  Lesson number three; sweet and savoury do mix.

I never got to see my mom.  She worked as a chef, which meant she slept before I left for school, and was gone by the time I made it home.  On rare occasions I was allowed to visit her at the restaurant, which has always stuck with me.  I’d sit at a banquette near the back, happily slurping down the best food the 80′s had to offer a 5 year old pipsqueak like me; tri-coloured rotini with spicy sweet honey garlic Italian sausage.  Yum!  Lesson number four; pasta will please any child.

There was also “Ma”, a friend of my parents who owned Sneaky Dee’s with her husband, who used to look after me in the afternoons a lot, and made the most transcendently gooey grilled cheese.  She’d fry them up in pools of butter so that the resulting sandwich was golden, greasy and enigmatic.  I’ve never managed to replicate it (probably best for my health) but the Everyman’s version comes pretty darn close, even though he never uses butter at all.  Lesson number five; simplicity is key.

Most of my traumatic food experiences came from my mom’s home-cooked Trinidadian food.  The majority of the dishes I love today, but one never managed to win me over as a fan, a salted cod, stewed tomatoes and peppers concoction which still causes me to retch when I think about it.  I do fondly recall when my mom would make roti shells by hand, standing at the stove and slapping them back and forth between her hands to stretch them out.  Lesson number six; palates change.

After my parents divorced and my Dad and I moved to Winnipeg, he would drop me off at my Grandma’s place whenever he needed a reprieve from his precocious 8 year old.  Grandma and I would cook and bake together, and she would teach me how to make things like dutchess potatoes, or bring out her album of cake pictures from the years when she owned a bakery.  A great deal of my love of cooking stems from the times I spent with her, because she always knew how to make it fun.  She was a formidable woman, and no matter how naughty I was, she spoke to me as a young lady and gave me small pieces of diabetic candy.  Lesson number seven; the love of good food is inter-generational.

Living with my dad meant I had to suffer through his limited cooking repertoire.  He always tried really hard, but most of what he served was not particularly good.  The one dish I liked a great deal was his ode to chicken almandine.  He would saute chopped chicken, then coat the pan with white wine and a bit of butter or margarine, then top it all off with slivers of almonds and serve it on a bed of buttery white rice.  Simple, yes, but completely soul satisfying.  For years afterwards one of my favourite comfort foods was a plain old bowl of buttered white rice.  Lesson number eight; everyone has one dish they can make better than anyone else.

After a time my mother and stepdad moved to Oakville to open a pub called The Lord Nelson.  I could only visit on weekends, but while I was there I was allowed to help out in the kitchen, which is when I realized how much I loved food and my stepfather’s curried crab salad.  It’s a shame that I am no longer able to enjoy that anymore, as I don’t think it would be anywhere near the same if I made it with allergy-approved surimi.  Feeling guilty about not spending any time with me, my mom would spend her short breaks taking me down the street to an Italian trattoria for tiramisu.  Lesson number nine; food heals all wounds.

Then when I was 14 I was caught shoplifting at the mall, and my penance was that I was shipped off to my mom and stepdad’s next culinary endeavour for the summer, a restaurant in Dorset called The Hollow Valley.  I spent long, hard hours working in the kitchen and doing plenty of menial tasks.  I spent most of the summer chipping buckets of potatoes for french fries until the day I accidentally let the handle on the chipper slip and almost ended up cutting off my fingers.  At that point I was relegated to dishwashing and more refined methods of kitchen prep, working up to the day I was allowed to prepare one of the weekly specials.  Wednesdays were mine, and I made many tasty and quaint quiches, served with a side of fresh greens.  It was during that summer that my stepfather introduced me to the joys of rare burgers, something that I’ve been unable to get anywhere outside of my house, but nonetheless haunt my dreams with their juicy, succulent meatiness.  Lesson number ten; incremental kitchen victories are the best way to instill cooking confidence.

Lastly, I recall how throughout all of the years that my mother was a chef, I very rarely saw her eat.  Now that I cook as much as I do, I see the same habit emerging in myself.  Once I’ve spent so much time cooking for others or babysitting a finicky meal, the last thing I want to do is eat it.  Strange and ironic, but it’s the sacrifice we sometimes make to nourish those we love.  Lesson number eleven; providing TLC through food is not without its sacrifices.

So, as you can see, I learned a great many lessons from my interaction with food from childhood through adolescence.  They not only shaped my outlook and perspective on food but how I behave in the kitchen today.

Do you have any food wisdom from your childhood that you’d care to share?  We’re all ears here at Foodie and the Everyman.

Until next time…

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