The Butterfly Effect Meme

Memes are a fun little game to play in the foodblogosphere, especially when they are creative ones that ask unusual or interesting questions.

Tana Butler of Small Farms tagged me with a meme entitled “The Butterfly Effect,” which was started by Dan at Salt Shaker, because he always wanted to participate in a meme, but no one had tagged him yet. In the creative spirit of food blogging, he decided to start his own meme, and get others in on the game.

The point of this meme is about defining moments in food, where an ingredient, a dish, a meal, a cookbook or book about food, a food personality and another person in my life reached out and touched me, changing my viewpoint or world forever. When Dan wrote started this, he really emphasized that he wanted to hear about the “aha” moments, the ones that really signal a change in heart, a change of mind, a lightningbolt moment when my perspective on food, or life in general, was made forever different.

When it comes to ingredients, I have to admit to having difficulty coming up with a cogent answer. Which single ingredient really changed my life? Out of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ingredients I have experimented with and worked steadily with over the years, which one has really made me sit up and take notice and has changed the way I cooked forever?

I think, when I come right down to it, it has to be a combination of several ingredients that changed my perspective on food and cooking forever.

Fresh garlic and fresh herbs, combined together into my first forays into authentic Italian food have to be the answer. I first experimented with real Italian food when I was in high school, and it was a big departure for me. The food I had grown up eating had a minimum of seasoning; my mother would buy two heads of garlic at a time, in little paper boxes, and they would be used up, if we were lucky, within two months. Fresh herbs were even less in evidence: they were unheard of until I started growing them in pots on our doorstep.

However, when I finally got the greenlight from my mother to start trying to cook “real” Italian food, I combined these ingredients and it was amazing to me, the difference that these true, real, fresh ingredients made in the making of a simple pasta sauce. It was a fundamental change in the way I had seen most of my family members cook, and it really changed the way I wanted food to taste. It was one of the first chances I had to taste really robust flavors, and I didn’t want to ever stop tasting them after that.

So, I kept cooking with fresh garlic and herbs and haven’t stopped since.

As for a single dish–that is equally difficult. I think that Chicken with Garlic Sauce or perhaps, Tom Kha Gai would qualify for a dish that changed my life forever. In both cases, the flavors were so good from the first taste, that I knew I didn’t ever want to live without these dishes, and that necessitated that I learn how to make them. And so, I was pushed to jump into learning to cook Chinese and Thai food by leaping into the matter, feet first and try, try, try, to recreate the flavors I had experienced in restaurants. These flavors were revelations to my palate, because both dishes are perfectly balanced with flavors that are hot, sour, salty, sweet and savory. Both of them perfectly illustrated the aesthetic emphasis upon balance that exist in Asian cuisines, and they gave me a pinnacle to strive towards.

As for a meal that changed my life–I would have to say that the first time I dined in a really nice restaurant with Zak’s family was an experience that blew my mind and really taught me that food was a pleasure beyond sustainence and that it is something to be celebrated and savored as an end in and of itself. It was a Spanish restaurant in Miami, Florida, and the dinner took place over hours and many courses, and the wine and sangria flowed like fountains of joy, while the food was both delicate and robust, subtle and sublime, yet filling. There was nothing delicate about the portions, though they were not immense, yet, the seasoning was delicate and deftly done. There was art on every plate and it was so much fun to taste each other’s dishes and discuss how they were done, and what probably went into each sauce to give it that special flavor.

I believe I will remember that night for the rest of my life–not only because it was so wonderful, and such a new experience for me, but because I gently stabbed my future-father-in-law in the hand with my fork when he tried to cadge a bite of my venison steak with blackberry sauce without asking! That action incited much laughter and teasing, and I have to admit that Karl took it well, though it was a terrible faux pas on my part. Of course, the best part was how much fun we were having–there were no real faux pas or social gaffes at that table, as the emphasis was not only on enjoying our food and drink, but also our company and each other. There was a lot of laughter that evening.

A cookbook that really changed my life would be Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which I read from the library several times after it first came out, and when I decided that I was going to attend culinary school, I bought a copy of it and Larousse, and read them both again, cover to cover. McGee’s scientific analysis of the physical and chemical changes wrought by cooking gave my already scientifically-bent mind a way to look at the hows and whys of cooking, which are as important as the whats.

Of course, McGee’s book isn’t really a cookbook per se, so perhaps I should also make mention of one of the first cookbooks I bought for myself: Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Cooking. This book I picked up while I was stil in middle school, before I had really been allowed to cook much in Mom’s kitchen beyond cookies and cakes. It is a compendium of recipe sand stories about the foods of the Mediterranean region and is divided into chapters by ingredient, including olive oil, olives, lemons, garlic, tomatoes, and wine. Something about the book, which was on sale at a local bookstore, appealed to me–I think it was the stories she told about each ingredient and each recipe that attracted me. I do remember that it is the cookbook that inspired me to start growing my own fresh herbs and to use more garlic than I had grown up with in my cooking. I still have that book, and have cooked with it many times, particularly when I was younger, always with delicious results.

And I still like to read the stories, though the pages are splattered with tomatos and are fragrant with garlic and herbs.

I don’t think that anyone should be surprised to find that the food personality who has influenced me the most is Julia Child. The mere fact that I call her “Saint Julia” and consider my visit to her kitchen at the Smithsonian to be a holy pilgrimage should tell everyone that I hold Julia in great esteem.

But why?

