I was always a nuisance in the kitchen. I was known to perform song and dance routines dangerously close to the stove and chose dinnertime to perfect my masterpiece on the pantry chalkboard.
I grew up at the apron strings of my mom and my older sister, Bridget. I always seemed to be orbiting the periphery of the kitchen, getting in the way and being assigned any task that might remove me from the premises. “Why don’t you set the table?” was the inevitable sentence, issued when my dancing, singing, and sampling of crucial ingredients got too out of hand. I accepted my fate as table setter and went on through the years loving food, blissfully unaware of how any of it was made.
My selective eating habits, which emerged early on, caused both my mom and Bridget to pretty much write off any potential as a fellow foodie. “Anyone who does not like jam,” my sister once proclaimed, “does not deserve to eat.” (To which I no doubt responded by dissolving into a hysteric tantrum about how Bridget was mean to me.) But she was right! I didn’t like Jam! Or eggplant! Or calamari! Or mushrooms! Or dates!
I did, however, love salt. While most kids were eating fruit roll ups and Lunchables, I was slathering Carr’s crackers with taramasalata and finishing off a can of black olives with a healthy swig of that salty black brine. When anyone baked, instead of paying attention whatsoever, I’d swipe bits of dough and sprinkle them with salt before eating them surreptitiously.
We grew up eating from the garden. The first sign of spring was always rhubarb, and we’d ladle sweet compote over vanilla ice cream for dessert. Summer was full of sun-warmed cherry tomatoes and 9 PM dinners. Finding grass or the odd leaf of clover in one’s salad was not unheard of. Peach pies were considered holy. In winter, there was always a pile of butternut squash in a cold corner of the house.
I played cello and I always liked to practice an hour before dinner, so that 15 minutes into scales and arpeggios, smells from the kitchen began to waft in: onions cooking in olive oil, roast chicken or a rustic apple tart. It was never a question that whatever my mom cooked would be delicious. Even on school nights when things got really healthy, we ate fluffy brown rice and spinach drenched in garlicky soy sauce.
When we were 12 and 8 respectively, it became clear that my sister had inherited the kitchen intuition from my mom. While my brother and I were busy building forts or stacking firewood, my sister was experimenting with homemade pasta or learning how to make jam. My only claim to fame was quesadillas, which I mastered and stuck to for a solid 10 years.
But here’s what happened (and I know, it’s cliche.) This past summer, I went to Italy. I’d say there were three solitary bites of food that changed my life in a small but significant way.
- Hazlenut gelato. Specifically, in Rome, on a quiet street in the evening; a perfect cool creamy bite of soft nutty bliss.
- Lardo. Specifically, whipped into a mousse with salt and herbs, spread on an olive oil-drenched slice of bread, accompanied by a glass of red wine in Panzano.
- Pasta. Specifically, floating in a bright green haze of mint and pea pesto, accented by salty cubes of caramelized bacon, under an arbor in Volpaia.
I have not looked back to the Quesadilla Days since.