y mother was shocked. "You are dating a chef? That's such a waste. I should be the one dating a chef. At least I like food." Clearly the irony had not been lost on her, and I couldn't blame her for being surprised. I was the kind of kid whose friends' parents used to call my mother when I was playing at their house. "Mary Jane, I can't find anything to feed your daughter. What will this kid eat?" It actually wasn't that hard to feed me. My favorite dishes were cheeseburgers and hot dogs with buttered noodles. In an emergency, I would also eat grilled cheese and popcorn.
When I was young my mother was a health-food nut, and she was determined to feed me a well-balanced diet. For an after-school snack I always got a glass of 1 percent milk and an apple. I still hate apples unless they're baked with lots of sugar. After I complained about the apple for ten or fifteen minutes, she would give me a rice cake and the dreaded jar of all-natural peanut butter. I never really understood natural peanut butter. What was that liquid on the top? Why did it have to be mixed? The peanut butter at my friends' houses never had to be mixed, and they got cookies as a snack after school. Hungry, I would slide the knife through the upper two inches of oil into the thick, hard peanut paste at the bottom. After several unsuccessful, thrusting attempts, I would usually give up and ask for the jelly. If the peanut butter jar was half empty, I might be more successful and manage to get a glob of runny nuts onto the Styrofoam cracker. I begged my mother to buy the real peanut butter I knew existed, but she wouldn't give in.
She also stood firm on whole-wheat bread with crust. I hated the cardboardlike texture, with strange bumpy grains that begged to be picked out, and longed for those occasional trips to my grandmother's house. Her bread was closer to white. I think it must have been light wheat, but, more important, she cut off the edges. My grandfather always gave me a hard time, but you could tell that he was happy to get the extra crust.
This obsession with bread peaked with my favorite field trip in elementary school. Other kids loved the Bronx Zoo the circus, Mystic Aquarium, or the Snow White play at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford. My favorite trip was to the Wonder Bread factory. All of my classmates paraded single file past all the machinery, conveyor belts, mixers, slicers, and ovens. The warm, moist, sweet air was intoxicating. At the end of the day, we each got a free loaf of precious bread to take home. I was so excited. I thought that that one little loaf would last forever, like the gobstopper candy in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I would never have to eat the chunky brown bread ever again. Imagine my dismay when I accidentally sat on my immortal loaf on the bus ride home. Even when I burst into the house sobbing with my bag of mutilated bread, my mother refused to buy a new, pure white loaf. "It's even forced with vitamins," I whimpered.
At some point my mother must have given in. Maybe she was tired of the little white worms in our kitchen cabinets that lived off the organic grains, cereals, and flour that she bought. (I swear those worms found a way to move from house to house each time we did, and I still can't even look at, much less eat, an English muffin without recalling the terror of tearing one open and watching the worms quickly choosing between the halves.) It could have been my relentless demands for Marshmallow Fluff and Froot Loops, but it was probably just the added pressure from my brother and sister. The chorus of the three of us singing the Coke theme song at the top of our lungs in the grocery store while we hid junk food in the bottom of the basket must have done her in.
My mother may have bought more "crap" (as she called it) than she wanted to, but she still managed to serve a meat-potato-vegetable family meal at the dinner table every day as I grew into early adolescence. I ate a ton of potatoes, did my best to avoid the vegetables, and spent no less than twenty minutes dissecting the unidentifiable meat. At dinner I would examine the meat and prep the flesh for surgery. I inspected all sides to determine the best approach necessary to eliminate all of the inedible parts. All remaining fat, sinew, gristle, veins, and discoloration was carefully removed prior to consumption. I used to drive my mother insane. She always compared me to her seventy-year-old aunt, who picked at her food like a bird. "Just eat it already!" My mother insisted that I was being ridiculous, but deep down she must have had hopes that her daughter would become a brain surgeon.
I was her complete opposite. She ate absolutely everything that I didn't want to even touch with a fork. I could never understand her desire for dark chicken meat, which I had eliminated from my diet due to its color. I was particularly revolted by her need to chew on the chicken's bones. She would gnaw at the meatless bone for three or four minutes, the cartilage and ligaments snapping loudly under the pressure of her teeth.
