I woke Sunday at 3:30 in the morning thinking of food. With all the fresh produce in my kitchen and fridge, my mind was a whirling dervish of what to make for dinner, what to do first and what to do next. I knew trying to sleep was waste of time, and it was still dark out for Pete’s sake, so I got out of bed, read Anthony Bourdain for a while, watched the sunrise and went to my kitchen. For many people this would be the last place to go, but for me, cooking is a Zen-like pursuit of calm when I am troubled or in the throes of insomnia.
I started to get some supremely ripe tomatoes ready for concasse and that’s when I started thinking about Nettie. My Step Mom Nettie was a GREAT cook. I swear she could go on Iron Chef and beat the pants off Bobby Flay or Mario Batali in the taste department any day of the week. Her ravioli and tortellini were things of magic and beauty. But Nettie’s food wasn’t fancy. It is what is now called “Farm House Cooking” or “Farm to Table”. And when she saw your eyes close in bliss, a slight moan of pleasure escaping your throat, enjoying what she laid out before you, a gem of a smile lit up her face, pride and passion leaking out around the edges.
After the tomatoes, I moved on to the peaches that had fallen off my tree onto the rock covered ground below. Nettie wasted NOTHING! There’s a bruise on that peach? Cut it out and use the rest. Chicken bones? Make stock. Same goes for beef bones. Eating well on the cheap is a beautiful thing. And Nettie made it look easy. My Mom, Dottie, has never really LOVED to cook, but she appreciates a well made meal. She’ll be the first one to tell you that if she has to be in the kitchen, she’d rather bake, so learning some tricks from Nettie never felt like betrayal or treason to me. She was another woman who LOVED food and cooking like I do. We were friends, and that friendship was built on a cutting board and in a fry pan.
Now that’s not to say Mom didn’t cook or do “Farm Stuff” because she did. I distinctly remember Mom peeling and canning tomatoes (something I have never learned to do) – over an open fire pit – it was the only place big enough for the pot. We went strawberry and cherry picking, she made pies. All grape jelly is forever ruined for me, because Mom’s was the best – not too sweet and really tasting of GRAPES, not sugar. But Mom doesn’t ENJOY it – she did it because it needed to be done. To this day she loves to bake for my nieces and nephews that live down the street.
A lot of what I learned from Nettie WAS a lost art that is now coming back into fashion in even the most unlikely places, but especially in homes. Taking simple ingredients and turning them into the sublimely fantastic. Honest workingman’s food that is basic and delicious, unadorned by fanciful garnishes. People WANT homemade and once you know the skills, doing for yourself becomes a point of pride. Some things I have learned along the way were out of necessity, like anyone else’s learning curve, but then it became a mission. I asked questions (and still do) of anyone who would talk to me about food, and Nettie was one of those people, just as frequently as Mom was. I also learned that some seemingly difficult things are really simple and taste better if you make the time to do it right.
Nettie and I swapped recipe ideas over the phone frequently, talking about food shows, trendy ingredients, heirloom tomatoes, and our gardens. She preferred flowers, while I, living in the desert, only water things I can eat. When I am on the phone with Mom, we talk about restaurants, great take out places and foods we miss from NY (a REAL F-ing Bagel and decent Chinese always top the list). Mom never stifled me in the kitchen, but because she wasn’t passionate about cooking, she couldn’t really inspire me either. She encouraged and cheered, and ate everything I ever made – no matter how ill conceived, including the time she got a rash from dandelions. While Nettie was a coach, Mom was, and is, a cheerleader. Winning teams need both!
Now that Nettie is gone, I talk food with Cousin Christine who loves to cook as much as I do, I talk to Chefs to learn and I share that knowledge with anyone who wants to listen. I share knowledge with Sister Nancy who frequently calls with, “I have a food question for you.” I chat with Sister Tina (Nettie’s daughter) about old timey recipes and cool things we find online and I still talk about restaurants and F-ing Bagels with Mom.
One of my proudest moments was when Nettie, eating banana bread for breakfast on Thanksgiving Day in my San Antonio kitchen, told me my banana bread was the best she’d ever had. I nearly plotzed with glee! Our recipes were nearly identical, but she assured me mine was better – I swear it is the pan I bake it in (Pampered Chef Stoneware). I will never forget it. At that moment, in my mind, I became a contender!
At Nettie’s funeral last fall, her sister Melinda told me when I applied to be on the Next Food Network Star, she was so proud – just as proud as my Mom, Dottie. Well, I didn’t make the cut, but I know they are both proud of me anyway.
This week’s Food Memories are a vegetarian dinner cooked especially for friend Gilbert, a fantastic lunch at a new place (Bar + Bistro) with friend Dani and late night pizza and beer with Hubby John and friend Chris M.
This week’s pic is Nettie and Brother JJ, dancing at his wedding in 2006.
Until next week, go out and make your OWN Food Memories.