Saturday, December 13, 2008


 My father was from upstate NY.  The Mohawk Valley area near the Erie Canal to be exact.  It's one of my favorite places in the country. Rolling hills with dairy farms and small, dying towns that once were homes to the factory workers who did everything from sewing dresses and making slippers, to making chewing gum for Bubble Yum.  Those factories are long gone, and the town my Dad grew up in is emptying out.  There isn't even a gas station or a corner store. I think houses are selling for about 9 grand.  I digress...  

My Grandmother worked long days in the factory, so it was my Dad's job to cook dinner for the family of 6.  Part of that responsibility was to take care of their rather large vegetable garden, that included raspberries, blackberries, and concord grapes, a long with mustard greens, tomatoes, green beans... Well just about anything you would want.  As a result my Dad learned a lot about gardening, good food, and how to stretch what they had into meals year round. He became a great cook, and even better with the land he worked at the community gardens that he helped establish in our area of the concrete pad that is Los Angeles County. 

It seemed everything we did revolved around going to the garden.  It was a nightly excursion.  He'd come home from his day job as a banker, have a scotch on the rocks and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.  He'd then make his way to my parents room and he'd change into his gardening clothes.  We'd drive in his pick-up to the garden and spend the evening there.  I'd help harvest the constant abundance that is a vegetable garden in a Mediterranean climate.  I learned how to treat and amend the soil with natural products like manure and compost.  Mites messing with the tomatoes... Sulfur powder.  Simple stuff that most kids growing up in suburbia wouldn't have learned.  I learned when vegetables were ripe and ready to be picked.  I hadn't eaten a frozen or canned vegetable until I went to grade school, and they tried to feed me canned beans...   Uh...  There was something wrong with those things...  Salty... Mushy... NASTY!  I learned to love food.  When it was in season, and at it's best.  I respected it.  It took work to get that stuff to our plates... Even if the greens still had a bit of grit in them.  

When I moved out of the house in '92 and moved to Des Moines I didn't have a garden.  I was 19 and working at a hotel in downtown Des Moines.  I didn't have a garden and couldn't find vegetables that tasted the same.  I found the farmers markets in the area, but honestly life in a kitchen didn't afford the time to even cook at home.  I worked in the banquet department and grabbed food when we had time.  It seemed as if there was never time to cook for myself.  

A few years later I married my high school sweetheart, and later that same summer my Dad died of bladder cancer. No garden.  The cancer and chemo had taken his taste buds and wrecked them.  In the end he couldn't enjoy the thing that made him happiest.  His garden, and food in general.

 She was a canned bean person, thought Mexicans actually fed themselves with food like they had at Taco Bell, and that all tomatoes tasted like wax.  We didn't share a love for food.  That was really hard.  McDonalds became more than a place I worked for insurance money so I could drive as a teenager.  It started to appear in my home.  I was never there, and when I was I didn't want to eat a greasy mess.  I worked a lot of hours at a couple different jobs and we slowly lost interest in each other.  She didn't want to hear my stories from the Line, and I didn't want to hear or have time to hear her long stories about the terrible customer she had on the phone. We didn't like the same things anymore, and my passion was something she didn't even care to know about.  I guess that's common with cooks.  

In 1999 my Mom's health failed.  I was newly divorced and moved back home to California to care for her.  She had a really short life expectancy and I agreed to be her caregiver.  It was never suppose to last as long as it has.  Maybe a couple years... It will be 10 in July.  Honorable? yes.  Good for a career? Not at all.  After a brief stay in Arizona, we moved back here to Iowa.  Life was cheaper here, and I really liked it.  Iowa wasn't just a place to say that you had visited or lived, it was a great place to call home.  Winter isn't really fun, but you get used to that too.

My Mom is still alive... Doing well actually.  She has enjoyed the food that I've been able to bring into our home.  The passion for food and cooking hasn't gone away.  It just had a smaller audience.  I've catered a few parties for fun since I worked in the industry.  It's easy to blow people's minds if they don't know what to expect.  With changes in how my Mom is going to get her care in the home, I'm able to get back to school and play with food again.  I've done a lot of reading over the past 10 years.  I was really surprised when Andrew Dornenberg included a letter that I had written him years ago about how his book had changed my life, in the preface of his revision of Becoming a Chef.  It talked of passion and education...  That was in '95.  Passion lives!!!  And the education is there for me to take if I work for it.  How could I not?

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