"Oh my God, you are so gross," I would say.
"What?" she would ask, puzzled and offended.
Chicken for dinner was okay because I knew what kind of meat it was and what parts I needed to avoid. My parents called almost every meat but chicken "pork." I wasn't sure what pork was or what animal it came from, and I had no idea that my dinner had come from our backyard.
My parents kept lambs and pigs when I was growing up, and if the wind blew in just the right direction, you could enjoy the stench from the top of the swimming pool slide. At the end of each summer, a farmer would drive his truck up to the small pen and take the animals away "for the winter." One year my mother ended up riding a pig as she attempted to coax it into the truck. That pig wasn't stupid. He knew where he was going even if I had no clue. A little while after the animals' departure, our extra freezer in the entryway would be filled with taped brown-paper packages. I even went one year to the farm with my mother to pick them up. For some reason I never made the connection. But I also believed in Santa Claus until I was twelve.
All winter long my mother would serve what she called "pork" from those packages in the freezer. I didn't realize that "pork" actually was pig and often lamb. I can't blame her for not telling us. She watched us bottle-feed the animals each spring.
After my mother finally agreed to buy most of the junk food that we requested (I don't think she ever recovered from the Christmas when I asked my aunt for Coke as a gift), I delivered another blow when I announced I was a vegetarian my senior year in high school. I'm sure that she wasn't surprised, but she was pretty annoyed. She was still attempting that "balanced meal" thing that I never understood. When my brother and sister followed my lead, she made a valiant attempt to create healthy vegetarian meals.
Before I made my announcement, I was eating mostly potatoes at home and Burger King double cheeseburgers with large fries and Cokes in the car. I ate a lot of pizza, too. (Ask my mother about my youthful interaction with the famed fast food. She'll roll her eyes and talk about years when I only ate the topping, then I only ate the crust, and finally I ate the whole damn thing at once. I went through phases with the tops and bottoms of asparagus and broccoli, too.) For a snack in the afternoon after high school my brother and I would microwave a block of preservative-packed mozzarella and eat it with our hands while watching TV. It was a lot better than the rice cakes, and it was fun to eat.
Until the day the school nurse announced that the health center would be conducting cholesterol readings during lunch, I never considered that my hard-won eating habits could be affecting my body. All I had to do was show up, get a finger pricked, and they'd give me a number. There were two sophomore boys ahead of me. The nurse took a finger prick from each of us. The first boy's results came back at 115. The second boy came in at 103. The first boy had his blood drawn again to see if he could beat the second boy. The nurse took me aside to tell me my cholesterol number: 175. That's when I discovered pasta and salad, the two main staples of my diet today.
Since I was giving my meat-free diet a try, I ate a lot of SpaghettiOs before my tastes matured to Kraft macaroni and cheese. I later progressed to Pasta Roni and ramen noodles in college.
By the time I met Chris, I should have been brined by the enormous amount of salt that I ingested each day. I have no idea how he tolerated me. He never said a word when I insisted that we eat mozzarella sticks in Friendly's. He never got upset in the beginning of our relationship when we couldn't dine in any upscale restaurants because there was nothing on the menu that I would look at, much less ingest. Eventually, with careful persistence, he convinced me that I would find something to eat, and we would go out to regular restaurants. Chris would just watch quietly while I enjoyed a bowl of whipped potatoes with a side of steamed spinach. But he crossed the line when he talked me into a sushi bar. I watched in terror, groaned with disgust, and sipped chilled water while he downed a whole baby octopus.
It never really occurred to me how different our culinary experiences had been until one night when we were eating pizza. A food writer friend of Chris's had asked him about food memories, and he wanted a list of all the dishes that Chris associated with happy thoughts. While we waited for our pizza, Chris studiously recorded all of the foods on both sides of a bar napkin until he ran out of space. He paused for a moment when he had finished, tilted his head, looked at me, and said, "Bill says I'm an anomaly and that not everyone has great food memories."
