A friend of mine just visited Paris.
What is the first thing I thought of? Napoleon.
No, not the famous self-crowned Emperor of France, but the pastry.
That got me thinking about all of the foods I have gotten to know over my lifetime through all of my travels and so I decided to write a rather long article talking about it. The danger of drooling on my keyboard is quite high!
So, shall where shall I begin?
I think I will begin with foods that my experience in my family and our family’s culture “featured”. 🙂
American Early 60s Middle Class Fare = B L A N D
I was born in the mid-south Kentucky city of Louisville and was raised in Bowling Green. Our diet was simple. Very simple and incredibly bland. My folks didn’t have a lot of money nor did anyone we knew, so it had to be simple.
But to us it wasn’t bland, it all tasted great to us. But, when I now compare it to what I would experience later in life, well, then yeah…it was bland.
Here is what I remember from my childhood till I was well into college.
Sandwiches: Peanut Butter and Jelly, Tuna or Chicken Salad, Pimento Cheese, Ham and Cheese, the only cheese I knew was American Cheese, if you can call it cheese at all. Hamburgers sort of, the occasional hot dog and that was about it.
Potatoes, mashed and sometimes baked, canned vegetables like green beans, corn, lima beans, peas (igit) and that was about it.
On occasion we would have corn on the cob, trees (Broccoli) and carrots cooked mostly. I don’t remember salads being a part of it.
Bread was either regular white bread, yeast rolls, crackers. I don’t ever remember having corn bread as a kid.
My mom’s championship dishes were actually really great: Chili, Beef Stew, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Roast Beef and of course Fried Chicken. Later we barbecued more and had barbecue chicken and steaks on occasion.
Desserts was mostly chocolate cake, white cake, chocolate chip cookies and some sort of pie, pecan being my Dad’s favorite with vanilla ice cream.
To drink: Milk, Hot chocolate or Iced Tea. Water of course.
That is it. Thanksgivings and Christmases were more elaborate with Turkey and Ham and some fruit salads and canned soup vegetable casseroles which appearance made me want to chuck it.
So, basically that is it! You have my diet of nearly 20 years right there in a nutshell. We would have a pizza very, very rarely and went to McDonald’s only on very special occasions. Ice Cream at the local dairy dip was the treat of the week!
Breakfast was usually cereal, milk, toast with margarine and jelly. We had pancakes and waffles on occasion and some of these great frozen blue berry muffins you could toast in the toaster. Of course we would have bacon and eggs when we weren’t in a rush. I can’t remember when I had my first country ham, but it was much later on.
No we didn’t starve at all. Obviously, we had plenty to eat, but this fare was just general fare and my life would show me that food isn’t just something you live from but it is an art form in itself.
My First Exposure to Other Foods
Probably my first brush with another style of cooking is when I was exposed to the concept of not cooking vegetables within an inch of their lives. I remember my first cooked but still firm broccoli, peas that were frozen straight from a garden and thus brilliant with flavor, and green beans that were not cooked until they became a mush.
That all happened to me first in college. Can you believe that? Believe it.
Probably the first cultural influence that changed my palate was Chinese food. But even still, we always ordered either sweet and sour chicken or peppered beef with Won Ton soup. I was in Amsterdam once and went to a Chinese Restaurant whereupon the waitress said in a bit of a sarcastic tone, “Sweet and Sour Chicken right?”, realizing I was an American. I said, no! I ordered something more varied.
This brings me to my favorite Asian food, which is Thai.
When I was in Osnabrück, a colleague of mine and his wife had my wife at the time and I over for dinner and they said they were going to cook Thai. I was like, what? It scared me because I had no idea what that would be like. But, we went over there and for sure they had prepared a huge meal with all different kinds of Thai food and it altered my existence forever. He eventually moved to Frankfurt am Main and every time I visited him we would go to the best Thai Restaurants, there are two that I know of, and have an amazing time. After which we were grateful for Frankfurt’s excellent mass transit system!
Actually, once you get involved in music your culinary tastes are raised to a much higher level. Musicians like to eat great tasting food. So, after I got involved with the Western Shaker Singers I started reaping the benefits of what it meant to be a musician/connoisseur.
The thing I remember most about those times was going to the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village near Harrodsburg, Kentucky in the Bluegrass Region. I remember going in Autumn when the trees were turning, the air was cool and we would do the Shaker worship service in the Meeting House. I guess we were around 24 or so people. Honestly, we were really good.
