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Personal Statement : Heather

November 19, 2009

“As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain, in the end, just a little bit!”

-Fernand Point, French Chef and father of Nouvelle Cuisine (1897-1955)

When I was younger, I remember thinking that my maternal grandmother was simply the best cook on the planet. I would spend days salivating over the thought of her stuffed cabbage rolls smothered in creamy tomato sauce – and when the day came, I would sit at the table, mesmerized by the steam emanating from the brownish-green logs on my plate. Each bite was a sublime experience  – in fact, looking back, it was one of only two meals throughout my childhood that I actually took time to savor. (Granted, I now know that my grandmother hates cooking and, according to her children, her stuffed cabbage was one of the only things they ever looked forward to eating, too… but she fooled me when I was younger!)

I read an article once by an American food critic who said that in America, we eat with this…dispirited urge for our food to simply fill us. We are totally ignorant of flavor- as a nation, we are all taste-blind. I grew up in the most stereotypical midwestern suburb with the most stereotypical baby- boomer parents and the most stereotypical American diet one could imagine.  Our meals were almost exactly the same every single day: cereal for breakfast, a cold sandwich of deli meat and cheese with a bag of potato chips and cookies for lunch, and some form of broiled, previously-frozen meat with a side of unseasoned canned vegetables and a side of packaged or boxed starch (usually Rice-A-Roni or dehydrated potato flakes that resembled mashed potatoes after adding water). When my parents divorced, my younger sister and I had frozen pizza to look forward to when we spent the weekends with our dad. I never thought anything of it. I never thought my mom was a bad cook, but I never really looked forward to her cooking the way I lusted over my grandmother’s stuffed cabbage.  It was just… normal. All my school friends ate the same way. I mean, if you’ve never tasted anything different, why would you want anything better?

When I was in high school, my dad married a very health-conscious, vegetarian Canadian woman who bought all organic, whole-grain food – even for their cat. For the first few months, I naively thought that meant she was high-maintenance – after all, “organic” meant the product cost twice as much as the industrialized product. Organic was still a fairly new concept on the market. At the time, I didn’t see the logic in paying more when you could get something for less. Quality wasn’t in my food vocabulary  just yet. After several months on his new diet, I saw a drastic change in my dad’s physical appearance and attitude – he looked younger, he had lost weight, and he had more energy and vibrancy… all from simply eliminating processed foods and excessive meat consumption from his diet.

I stumbled upon good food on accident in the most unlikely place: College. Moving to New Orleans from Cleveland was a monumental change in every single way – people said “Hello” on the streets, everyone was always smiling, there was always sunshine and music, and, most importantly – everyone was always eating. Dinner in New Orleans was not something you did before you started your evening; dinner in New Orleans was your evening. Parties were held just to boil and eat crawfish. Everyone took their time and ate slowly and enjoyed their food. Every day, I ate something I had never even heard of before. I started craving new food, new experiences, and new tastes. I began ordering food that I couldn’t pronounce and tasting things that were way outside my comfort zone – and I became addicted. Every time I went back home, the food became less and less exciting. I started trying to re-create things that I craved on holiday breaks – however, my total lack of exposure to fresh meats and vegetables growing up made any attempt to fabricate them a near-disaster. I often resorted to boxed Cajun Jambalaya mixes, which were nowhere near as good.

I started working as a waitress in a restaurant at 18 because a friend of mine had raved about the tip money. On slow nights, I’d stay in the kitchen and watch the cooks at work. Everything was like a symphony – knives delicately chiffonading  fresh herbs, sauces gently simmering, pans lightly clanking against the metal burners, meat sizzling on the flat tops – it was beautiful. I expressed an interest in learning and the sous-chef agreed to let me help out the garde manger and soup station a few days a week.

One day after work, I was talking with a few of the cooks and I made a comment to one of them that I wished I could do what they do every day – I envied their passion. The Chef-de-cuisine looked at me and said, “What’s stopping you?”      That’s when I realized it : nothing was stopping me.

Today, I am still on the same quest that I was back then. I am still trying to learn everything, taste everything, see everything, and do everything – only today, I have chosen to make this hunger for gastronomy my career. My goal for this blog is to share the knowledge I obtain about food, food production, cuisine, and tradition with whoever would like to learn.  I plan to do this by traveling and researching local and native cuisines all over the world. I hope to educate and help people everywhere make more informed choices when buying and eating food. I hope that I can help pass on recipes and traditions. I look forward to sharing my experiences, and I welcome all comments, criticisms, and suggestions!

~Heather

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