Tuesday, March 12, 2013

There was an industry in my future....

When I was little, my dad worked in the food industry.  He wasn’t a chef or a restaurateur, but a salesman for a few major food corporations, including Nestle and Carnation.  I grew up on powdered milk, hot chocolate, and cat food.  Well, the cat got the cat food actually, since Friskies was part of Carnation,  but on Sunday drives, whenever we’d see a dead cat on the side of the road, my dad would wistfully say, “there goes another customer….” 
I had food guilt in that I couldn’t drink Swiss Miss without feeling like I was cutting into my father’s pension.  A can of Hunt’s tomatoes was treachery and Lord help us all if a Purina commercial came on during dinner.  I was indoctrinated into brand loyalty at a very early age.  My inheritance relied on it.

My dad in the white hardhat and paisley
Yes, maybe a future in the food industry was in my destiny.  Our family vacations always seemed to include at least one “behind the scenes” tour of a food company or farm.  To this day, I still cannot drink V8.  Bloody Marys after a night of overindulgence?  No, I’ll just lay here and die for the rest of the day, thank you very much.

While other kids flew off to wear mouse ears in Florida, I was putting on a hairnet and being dragged through the San Giorgio macaroni factory in Pennsylvania after an eight-hour drive with six people in a car that fit four.  Durum, semolina, al dente…these were words that were part of my holiday vernacular.  There’s a photo somewhere in my parents’ house of four miserable-looking kids wearing matching t-shirts that blared the slogan, “people should stick together, not pasta”.  My mother thought they were cute.  We prayed for our birthmother to find us. 

My mom at my cousin's farm in Salinas
In the summer of ‘76, while most American kids were touring DC and Philadelphia for bicentennial celebrations, I was freezing my butt off in a lettuce field in Salinas.  Radicchio, escarole, iceberg…I could tell you the difference by the age of 11.  To this day, I can still hear my mother yelling not eat anything until I washed it, because “God knows who may have peed in the field.” 
(I’m having a sudden memory: that trip was the first time I’d ever had real, and I mean real, lemonade.  My Aunt Louise had a Meyer lemon tree and would make it fresh every day.  And as I sit here typing, I’m realizing that I don’t think I’ve had fresh-made lemonade since then.  How terribly unfortunate for me.)
In 1980, when I was 15, I spent the summer in France.  I travelled in my grandmother’s footsteps across the country and spent a few weeks at her home in Fromenteyrol, just outside Provence.  Her home, which is still in the family, was a working produce farm.  I would sit in the hot dirt between rows of raspberries and strawberries, eating more than I put in my basket.  I climbed cherry trees and gorged myself on fruit, spitting pits at my cousins when they’d throw rocks at me.

On my own in Paris...sigh.

Each day, my Aunt Matilde would call everyone in and feed the family.  Everybody was there, regardless of whether you worked at the farm or in town.  The lunch break was two hours long and that was plenty of time for travel, eating, and perhaps a quick nap.   There was always an “escalope” of something, be it veal, pork, or beef, and thin slices of potato and garlic were sautéed off in the pan juices.  Pain au chocolat?  Oh yeah, I was SO in! 

In Paris, my cousin, Jeannine, would wake me with fresh croissants and café au lait every morning.  She’d put me on travelling tours through the countryside where I’d eat rabbit and lamb.  I was ruined.  I bought my first bottle of booze at the chateau de Chambord, a gift of Chambord for my father.  I thought I could smuggle it through customs, but sang like a canary when I was questioned. 

When I came back to the States, my mouth wouldn’t form English words.  Both my mother and grandmother spoke French and I rambled endlessly about everything and everyone.  My grandmother was elated, my mother listened, and my father begged me to speak English.  For the first month, I made crepes every day.   I couldn’t find the ’tableaux au chocolat’ that I’d had in France, so I’d sprinkle Carnation Hot Chocolate Mix on the melted butter and pretend.  And cry.   At International Night in high school, I called my father to come get me, as I knew no one in my class and the sound of La Marseillaise made me sad. 

Time went by and I grew up, discovering boys, cars, and Shakespeare.  My thoughts of food waned, as eating was simply something I did at a drive-thru on my way to work or school.   I got older, married, and gave birth.  Twice (birth, not marriage).   And, in between, I fell in love.  A chance encounter with an invitation to Johnson & Wales’ Culinary Night and I was helplessly drawn back onto the path of gastronomical goodness.  Gas stoves, blast freezers, soup kettles….morel mushrooms, truffles, sides of beef...please, tell me, how was I to resist?   Have you never had such a passion?  I simply cannot help myself.  Evidently, it was my destiny.