Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Damn. Now I want a cream puff.


My livelihood, my life. That which not only brings home the bacon but also fries it up in a pan.

My interest in food ebbs and flows, much like the mood swings of a hormonally-imbalanced, slightly promiscuous, and hyperactive 16 year-old girl.

My introduction in cooking and food started long ago in a little town in northern MN in a little farmhouse tucked in the woods. Both of my parents came from hardy do-it-yourself German/Scandinavian stock. I believe their family mottoes were "Just suck it up and do it lazyass!" and "What are you, some kind of sissy?", respectively.
In the summer we had three gardens bigger in area than our house, apple trees, plum trees, currant bushes and rhubarb everywhere. We grew potatoes, onions, carrots, green & wax beans, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, rutabaga, turnips, lettuce, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and sunflowers.

We lived in a house in the far west corner of Duluth until I was in-between my kindergarten & 1st grade years. Our neighborhood in Duluth was starting to slide downhill (didn't I know it! We lived next door to one kid that ate sand and another that liked to take the occasional shit on the sidewalk) and my parents decided we needed to get out. There was a series of books, called The Foxfire Books that were making the rounds among my parents and their friends. The books were written about a self-sufficient community in the Appalachian Mountains that was basically isolated from the rest of the world. They lived off the land in the truest sense of the word. I was transfixed by these books. Until I started reading them I never knew that you could make your own soap! Who knew?
With these books as their guide, my parents moved us to the little house on 40 acres surrounded by fields, woods, ponds and farms.

As I got older I hated every second of it. But, our isolation on our little homestead is the reason I learned to cook and became the crafty, resourceful person I am today.

As we were not exactly well-off, the bi-weekly trip to the grocery store was meant to stock up on staples (flour, sugar, etc...) and things to supplement the several freezers of locally-procured (and sometimes raised by us) meat, a room full of home-canned goods, and the root cellar in the basement. Things like the much-beloved pre-sweetened cereals and store-bought cookies rarely made the cut. If we bought soda, it was always the el cheapo Shasta- never Coke or Pepsi. You had Mountain Dew, I had "Moon Mist". My parents even attempted to make our own root beer once. I'm sure it was delicious, but because it didn't come in an A&W can we turned our noses up at it. Ingrates.

So, out of necessity I learned to cook. Want cookies? Bake them your damn self, I learned.
Our kitchen was where I taught myself how to make pate a choux dough for cream puffs that I filled with ice cream and topped with melted chocolate at age 10. I learned the hard way that flour and powdered sugar aren't interchangeable just because they're both white and powdery. I started tinkering with Asian recipes, with a goopy "Moo goo gaipan" as my first foray into this type of cooking, and my first time using the wok properly.

It never occurred to me that I had a marketable skill and a notable talent with this cooking thing. For me it was always just a way to eat the things I wanted to- I could change recipes to include more of the things I liked and less of the things I didn't. I never saw this as anything to be proud of, and in fact I was always a bit embarrassed that I "had" to learn how to cook because we were kind of poor.
After high school I rarely used this skill. I lived on macaroni & cheese, ramen, PB&J's and Hamburger helper. McDonald's and Little Caesar's pizza saw me more often than any of my cookbooks did. A typical lunch for me in college was a bag of Gardetto's Snackens and a diet coke.
I cooked for all of my friends exactly one time those first years after high school- stuffed pasta shells with homemade marinara, walnut & parmesan crostini appetizers and a salad. It was a hit, and I love love loved each and every compliment or "thank-you" that I received. I'm pretty sure that was the moment I realized the power that food had. We all came together as a group, we shared an o.k. meal and we had a good time. For me, that's what it's all about, plain and simple. Food should be fun.

When you do it for a living, sometimes it's fun and sometimes it's not. It's amazingly creative, you're not confined to an office and you get to play with food.
When you pull off an amazingly intricate preparation without a hitch- you think that cooking is the most perfect of all jobs and why the hell wouldn't anyone NOT want to do this? A Saturday night where you pull off 250 covers and not one thing goes wrong? Not so much as one refire? Well, it makes you a little misty in your undies sometimes, the feeling is that good. When your students actually listen, take interest in, and manage to successfully complete a difficult cooking project? Well, it makes you happier than Paris Hilton in a hall of mirrors.

But when it's bad- it will suck your soul clean out of your body, stomp all over your pride, kick you in the crotch and then piss on you, just for good measure. Your body will feel like you were dragged behind a dump truck on a logging trail for 2 hours. You will be prone to irrational anger. You will throw things. You all will drink too much after the shift to try and forget how much it sucked. You will stink. Your feet will look like hamburger. You will hate mankind as a whole.