For him food is a passionate, interesting, fun, and comforting adventure. Chris told me about waking up early on Sundays to go to a chicken farm. Once there, he and his brothers would pick out the perfect breakfast eggs. They carefully carried them home, whipped them individually, and enjoyed them. My earliest egg experience involved force and threats. I would sit for hours in a stiff ladder-back kitchen chair hoping that my parents would give in and free me from the table. When this didn't happen I decided that I would drown the egg with ketchup. Once the now-cold egg was fully eclipsed by the red mass, I choked it back.
Chris grew up in Forest Hills, New York, right next to the city in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. When he had money he would walk down the street to one of the many Jewish markets and buy a fat, salty kosher pickle. The store clerk allowed Chris to put his sweaty little hand in the five-gallon barrel and pull out his very own pickle. When he got a little older, the clerk let him use the tongs to pry the best pickle from the depths of the bucket. All the way back home Chris would crunch on a pickle as big as his hand. If he had extra money, he would buy a knish and eat that on the way home, too. When I had money I bought Tootsie Rolls and Fireballs. In the summer he and his mom walked down the street to a field where blackberries grew. They ate the sun-warmed berries all afternoon, then went home to wash their juice-stained hands. I picked blackberries, too, when my parents made me. We used to sell them in front of the house. Some woman would order four quarts on a ninety-five-degree day, and I would head into the patch to fill the containers while my brother swam in the pool.
All right, I do have good food memories, too. My mother taught me how to make meat loaf and real macaroni and cheese. I loved decorating gingerbread cookies and making popcorn balls. But Chris has no bad food memories, and there are only a few things that he won't eat: mayonnaise, yogurt, and cauliflower. My list is endless. Chris's experiences have always been enriching, sensual, and fun. He has a respect for food that I will never fully understand.
It might have something to do with my parents' treatment of food. One sweltering summer evening my parents were preparing to go out, and my brother was playing in the muddy sandbox out back. I said something to antagonize him and was soon running for my life from a mud pie that was destined to fly. I zigzagged around trees, and up and down the driveway, and when I noticed that he wasn't tiring, I wisely bolted for the front door. The steps to the house slowed me down, as did flinging open the screen--he had gotten close enough to take a shot. As he reached the top of the stairs, he took aim. I hung a quick right to get to the locked protection of my bedroom. That mud pie flew through the swinging screen door. It aerodynamically sailed like no pie had a right to over the kitchen table. It slid past my confused, frozen father, and it landed with a loud plunk in the vigorously boiling spaghetti about to be strained for dinner. Time was running short, the babysitter (the poor, poor baby-sitter) would be arriving shortly, and we were to be fed beforehand. My mother walked into the kitchen while my father stirred the dirty pasta water.
"Look what your son did!" my father yelled.
"It could be worse," she said.
"He could have gotten the mud in the sauce."
My father strained, washed, and rinsed the spaghetti as well as it would allow and served it while my mother finished blow-drying her hair. I can still feel that gritty pasta against my teeth and remember my skin crawling.
I asked Chris if his parents would have served this pasta delicacy to him and his brothers. He paused and said gravely, "There would never have been any dirt in the pasta."
Chris remembers sitting in fancy restaurants as a child with a napkin on his lap and his fork and knife properly in hand. I remember my brother flinging strands of spaghetti around in a circle above his head before letting them go flying off into the dining room. There would have never been any dirt in Chris's parents' pasta because they were much stricter with their children and had instilled in them a respect for food very early on.
To Chris's family there is nothing better than a freshly killed goose (bonus if you're the one who gets the shot), funky aged cheeses, handmade spaetzle, and vegetables from their enormous garden. Chris's mother, Gertie, has a compost pile the size of a small hill. Her favorite gift from me was a morel mushroom spore starter that she planted in her compost. I don't think that it ever spawned, but the thought of fresh mushrooms delighted her.
