I was reading a post by Michael Ruhlman about how he was at a restaurant and he could taste the love in his meal. It got me to thinking, can I really taste the love in food, or is that a preponderance of Sriracha I taste? How can you tell what is what, and why would someone say they could taste the love? So I began to think about the subject over the last couple of days and I think I’ve come up with an answer.
You ever had a dish growing up that on so many levels should have been wrong, but somehow it was still good in spite of what the dish had going against it? I had lots of those types of dishes growing up. I know I’ll hear audible moaning and groaning later so instead, I’ll get some of these ingredients out of the way now. Dishes made with things like canned cream of ______ soup, Velveeta, Stove Top Stuffing, jellied cranberry sauce, canned ham, herbs from jars that were older than me, dried minced onion, dried minced garlic, seasoned salt, canned vegetables, and Wonder bread…just to name a few.
These weren’t the only ingredients that my mother used, and she had some stand out dishes that were made from scratch. However these things might find their way into the odd casserole or dish. That being said she made marvelous Sunday dinners from roasts and stews, to lasagna and baked spaghetti. She often times made different soups and chowders that although a bit thin for my tastes, were still extremely tasty. I watched her and at times even helped her make them, but to this day still can’t quite replicate the flavors. With all the technique and experience I have gathered I make a darned good soup, but it always seems as though there’s something missing.
I was talking with my cousin yesterday and we were reminiscing about foods we had growing up and how our tastes have changed or evolved to what we are eating now. We laughed at some of the odd “traditional dishes” we had growing up and yet somehow my feelings towards these foods now, are completely different than hers. I still find most of these dishes to be tasty even though somewhat flawed. She looks at them as abominations that she would rarely eat now.
I think she thought I was kidding when I said I liked them still. She said, but you have culinary knowledge, you’ve worked in the industry and have training and technique to know that these dishes are inherently flawed. Don’t get me wrong I told her, I wouldn’t make all these dishes for myself…but there’s something about those dishes that makes them inherently good. I’m pretty sure crack wasn’t a readily available drug back in the seventies, so that something…had to be something else.
I think back to when I was a kid and going to my grandparents’ house for a visit. My grandfather would be working in his garden and walking through dirt that seemed to be a mix of dirt, coffee grounds, remnants of orange peels and egg shells. I remember asking my mother why Gramp had so much garbage in his garden and she said “that’s compost.” Compost meant nothing to this six year old other than maybe they couldn’t afford garbage bags, and the garden seemed a convenient place to throw your trash.
I can however recall the taste of raspberries that were so raspberry-ish, that to this day I haven’t found another to match it. The same holds true for nearly all the wonderful bounty that garden produced. My grandmother would always be in her apron quick with a kiss and a humble offering from a freshly made batch of cookies, cakes or brownies. I’m quite certain Gram didn’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer, or use any other specialized ingredients, but the baked goods that came out of her tiny kitchen would rival in taste anything I’ve had since.
I myself am a self-confessed non baker as I barely passed either bake shop or pâtisserie, and I have proven this on more than one occasion. One famous Thanksgiving where I would show off my baking prowess by making two pies, a pumpkin and a blueberry, I then presented them with all the fanfare of a world class chef at the Bocuse d’Or. I tasted the first and noticed it had an excellent crust and the filing came out superb.
This being said I sat with a funny look on my face and slowly came to realize I was looking at a table full of guests with the same funny look on their faces…then it hit me, hehe (nervous laugh) I uh…think I may have forgotten to add sugar. The second pie, well the second pie sucked as well because apparently sugar was also a vital component in that one. Luckily the guests were all family, and made sure to give me plenty of ribbing for my incredible error which I took in stride. The only person who didn’t was my mother…she just said, “I think its fine” and continued to eat her slice.
Maybe my mother realized something that I had failed to at that point or maybe she was just being polite…then there was the possibility that she was born without taste buds which would explain her occasionally eating a mustard sandwich. Yeah I just said that, she liked to eat plain yellow mustard on white bread with a little bit of sugar on it…allow me to explain further so you don’t go thinking my mother is a psychopath or unstable to the point of making Sybil look well adjusted.
My mother is from a family of fifteen kids who grew up poor in the small town of Hardwick, Vermont. There were thirteen girls and two boys and suffice it to say they weren’t eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every night. My grandfather would butcher animals for local farmers and it being at the tail end of the depression…would receive the leftover bits of the animals as payment for his services. This would include tripe, lungs, testicles, sweetbreads, tails, intestines, fat, kidneys and liver.
I guess considering all the nose to tail eating going on nowadays my grandparents were at the cutting edge, and true pioneers of the culinary world! Unfortunately there were times when food was scarce and the kids might go off to school, with nothing more, than a mustard sandwich and a bit of sugar on white bread. The evening meals were always more substantial, but things were rough in those days. There was no such thing as school lunch program or student meal assistance, so they made due with the little they had.
A few days ago I went home to visit and discovered my mother had just eaten a mustard sandwich for lunch. She wasn’t herself and it was almost as if she had been crying. I didn’t say anything as she is a strong woman who might be a bit embarrassed by making a fuss over such things. I gave her my usual hug and kiss and proceeded to do some things for her around the house. It came time for dinner and she had made stuffed cabbage. For dessert she brought out some pie she had made with store-bought crust, but with blueberries she had picked the previous summer. (I inherited my baking skill from my mother who won’t so much as pretend to make a crust.)
We finished lunch and were reminiscing about the famous Thanksgiving pie fiasco which we both got a chuckle out of. Mom, why did you continue to eat the pie after we discovered it had no sugar in it? “Because I’m not much of a sugar person” was her response. I said, “But you eat sugar on mustard sandwiches.” She said “let me put it another way.” “I ate your pie because you made it, and I ate mustard sandwiches because it was all we had, and your grandmother made them…I guess what I’m saying is they were both made with love…” “That’s something you can feel, and it’s something you can taste…I don’t know how else to explain it.”
So that explains why when I eat her tuna casserole, “Spanish rice,” turkey soup, corn chowder or a myriad of other dishes, I’ll never be able to replicate the flavors. When you’re making a dish for yourself, you’re putting ingredients in it. When you’re making a dish for someone else, you’re putting yourself and more importantly…you’re putting love in it.
Michael Ruhlman was right in that, you can taste the love in food. I’ve tasted it for myself and found it to be not only delicious, but also contagious. It’s something that once you do and feel and taste, you’ll make a concerted effort to repeat. When you’re in the kitchen just banging out a dish cause dammit you just worked ten hours and you’re tired and besides you got that episode of CSI Miami you DVR’d…your food is going to suffer as a result.
Think about that the next time you turn your nose up at something a loved one makes because it isn’t pretentious enough, or heaven forbid have something in it you deem unworthy of your palate…if you concentrate and close your eyes, there’s something else in there as well…