But deep down you know you still love it. No normal person would subject themselves to the sort of torture that we food people do unless they loved what they were doing. Some of the most creative, talented, artistic, addicted, brilliant, scary, fucked-up, hilarious and entertaining people in the world are your co-workers. You eat well, you drink well and you have inappropriate relationships in store rooms. You create memories- some you want to lock in a box and save forever, some you wish would disappear the instant they are made.

But most of all, you have a great time.

Not sure where I'm going with this post- I've just been thinking about my job, my skill, my passion, my livelihood today.
My on-again, off-again love affair with this vocation of mine.

I'm wondering where I'm going with it, what my next step is. Will I guide the direction or will the vocation guide me?

It's just what I'm thinking about today. No reason.


lizgwiz said...

Well, now I want to go live on a 40-acre farm and raise my own vegetables. ;)

Mostly, though, I'm a little jealous that you get to make a living with your passion. For the most part I've had to settle for working a job I don't hate, and doing what I love in my "spare" time. Maybe that will change some day. (Okay, maybe I have to figure out a way to MAKE it change.)

One of our favorite things to do in college was get together and prepare a "real" meal. We didn't get to do it too often, but we always had so much fun!

nancypearlwannabe said...

WM, did you go to a culinary school? I can't remember how you became a chef, but damn if all your meals don't sound amazing.

-R- said...

My career is so much less interesting.

I love this post.

Whiskeymarie said...

lizgwiz- I want the 40-acre farm now too. Sigh.

NPW- Yes I did, about 10 years ago.

-r- "Interesting" is a very good word for my career. Not always good, not always bad, but always interesting.

CDP said...

If there's any justice in the world, the "direction" will include a wildly successful tv cooking show and a series of bestselling cookbooks. Awesome post.

Anonymous said...

Who has been guiding you so far? You or the vocation?

Probably a bit of both.

Hope you continue to have a great time!


Gretta said...

Oh honey, you should TOTALLY write a cookbook!!! But no recipes for "Feet Hamburgers" please.

Chiada said...

I really enjoyed this post on a lot of different levels.

The first thing that struck me is how my mother has that same Scandinavian attitude as your parents, her motto being "Buck up!". No sickies allowed around her, nope. (BTW, my mom has a ton of relatives in MN and WIS, and she lived there for a time as well, so we are familiar with that area and way of life.)

The other thing I appreciated was your parent's decision to move to the country and grow their own food. Hub-E and I dream of doing that someday. I don't know what it is about being self-sufficient, living off the land, and all that. Isolation, yes. But being free of materialism, crime, greed, pollution, and crowds? Excellent.

Lastly, I loved reading as you reflected on your job. Hub-E is an excellent cook in our household. He learned from cooking at a german restaurant in Florida many years ago. But one day, he was fed up with the stress. He took his apron off and threw it at his boss as he yelled "I Quit!" and stormed out. Thankfully they reconciled and are still friends to this day. But, because of Hub-E's experience, he says he will never be a chef for a living. Too stressful, he says.

Well, to each his own. Some people can deal with it and others can't.

Anyhoo, have fun cooking!

rcubed said...

I grew up on a 20 acre "farm" in Oregon--unfortunately my parents came from Los Angeles, and they did not consult any books. so. lots of trial and error there. I have a vivid memory of my dad chasing an escaped pig around the property until they were both near death.
I admire anyone who can honestly say they love their job. why do you have to go anywhere else with it? are you thinking you'll get bored teaching?

NotSoccer Mom said...

wow, i didn't realize what you did for a living. it sounds amazing! and maybe writing a cookbook is a good idea--after all, we all love your writing!

Stacey said...

There is a chef in me just waiting to get out...either that or I was a chef in a former life. I have this weird obsession with the Food Network and certain shows (Iron Chef America) yet I am never adventurous nor do I really act on that when cooking for my family. Go figure..
Anyhoo, isn't it funny that you can be so passionate about something but when it is your career , your livelihood, the way in which you make often is not the fun it may have been when it was just a mere hobby.

Failcooks said...

Agreed, on all accounts.

Not to mention you're about the sexiest damn thing in a chef's coat I've ever seen (Tony Bourdain, aka our boyfriend, notwithstanding).

McGone said...

This post accurately captures that swell of pride I get every time I make toast.

I'm not much of a cook. I wish I was. I watch Food Network more than I should... and sometimes it's even shows that don't have Giada in them.

Sornie said...

It sounds that even from growing up in a pretty iffy neighborhood that you took an interest and turned it into a passionate career. Those are the type of careers that last.

dguzman said...

Whiskey, when you're making something like "pate a choux dough for cream puffs that I filled with ice cream and topped with melted chocolate at age 10" and "stuffed pasta shells with homemade marinara, walnut & parmesan crostini appetizers and a salad" in the "first years after high school" -- you're pretty much a LOCK to be a chef, man. Don't turn your back on your calling.

I think both my parents' family mottos were "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!"

I agree with the other commenters who say you should do your own cookbooks--or get your own TV show! You'd be WAY better than Rachel Ray, and that boring lady's got a show!

