The other day I was reflecting on memorable food experiences: the dishes that never disappoint at favorite restaurants (can I get an amen for the roasted rice cakes @ Momofuku?), exotic meals in foreign lands, unusual but interesting flavor pairings, and of course, those first times you taste something that rocks your world. Like that other “first time,” such experiences can be seminal moments.
Growing up in a tiny western New York town, practically a galaxy away from the food mecca of Manhattan, my future foodie’s palate was woefully underdeveloped and underexposed. While there were, and still are, lots of good cooks in my family, their culinary exploits at the time rarely ranged beyond standard meat-and-potatoes type fare: pork chops and apple sauce, beef stew, sloppy joes, roast beef on weck, goulash, and my childhood favorite, beef stroganoff. My nose still perks up at the thought of the delicious aromas that would escape the bubbling crockpot my mother often used. This type of cooking was about comfort and practicality, far from the realm of “cuisine” so accessible to middle-Americans today thanks to the likes of Iron Chef, Top Chef, and their ilk.
Although it felt like cruel and unusual punishment at the time, I’m sure that my father’s unrelenting insistence that my brother and I at least try everything on our plates (and refusal to allow us to move from the table until we’d done so) is partly responsible for the adventurous palate I have today. Luckily back then, I was just sneaky—and angelic—enough to get away with dropping a few hated Brussels sprouts down the toilet after stealing them away from the table in my pockets. My pocket disposal strategy was certainly less messy than my brother’s more melodramatic gag-vomit scheme, although his methods were equally successful in achieving the end goal of not having to eat a hated food (in his case, eggplant Parmesan).