Table of Contents

Adventures in eating

Eggs eggs eggs. I got interested in cooking when I was six. Mom got a Saturday morning job sitting behind the stamp window at the Marianna post office. She left early on Saturdays, leaving me on my own for breakfast. I saw this as an opportunity for me to play in the kitchen and make whatever I wanted. I've approached cooking that way ever since: the kitchen is a place I get to go play, then eat the results. How things start sets the tone. I started hanging out with her in the kitchen to learn her tricks. First she showed me how to make basic eggs and toast. I learned all the different ways she fixed eggs: straight up, over easy, basted with bacon fat, scrambled, even her Sunday morning special: oven eggs, aka shirred eggs. Our Sunday morning breakfast feast included oven eggs, sausage patties, and homemade buttermilk biscuits. Heavenly. I experimented in the kitchen, an homage to my father, a research scientist at heart. Mom taught me how to make basic scrambled eggs that came out nice and creamy, not dry and overdone. I decided to see what would happen if I mixed in more than just a splash of milk. One day I let my milky scrambles set without stirring. Breakfast custard! I loved the delicate texture. That happy accident spawned an enduring interest in dessert custards and puddings like bread pudding, rice pudding, tapioca, eventually crème brûlée after I discovered it existed. I also tried to recreate the British custard sauce they served me at the Duke of York in Nairobi. Then I tried going the other way: no milk or just a splash, but get the pan good and hot before pouring in the eggs. Much to my surprise they got all puffy: I had independently reinvented frittatas. Later on I followed puffy eggs all the way to popovers and Dutch babies. I first encountered the Dutch baby at Dot's Diner. There they call it a German pancake. The German pancake, which you needed to order in advance, was guaranteed to turn my whole day into a bleary sugar crash. I hadn't yet developed the surrender required to make sensible healthy choices.

Pizza ai funghi. My first time in Rome I was looking forward to eating real Italian pizza. I first made Chef Boyardee pizza in a box when I was eight. Pepperoni was good, Italian sausage was better, sage scented breakfast sausage was best. Later on, in Asheville, I discovered Broiled in Butter mushrooms. I just love that decadent fungal flavor. Those became a regular pizza topping too. I was used to very American pizza, so the Roman pizzeria menu puzzled me. I settled on the mushroom; the other names I couldn't translate. I was expecting tomato sauce, hoping for meat. That pizza was a flavor bomb, all new flavors. Different color mushrooms, fresh herbs, no meat, no tomato, and OMG the crust! The cool stringy cheese!

Bacon. Green bean mushroom soup casserole was Mom's contribution to any covered dish dinner and I loved it. So I had to learn how to cook that, starting with the green beans. Her green bean secret was bacon. She'd fry some up then cut it up in the iron skillet, leaving in the grease. Add the green beans, snapped not cut; cutting leaves the strings. Toss the beans in the hot grease till they turn dark green, add water, cover till tender. They made that casserole sing. I made that dish for decades. Always got rave reviews. It's the bacon.

Butter. My mom's buttermilk biscuits were the best anyone ever made and you can't prove otherwise. Even the uncooked dough for her biscuits was intoxicatingly good, tangy and rich; I would beg for scraps as she punched out the round pads destined to become biscuits. Her secret, I learned, was all butter, no shortening or other lesser fat. I still go by that: there is no cooking fat but butter. Ya, ya, ghee, it's a pain in the butt and not as good. You can't improve on butter. Gloriously tender buttermilk biscuits dripping with more butter or holding a freshly cooked sausage patty spread with homemade blackberry jam became another signature dish of mine. Thank you Mom.

Peach cobbler. Boy Scouts ushered in a whole new realm of cookery. My go-to campfire meal, which I also made at home when my dad had charcoal going, was the foil pouch: a piece of meat (cubed steak was my favorite) and some vegetables all sealed up carefully in foil and dropped in the coals. Here I learned that how you cut the vegetables was crucial: potatoes had to be cut mighty thin if I didn't want 'em crunchy. I'm still working on my knife skills. The other camping delicacy required a cooking pot, preferably cheap aluminum, soot-blackened and well dented. Campfire peach cobbler was one box Bisquick mixed with one can Hunt's peaches with syrup. The trick was to cook the gloppy mess until the middle was done but the outside wasn't burned, a trick no Boy Scout ever learned. But we ate it all anyway, burned and goopy alike. Heavenly.

Sunday dinner at the Pagoda. Living in Kenya blew my world wide open in just about every way, and food was a big one. In Nairobi I began to discover the culinary world, starting with China. Soon after we arrived, my dad's boss invited us to join a group of UN staff for dinner at The Pagoda. They're still in business; it was ranked among Nairobi's top ten restaurants in 2017. It's upstairs in Shankardass House, a classic Chinese-style mixed use commercial building that'd be right at home in Seattle's International District, say along S Jackson somewhere. The tables had lazy susans set flush into the tabletop; you might say they encouraged diners to share. I was still using Pagoda chopsticks all through the 2010s in Seattle. Instead of pull-apart unfinished chopsticks you got nicely finished bamboo with The Pagoda Nairobi in charming foil printing. They're gone now, along with all my chopsticks; I prefer spoons and forks, gweilo that I am.

Banana. The real culinary heart of Nairobi was Indian. There were Indian restaurants everywhere, at every price point. Meaty samosas were the standard snack food in any bar, and Indian stalls vied for my custom, enticing me with abundant displays in all the markets, colorful mounds of spices and lentils. I learned new words: elaichi, haldi, kalonji, dal. I loved curries. You got a bowl or mound of rice, and the meat and sauce was served separately in a metal pan. You put some curry and rice together, and then there were the toppings. Even in very humble restaurants, the toppings were lavish: chutneys, pickles, radishes, fresh cut fruit, shaved coconut and other nuts, etcetera. I loved all the toppings, but my favorite was sliced ripe banana. Still my favorite.