I think I admire her because of her methodical nature, and her real ability to teach. I know she is my inspiration when it comes to teaching, because not only was she a thorough, no-nonsense teacher, she was also vibrantly enthusiastic about cooking and food, and was able to convey that in both her prose and her on-screen work. Her thrill for cooking was infectious, and I still find myself, years later, watching the DVD collections of her old shows and smiling, feeling energized to rush out into the kitchen and whip up something fantastic and delectable.

I also think that she is probably one of the most pivotal persons in American gastronomy, because I firmly believe that without her influence in teaching Americans how to cook and eat, we might still be stuck back in the horrible food of the 1950′s where canned cream of crab soup and sherry sprinkled with minced parsley passed as a “gourmet” dish.

Mind you, we are still a fast food nation, and we still have folks eating from cans and boxes, but I think that without the influence and teaching of Julia and those who have followed her, American food would be in worse shape than it is now, and there might not even be a whole bunch of food bloggers out on the ‘net, cooking, teaching, and writing about food like mad today.

As for a person in my life who has influenced me–well, as regular readers know, I was blessed with two grandmothers who were phenominal cooks. From my mother’s mother, I learned the growing of food from seed to plate, and how to treat it along the way, both in the garden or farmyard and the kitchen, in order to take advantage of it at its peak of freshness. From my father’s mother, I learned frugality and how to do more with less, and also how to be methodical in the kitchen, and take my time, and observe the cooking process. She taught me to use my senses, all of them, as I cooked, so that I would not be hampered by having to follow recipes exactly.

I also have aunts on both sides of the family who are great cooks: Aunt Nancy and Aunt Judy. (There are more–my family loves good food, but these are the folks who were the strongest influences on me.) Aunt Nancy encouraged my budding use of garlic and herbs by saying, “Oh, you did it right–it smells like my old neighborhood in Providence” when I cooked my first real Italian dishes. (She grew up in a primarily Italian and Portuguese neighborhood in Providence, RI.) Aunt Judy, a disciple of Saint Julia, taught me to be creative and not worry overmuch about food, and to try things that seemed too hard to master. She taught me to be fearless in the name of flavor.

But, I also want to give homage to an often unsung hero in my culinary background.

Zak, my husband, who is my only failure as a cooking teacher (do not try to teach someone to cook when you are hungry and are trying to put dinner on the table–especially if that person is a shy and nervous student–it is a recipe for disaster) , but who has been my willing guinea pig for new recipes for years. He also is the one to introduce me to Thai food, and has been supportive of every one of my cooking endeavors, from my decision to attend culinary school to my explorations of Indian food to my food blogging hobby. (In fact, the food blog was his idea and he pushed me to pursue it. He was right, of course.)

He is a great critic, and he has become knowledgable enough about food in order to discuss it intelligently. He’s been my best friend and partner along for the ride on most of my culinary adventures, and what’s more he not only supports my nerdish tendencies–he encourages them.

So there we have it–The Butterfly Effect.

(Oh, and one more thing–about the photographs–they were taken about three years ago in our old garden in Pataskala.)

5 Comments

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  1. Barbara: I am about your age, and have fond memories of watching Julia in the early days on PBS. She is indeed a marvel – I am in awe of her – Saint Julia indeed.

    The butterlfy momemnt/item for me was simple salt – before taking Thai and Indian classes I cooked from scratch all the time, but never, ever used salt. My dad has somewhat high blood pressure and we didn’t grow up using it at all. But the aha moment was a flavor balancing exercise in one of my Thai classes – learning salt doesn’t just make things salty. It can make them more hot, or sweet, or “balanced”. Then seeing my Indian cooking teacher thowin lots of salt, while assuring us that for unprocessed food it needed it – and every single time finding that it made it taste indefinably “better”. I am not one to press salt on those with serious health issues. But for those of us who cook from scratch, it’s absolutely needed. Now I salt to taste and feel – knowing how muchg salt “feels” right in the fingers for various dishes.

    Comment by Diane — July 23, 2006 #

  2. My aha moment was my first taste of Chinese food. I actually made it all of the way to college without having it. When my roommate took me out to a Chinese restaurant and I tasted my first shrimp dish, I was in heaven. I had had Mexican food growing up but our tiny town didn’t have any Chinese. It still remains one of my favorite foods. I introduced my nieces to it and they still talk about how good it was.

    Comment by Linda — July 24, 2006 #

  3. Oh, gosh, I don’t know. More than anything, it was probably the moment I first decided as a kid that if Mom wasn’t going to bake sweets for me, I would have to go ahead and figure out how to bake them for myself. Not an ingredient or a cuisine, but childish necessity.

    And after that, perhaps when I first realized that adding brown sugar to my curries made them hotter, not sweeter.

    Actually, your post on tasting spices individually to really get to know them helped me quite a lot.

    Comment by Danielle — July 24, 2006 #

  4. Barbara, thanks for such thoughtful answers. I think this is a most difficult meme.
    Tasting seems so obvious yet it has taken me the longest to develop.

    Comment by tanna — July 25, 2006 #

  5. [...] Barbara at Tigers & Strawberries gives homage to garlic, herbs, Julia Child, her two grandmothers, and her husband. She says she was tagged by Tana from I Heart Farms, I assume that was via e-mail rather than the posting as well. She chose not to continue the chain. [...]

    Pingback by SaltShaker » Blog Archive » The Butterfly Effect II — July 29, 2006 #

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