But, the “pay” for our services was that we got to stay at the village for two nights and have all of our meals in the dining room. There I discovered that simple doesn’t have to be boring or bland. It is a matter of cooking fresh and in moderate portions on hardwood tables set with simple white dishes, good silverware and candlelight. I’m not sure but I think that is actually where I had my first cornbread, country ham, pumpkin muffins and a huge relish bowl with fresh vegetables all you could eat. We would literally sing for our supper on the stairs for the evening guests and they absolutely loved it. Key Lime Pie, Pork Tenderloin, Fried Apples and so on, too much to remember.
That is where I really learned the art of true simple and elegant dining with some sort of culture attached to it.
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t raised like uncivilized morons, and our meals actually would be nice at home and on special occasions. But, the level I was exposed to at Pleasant Hill set a much higher standard for me than I had ever had at home.
Food at the Eastman School of Music and Rochester, New York
So, by the time I had gone to Eastman I had been to Europe twice, so maybe I should interject Europe before here, but I’m not going to because of the dominance Europe had on my culinary tastes all at once.
I have many culinary memories of Eastman and Rochester. I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.
As a masters student, you usually were assigned a single dorm room but due to demand I was placed with a roommate on the 4th floor. Bill was my first roommate I don’t know who was pensive about it, me or him. But, I will never forget when he popped his head around the door to look in and see who I was and said “Hi”, in his usual professorial intellectual tone. There is a lot to tell here, but I will cut to the chase.
We said our hellos and my parents and brothers finally departed and there we were in the room on the first night trying to get to sleep and talked about stuff. Turns out that we had a lot in common musically and I quickly realized that I was with a genius. Bill was incredible in just about every way. To me, I got a first hand look at someone who already knew so much about music and literature and just about every other topic you wanted to discuss than anyone I had ever met, including professors and professionals I had met up to this time. Of course at Eastman you will find such folks, unfortunately I am not one of them.
Anyway…food. So, when I got to Rochester I see all of the signs around for “Buffalo Wings” or “Chicken Wings” and Fresh Bagels. I couldn’t figure out what they were or what made them to be as apparently the big sell as they appeared to be. I remember walking down to breakfast and seeing all of these hard rolls with holes in them, in different flavors in a basket next to a huge block of this white stuff and people were grabbing them like it was going to be the last thing they would ever get to eat.
I was like, “What is that?”
They said, “You don’t know? This is bagel!”
I said, “Okay so that is a bagel, now I know what all the signs are about. But what is that white stuff people keep slapping on it?”
“That is cream cheese! You haven’t ever had one?”
“No, I’ve never heard of it. Never knew it existed. I know about cream cheese of course but not a chunk of it the size of a milk crate! How do you do it?”
So someone said, “You saw it in half, let it go through this toaster and put butter or cream cheese on it. May I suggest cinnamon and raisin to start?”
So, I did so. “Oh my God!” That was the best thing I had ever eaten up to that point in my life. No wonder people loved them so much. So from then on I became a Bagel fanatic, just like everyone else.
So, one night Bill and I were talking in our dorm room. I asked, “What is the deal with Buffalo Wings? I see this sign about Buffalo Wings and Chicken Wings everywhere but I don’t get it what can be so great about it.”
Bill goes “Wait! Are you telling me…you…have…never…had…wings? Is that what you are telling me?”
“Never heard of it.” I said.
The only words out of Bill’s mouth at the point was “THE WORKS!” Get your shoes and stuff on, we are going to “THE WORKS!”
“What is….” that is all I got out before we were rushing down the stairs and out the doors with me trying to keep up with the determined maestro.
“The Works…uh the Water Works. Wings! This is the night you lose your virginity my friend!” He laughed hard at that one, so did I!
Well, upon arriving at the front door, we descended into the basement and it opened up into the best little pub you can imagine. Booths, tables and a bar all cozy hidden from the world. We sat down and he ordered the fare for the evening.
So out comes a platter of chicken wings with some kind of sauce all over them, served with celery, carrots, blue cheese and about a thousand napkins. When the waiter left he said, “Let me know if you need more napkins!”
I laughed because there were enough napkins to feed an army already. But I soon got the drift of what he was talking about.
I couldn’t believe the incredible flavor those wings had. They were spicy hot and just so savory. I felt like a Neanderthal chewing down to the bare bones of this delicacy and then tossing the bones. It was such fun. So Bill introduced me to Buffalo Wings, of course named after the city where they were invented just down the road from Rachacha!
