Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Culinary Journey, Part I

I have always loved feeding people. I have a huge family and our gatherings always revolved around food. My best memories of my grandmother are all about food — particularly pie. I fondly remember her giving me the scraps of the pie crust to play with and sprinkle with sugar (making a mess, of course). My Uncle Billy was a chef on a Merchant Marine ship and his every journey home involved gigantic feasts, notably his “best chili ever,” which he spiced with cinnamon instead of cumin, but everyone loved it. My Nana was an incredible cookie baker. She had dozens of amazing recipes, from ginger snaps to peanut butter cookies. Her most famous recipe was her pancake recipe, which my father has modified and played with for the last 30 years, now making undoubtedly the best pancakes in the world. When I was still in school Dad would make pancakes every Sunday for whoever showed up. Eighty people could flow through our doors and somehow everyone found a place to sit and plenty to eat.

I started cooking in earnest when I was in fourth grade. I demanded to be taught to make an omelet. I cooked brownies and cookies and cake constantly. My mother never bought store-made treats, so if we wanted them we had to make them.

After dropping out of Mount Holyoke, thiisss close to a diploma, I wandered through retail jobs for a while and then discovered waiting tables. My first waiting job was at a banquet hall serving hundreds of salads, entrees and desserts to wedding parties, bowling leagues, and Boy Scouts. It was fun and I learned a lot but the money wasn’t very regular. I worked at a couple of other places — a teahouse and an Italian restaurant — but none of them were very interesting in the culinary sense.

Then I got a job at a Caribbean restaurant and that opened my eyes to so many possibilities. I loved the food: slow-cooked meats with tons of flavor and peas and rice. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to cook on American time. No steam table and lots of waiting.

My next job was a revelation in food: The Bakehouse Café. I was lucky enough and crazy enough to be a part of the madness and spectacular food that flew out of there for two years. Amazing soups, cakes, breads, sandwiches, flavors bursting from everything. I had never even considered a pear, brie, and Canadian bacon omelet, but I loved it. The Bakehouse was my introduction to goat cheese and beef tenderloin. It was also my introduction to cooks not showing up, waiters crying and dishwashers disappearing. Still, nothing gave me more satisfaction than setting an amazing bowl of salmon wild rice chowder in front of someone with a couple of slices of fresh French bread.

After that I briefly helped re-open The Porthole and then helped my aunt Celia open Artemisia Café. Then I got married and pregnant and took two years off to be a full-time mom. The whole time that I was home I was constantly cooking, trying to learn how to make the perfect curry, the best chicken pot pie — all on a budget of $120 a week. When economic circumstances forced me back into the working world I waited tables at a restaurant where I wouldn’t even eat the food. I felt like the lowest common denominator, serving crap on a daily basis.

To be continued next month…

— Erin Bruns