I guess you could say I’ve always loved food. My grandpa Gulick used to enjoy cooking for me when I was little because I wasn’t a picky child, a unique quality among the gaggle of finicky grandchildren. I still remember his stir-fry, meatballs and the baskets of hard rolls that he knew I needed to have as the perfect accompaniment to any meal. In fact, I think it was grandpa that first affectionately referred to me as a “dough-belly.” That was of course before I actually had one, so the reference was a lot more cute.
When I take a minute to stroll down memory lane, there are definitely meals and recipes that stand out from my childhood. In our own household, the first meal that comes to mind is one that my brother and I joke about now. Upon bugging my mom yet again about “what’s for dinner,” it seemed like at least once a week we’d get the response “egg sandwiches?” in a questioning tone. This makes me laugh now that I’m an adult, because egg sandwiches scream “5-minute, cheap, filling, pseudo-healthy and entirely unplanned meal.” She was a momma in survival mode, a feeling I now know all too well. She still had some sophisticated meals up her sleeve, pork cutlets and mashed potatoes or steak sandwiches on flour dusted potato rolls, just to name a few. Sirloin shish kabobs with a side of plump, Iowa sweet corn draped in butter is a stand-out meal because it screamed summer. We had a pool at my first childhood home and would have large family luaus, and I remember shish kabobs being a luau staple. There are other extended family meals or recipes that come to mind- Great grandma Pat’s spicy spaghetti, death-by-sugar sweet potato casserole or homestyle chicken noodle soup, grandma Charlene’s fried turkey and sugary ham during the holidays, aunt Belinda’s homemade tortillas and casserole dishes chocked full of smoky enchiladas, aunt Pat’s broccoli rice casserole for Thanksgiving – the list goes on. I love these memories of food and love even more the recipes that have been passed down and continue to live on.
In high-school, I had the metabolism of a rock star and like many high-schoolers, discovered junk food and ate plenty of it between extracurricular activities. For me, that was dance practice, and what better fuel for my lean dancers body than Taco John’s meat and potato burrito or Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich?
My first quality food experiences started in high-school though as well, mostly for special occasions like homecoming dinners and such. Tucked away on the South side of Des Moines, there is a dimly lit, low-ceiling Italian joint with an awkward floor plan called Barattas. It’s one of the first nice places I can remember eating. Spicy, velvety pepper cheese soup, oven-fired pizzas with homemade sausage, blackened cajun chicken with a side of buttery parmesan alfredo, and the mozzarella sticks … fresh curds of mozzarella breaded in a chunky batter and fried to a deep, golden brown. All things that I crave today, more than a decade later, and all the way from Texas.
College food memories don’t go much further than ramen, EZ mac or Pizza Ranch cheesey bread that my roommate and I would split for dinner for a whole $5. Subway was a truly anticipated treat for an occasional splurge meal outside of on-campus dining. I was a naive, picky American during my abroad studies, and I hate myself for not immersing more in the Spanish food culture. Though, I did have my fair share of chicken paella, churros con chocolate, spanish coffees and hollowed out baguettes with olive oil or crushed tomato for breakfasts.
It was after college and entering the career world where I really started to my love affair with food. By this time, I was in Texas and when they say everything is bigger in Texas, that includes your appetite and growing physique. This state is unbelievably serious about food. The best Tex-Mex you never knew you were missing- limey, perfectly seared beef enveloped in scratch-made tortillas, warmed salsa and fresh guacamole, Texas BBQ- charred moist brisket, caramelized sausages and creamy potato salad with a loaf of Sunbeam Texas toast on the side, not to mention an entire world of International cuisine that you quickly can’t get enough of – Mediterranean, Persian, Colombian, Indian, Thai – the list goes on.
Through my work travels, I’ve wined and dined quite a bit. The more great food I’ve eaten, the more inclined I became to cook. I spent weeks in Florence, Italy where I was awestruck by the simplicity of Italian cooking. Always fresh, always fabulous and likely five ingredients or less.
By now, one of my most favorite past times is to cook. I love to dig up old family recipes to share with my family, discovering new recipes and always going off the map a little bit. My chef’s tips? Never measure vanilla, add a pat of butter always to the end of your sauce, get to know your holy trinity/mirepoix/sofrito or, the 3-5 basic ingredients that serve as a foundation of hundreds of great recipes, less is more unless you’re adventurously cooking cuisine that revels in complicated spice and flavor profiles, and always try something new!
I’m pretty confident in how my cooking skills and successes have evolved through the years and can’t help but think that grandpa Gulick would beam with pride, if only he could have a seat at my table.
I heard the best quote recently relating to food:
“There are two kinds of people in this world, those who wake up thinking about dinner and those who don’t.”
I most certainly am the first of these people, and consider food to be one of my primary love languages.
Make sure to check in next week, where I’ll share with you some survival meals for the week and date night specialties.