From then on it took only a glance to Bill and it was clear…”The Works.”
The Waterworks was a real Eastman hangout back then on the corner of East Avenue and Alexander if I am not mistaken and I spent many hours there with friends. What great times those were.
What does New Orleans Have to Do with Rochester?
Well, nothing to be honest. Unless you were me!
After my first year at Eastman I moved into an apartment with a good friend of mine, Dreux. He is from Metairie Louisiana which is basically right next door to New Orleans. Now, Dreux said he wasn’t too much into cooking, but he started getting into cooking cajun recipes and from then all bets were off!
So, probably my most vivid recollection was this coffee from LaLaLand, as I called it back then, that had chicory in it. We used to drink that stuff like it was water. It was sooooooo awesome. Rich, thick deep coffee. Mmmmm!
But back to the Cajun stuff. He made all of the dishes at one time or another and we would also try to develop a proper taste of the fruit of the vine in the process, which when eating spicy foods may not be the way you want to go! I don’t even know the names of the dishes any more, Jambalaya and this incredible Gumbo. I don’t know exactly anymore what is in it, I think basically the kitchen sink with a combination of seafood, sausage, pork and so on. Served on rice. OMG! Those were some incredible meals!
We both graduated in 1996 and Dreux moved back to New Orleans and I then acquired another roommate who was also a good friend of mine, Ivan who is from Slidell, Louisiana, which is just across Lake Pontchartrain from “The Big Easy.”
Now Ivan was all into soul food! He could cook like the greats of the old south. I mean, cook the old fashioned way! Beans and Rice, Baked Chicken, Fried Chicken, veggies and what not. We had some great meals together and he would laugh with that hearty laugh of his and say, “Son, you don’t know what cookin IS!” I said, “You are right! But I’m glad you and Dreux do!”
So, now that I have shared the New Orleans connection I must evolve to my place of employment the year after my graduation. The incredible “Creme de la Creme!” It was indeed just that.
So, I had been there for coffee and desert a time or two and had been a fan because of all of the places I had been to in the USA, this place had the best espresso, cappuccino and pastries hands down, no contest. It isn’t like I didn’t know what that was about, I had already been to Europe and had the real McCoy there. Creme de la Creme had these old style copper coffee presses like they had had in Europe and they made a glorious coffee with them.
The owner was an elegant British woman named Ellie and she had hired a sure fire pastry cook from the French part of Switzerland to make all of the pastries and I mean he was a master! Honestly, I am not even sure I had witnessed anything that good even in Europe before. I won’t go into it, but he made everything just like it was supposed to be made. Everything from Black Forest Cakes to Napoleons. Chocolate covered Strawberries to these Chocolate and Gran Marnier Meringue deserts and these really dense chocolate cakes with hazelnut flavor or a thin raspberry layer between the cake and the crisp chocolate coating. Lordy!
I am not overstating the height of this place. They made the most unbelievable chicken salad, put it on a real croissant…for breakfast they had the first Belgian Waffles I had ever had with this batter that made the place smell like heaven and would put whatever you wanted on it. My favorite was the fruit salad with whipped cream. I’m telling you. On symphony nights, we would be out the door, down the street and around the corner with people waiting to get in. It was crazy! But we had a blast and I wonder where all of those people are now because they were a great group and I got to know a lot of great people there as well.
I’d like to regress and talk about the Eastman Dorms cafeteria. They did a really good job keeping it interesting there and I was always grateful to be able to just go down to breakfast or dinner.
On the first evening meal I got my tray and was looking for a place to sit and decided to ask a very shy looking girl if I could join her. She begrudgingly agreed. The first meal in the Eastman dorms I had was with Clara, who is another incredible person I got to know there, as well as her husband. We worked again together in Karlsruhe, Germany. They are no less the culinary experts that their incredible wit and intelligence affords them. But, actually this story will be continued later in my account on Karlsruhe. I can’t believe I was surrounded by these amazing people.
So, as you can see, my culinary life was truly many faceted and colorful during my days at Eastman and those memories are with me still. As I sit writing these words it seems like it is time to make a trip and visit everyone. They are all great people and were such an important part of my life. We always had such a great time together. It is so special to have such intelligent, witty, generous, kind and open friends. Sometimes I wonder how I got to be so fortunate.
To be continued…