Beret said...

We're living out in the woods and raising our own beef, but when my kids get soda (rarely, yes) I get them the good brands. Not the ELF soda (anyone remember that stuff?) my parents bought us.

Out here in NY the generic brand is Surefine. It's sure fine!

Anyway, I agree you should write a cookbook or do a show.

Devilham said...

Great post. I sorely miss my days on the line (a severely broken leg forced me to retire my number 4 years ago) and not a week goes by where I don't have a stress dream involving going into service woefully underprepped. I feel for my poor wife for all those years, because I definately drank too much after shifts, staggered home nye incoherent, and smelled like a dead fish rolled in Mayo (My last real cooking job was at the Meritage Resteraunt in the Boston Harbor Hotel, I worked the middle of the line, so seafood was pretty much my responsibility most nights).

Now I wear a tie to work I miss completely flipping out on some poor waitstaff person, I just don't get to do that in an office environment...much (I sneak it in sometimes when I know I can get away with it Tee hee!)

punchlinewalking said...

I love this post! I so want a job where I feel passionate one way or another. Now I can barely muster a "it was fine" when my husband asks me how my day was.

Stacy said...

Why we do what we do ... we're totally nuts, koo-koo, off our rockers and just plain bonkers.

Love this post, love your pix. My cheffies NEVER are that white. How do you DO that??



nanners said...

where did you live in D-town? or at least give me some hints or landmarks. I've never been able to pinpoint it and my curiosity is killing me.

Landis said...


favorite post ever. and i think the one that is probably most true to your real "voice".

thank you for that gift.

L Sass said...

i cannot imagine doing anything that's not desk bound... I think because my job allows me to zone out once in a while. I admire the way your career requires you to be "on" all the time!

Gwen said...

My parents owned ALL of the Foxfire Books. In fact I think my dad finally replaced her raggedy set with new ones just a couple years ago. All kidding aside, they were fascinating.

We also had the Book of Lists, a book that had lists of things like
(from wikipedia): famous people who died during sex, The world's greatest libel suits, People suspected of being the real Jack the Ripper, Worst places to hitchhike, People misquoted by Ronald Reagan, Breeds of dogs which bite people the most.

I would sit for hours reading these books. I'm still a geek.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

My crazy rageaholic aunt used to make root beer and I'd take a sip and I'd spit it out. We too had the huge ass garden and we canned what we didn't eat during the summer. Sometimes I miss the fresh canned stuff but I never ever miss that swill she tried to pass off as root beer.

Mariposa said...

Love this post...and it made me reflect as well...

And you look great!

domboy said...

Many of my most persistent and cherised memories have been meals friends have prepared for me.

Katrin said...

You remind me of Catherine Zeta Jones in "No Reservations" in the first picture. Very pretty!!!
I learned to cook in school (officially I am a junior chef, but don't tell!) but I don't like it - I don't have any talent. People taste the lack of love when they try my food. :(
However, I was also raised in a make your damn Christmas cookies yourself kind of household. So I can get by.

Mommy Lisa said...

Can we throw Rachel Ray down some stairs so you can take over her 10 cooking shows? I am quite sure you could cook and interview celebrities with better food and more interesting questions!

Where the heck are you cooking! I am hungry! Walnut-parmesean crustini...mmmmmm.

Suze said...

What a great post. But then, you are a great gal. We also drank Shasta growing up. I think it builds character!

Bill Hipps said...

Loved the Foxfire books...our family was from the mountains in Western North Carolina and they really hit home.

LaLa said...

This was great. I love food stories.

feisty said...

lovely ppst. i liked the honesty when it came to your college meals...

gardettos. blech!

pistols at dawn said...

Perhaps I missed the point, but what happened to the promiscuous 16 year old girl?

I am a terrible cook, but I am great at eating. It's sort of like my skill at sitting on a couch: not marketable, but Olympic-level regardless.

Viola said...

Am I going to see you on the next Top Chef?

Nocturnal said...

"Food. My livelihood, my life."

Must be nice skinny bones, you look like you eat once a week young lady.

You guys have a nice weekend over there.


Inarticulate Fumblings said...

Shasta... my mom would try and pour it into a glass and pass it off as Coke. It didn't work with the cheap ass ketchup she squeezed into the Heinz bottle and it wasn't going to work with the soda.

We lived on an acreage twenty miles out of town. Shopping trips were a major event. Even more so once Costco landed and we could drive there in LESS THAN AN HOUR!!!

I didn't know you were a chef. I did all my cooking school before University. I love doing it for friends now but it would have been the death of me had I stayed in it. Good on you. You're stronger than I am. The coworkers alone... *shudder* Mind you, I'm not quite sure why I got into counseling psychology. You should see the nut bars I go to school with.

Serena said...

I think the best people to ask are women who like having their toes sucked.