Curry on the brain. While I was still in college the UN would pay my airfare so I could go visit my parents in Kenya if they didn't take home leave that year. I went twice. I was especially interested in Indian cooking, and when I visited Kenya I'd go soak up all I could in Nairobi's Indian restaurants and markets. I started collecting Indian cookbooks. Once I had a kitchen in Tallahassee I learned to scoff at prepared curry powders, buying all the individual spices and grinding them or frying them whole as needed. Indian became my second culinary language after southern.

English? I also discovered English delicacies in Nairobi. Cadbury bars were the first chocolate bars I liked, especially Caramello and Royal Dark. And the After Eight thin mints they sold at the cinema. I also became fascinated by luxury canned goods that I thought of as English because I found them in very English-style grocers, things like lumpfish caviar, smoked mussels, and paté de foie gras with truffles. That dubious fascination lasted for years, but I survived it.

Tea and coffee. Kenya introduced me to both tea and coffee. Sure, I'd tasted them before, making a face: yucky grownup stuff. But as a young child I loved to join my mom for afternoon tea, when she would make me kettle tea. Which required no tea leaves, just hot water, sugar, a splash of milk. In Kenya they grow their own tea, and it's good stalwart stuff. I would drink tea when we went on safari and had breakfast at whatever safari lodge we were staying at. Brewed strong from loose leaf tea in a gleaming white porcelain pot, it really needed that milk and sugar. In Kenya I discovered I loved the taste of tea, sometimes even without milk, and I still do. But not without sugar. Unsweetened tea has always seemed like a sad business to me. I guess it's a case of you can take the boy out of the South… They grow their own coffee too. I did my first running in a coffee plantation, and one day met a cobra out there. But the espresso I sipped in Nairobi coffee bars was probably made from some Italian brand like Illy. Authenticity, you know. I didn't care much for coffee, I just sipped it to be cool. I wouldn't acquire that taste for a few more years. When I made my happily unsuccessful attempt on Mt Kilimanjaro, porters served us sweet, slightly milky tea with a distinctive smoky flavor. I didn't much like it at the time, although I did appreciate it for being warm and sweet. These days lapsang souchong is my go-to tea. I love that smoky, tarry essence. So does my Ariel. She thinks of my tea as smoky liquid candy, a fair assessment. I never actually enjoyed coffee until I traded drugs with Sam and Gail in Indialantic and tasted Sam's candy coffee. In the decades since then I've gone back and forth between tea and coffee, usually favoring one or the other. I suspect I'm done with coffee, but I know better than to predict.

Curried pulao. When I was in residence on the Fishfarm I took a turn cooking for the whole gang: a minimum of eight of us, often more like twelve or fifteen. One of my recipes turned out to be a hit: a curried pulao dinner that combined things I learned in Nairobi with California-style cooking I was learning from Sam and Gail, who lived in Cupertino and other Bay Area burgs for years. French onion soup dip, anyone? You want guac with that? How about some rumaki? I would fry up a bunch of Indian spices into a tadka. When the spices all got very fragrant I dumped in dry brown basmati rice, and let the rice fry before adding water. Then cover and don't peek! While that was cooking I'd make a very garlicky green salad with a good amount of lemon juice as the acid. You mixed the richly spiced fragrant rice with the tart garlicky salad and ate them as one dish. Everyone loved it, even the kids. A popular vegetarian meal, whoo hoo!

Peach rightside up cake. I also cooked the occasional weekend dinner, and the kids would clamor for this one. Adults too. I would cut up ripe peaches and simmer them in a cast iron skillet with butter and brown sugar until they began to get soft and syrupy. Then I would dot the surface of this sea of peachy syrupy goodness with my pancake batter California style: oatmeal, pecans, whole wheat. The dollops of batter always looked like they were going to drown. I took the skillet off the stove and put it in the oven. When I took it out, the peaches had disappeared under a bulging brown hippie cake. I originally tried turning it out to be peach upside down cake, but it was too gooey to fall out of the skillet, so I just served it rightside up with a spoon for digging out the sweet doughy treasures at the bottom. Campfire peach cobbler finally made right.

Canning. In Tallahassee I took the homemade blackberry jam idea and ran with it. Peaches pears plums; blackberries blueberries… loganberries? When I was about four we took a trip to what I think was probably a church camp on a lake in northern Arkansas. Must have been early spring; there was lingering snow in shady spots. In the mess hall I tasted jam that made my eyes bug out. It looked like blackberry jam but tasted different, a sort of candy wonderland flavor. The things you remember. Years later I learned that was loganberry jam. I've never made it. Never saw loganberries in a store before Seattle. I probably won't be making any more jam, but I wish I'd found some logans back then, just to try it. Anyway, in Tallahassee I got a little obsessed with canning. I made spiced pear preserves, then made them again with a little port for color and flavor. Fair enough; pears are kinda bland. But then I spiced peach preserves with amaretto. What a travesty; peaches are so regally rich alone. Amaretto? That's as bad as the vanilla coffee beans I would grind and brew in my ChemexⓇ. I canned prunes with brandy, whole bing cherries with kirsch. Another eyeroll. I had a canning bath with the basket, a steel funnel and jar tongs. And case upon case of Mason and Ball. The straight sided canning jars had recently appeared and I was gaga over them. Heat resistant glass with tasteful designs. Domes with holiday cheer printed on. I threw it all away when I headed off to Boulder in 1979. That life with the cushy state job was over now, and not a moment too soon. New adventures awaited.