Gertie went to culinary school in Austria and worked as a restaurant manager in New York City before moving permanently to Goshen, Connecticut, where she makes wedding cakes and pastries for all of the famous people with homes in the country. Chris's father, Paul, is a pastry chef who worked for Marriott for twenty years before retiring to a second job teaching at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. At one point Paul ran his own pastry shop in the Marriott-owned Essex House. He made the best croissants and truffles in the city, according to Chris, who used to eat at the shop regularly until he grew so tired of sweets that he still doesn't really enjoy them.
I will forever be a mystery to Chris's family. They just don't understand my relationship with food, and no one can blame them. It took no less than five years before Chris's dad stopped pulling out a wineglass from the cabinet for me. His mother still slides hard-won items across the table--"You eat this?" I know that it can't be easy to find quality foie gras in a jar, but I just can't eat it. There are cultural differences, too. Whenever we leave Chris's parents' house, we are laden with a variety of items, from chocolate truffles to homemade pickles and clothing that Chris will never fit in again. It must be a European thing, a way to clean out your house without throwing anything away.
Gertie used to intimidate me with her Austrian accent and abrupt behavior, but I've realized that we are a lot more alike than I would have thought. She is unusually active. In the summer Gertie plants, weeds, cuts, and trims. In the fall she harvests, cans, bottles, and preserves. In the winter she helps with the Special Olympics ski team.
The first couple of years we visited Chris's parents, they used to annoy me. Gertie never stops moving. She won't even sit down to have a conversation. All visiting hours are spent perched on a backless stool on either side of a counter in, of course, the kitchen. "Why can't we sit on the couch?" I would whine to Chris on the way home. "It's just not right," he would reply. At some point it all made sense; they are restaurant people. They can't stay still and I have much more in common with them than I'd like to admit. I now prepare myself for three hours of sensory overload, and I sit on one of the kitchen table chairs instead. Gertie reaches in and out of the fridge, serves us a special cheese (it's special because she limits Paul's intake when his cholesterol gets too high), makes ice cream, and continues to prepare dinner. She's always working on dinner, and it doesn't matter what time of day it is. Paul pulls out three wineglasses and makes Chris select a bottle from the dusty, never-temperature-controlled wine rack. Chris pours the wine while Paul drags me to the computer in his office off of the dining area. I love to go to their home. It's like being the most popular kids on the playground. The two of them fight for my attention, Chris's attention, and both of us at the same time. It's funny to hear Gertie in the kitchen shouting to Chris (who is two feet away) about pumpkin seed oil from her hometown of Gras, Austria. In the next room, Paul will be showing me pictures of my niece on the computer. Gertie brings the oil and Chris into the office to gain the spotlight, then rushes out to the garage to grab her homemade raspberry wine before she loses anyone's attention. My mother sprouted an avocado pit once.
Not surprisingly, Chris found his way to a professional kitchen much sooner than I did, and he can't even remember his first impressions, he was so young. I can't imagine what the Essex House kitchen must have looked like to a four-year-old. I vaguely remember the first time I was in a restaurant kitchen. It looked enormous to me. I was in seventh or eighth grade and one of my friends' parents owned an independent quick-service joint in Southington, Connecticut, called Dan's Top Dog. It was a huge kitchen compared with mine at home. I could actually stand inside the refrigerator; it was an entire room. I was also captivated by the soda dispenser. All I had to do was put the cup underneath and press a button. The machine knew how much soda fit in the cup and would automatically stop when it was full. My friend was not at all interested and couldn't understand my obsession with the griddle, where twenty-five burgers could be cooked at once. She had already started working for her parents and would have preferred to be a customer. We would sit in the plastic booths and eat French fries while she impatiently waited to be driven home.
I would have never dreamed of running a restaurant when I was that young. Chris, on the other hand, could picture it but wanted nothing to do with it even though he worked in restaurants throughout his teen years. After he scored high on the math portion of his SATs in high school, the guidance counselor recommended that he pursue a career in electrical engineering. Chris dropped out after three and a half years, one term short of graduation, after realizing his life would consist of creating systems on papers but never building them. So he went to the Culinary Institute of America like the rest of the family.