Elisha: Once in an interview at a Pearl District restaurant, I was asked why I got into cooking. I had an answer immediately, although I was cut off by a server’s question to my interviewer. I replied, “ I got into cooking because I grew up eating such terrible food.” I was given a look that clearly revealed that I wouldn’t be his choice for the next line-cook.
Until the age of seven, I remember having delicious food at my grandma’s house in Tennessee. It was typical Southern fare: pork chops, pot roast, mashed potatoes, chicken, and always biscuits or rolls. I also remember eating good food when at home with my mom. My mom occasionally took me out for fast food—which I loved—such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. She tells me that we stopped at a doughnut shop, to her regret, every once in a while on my way to school. Of course, I didn’t regret that one bit.
At the age of seven I moved with my dad, where I stayed until I was seventeen. There I was introduced to strange, bland foods that I was at first reluctant to try. “You never know until you try it,” I was told for my first year of living there. It wasn’t good. First of all, there was never red meat at the table, and rarely any white meat. Also lacking were salt and flavor. We ate lots of vegetables, brown rice, tofu, tempeh, Soysage, and textured vegetable protein. Apparently, according to my dad and stepmother, healthy food had to taste bland. The only seasoning that was ever used was either Tamari or nutritional yeast. I remember one occasion, when my stepmother made mustard soup; I’ll never forget the taste of that most vile bowl of bile-colored yellow soup made with mustard greens and yellow or Dijon mustard. From the color, I think it was yellow mustard. It smelled and tasted like eating warm mustard mixed with water. I took a few slurps, and with no holding back, puked those spoonfuls right back into the bowl. Traumatizing.
Another bad soup experience I had was the vegetable soup that got me in BIG trouble. It was basically potatoes and vegetables in water with a bay leaf thrown in for “flavor.” And it tasted like vegetables in water. My stepmother asked me if the soup was bad, mediocre, or good. With out much of a pause, I replied, “mediocre.” Wrong answer. My stepmother began to bawl at my harsh critique. At least I didn’t say it was bad. Regardless, my dad scolded me for stating the obvious.
Speaking of puking, I remember a few occasions when, while I was eating, I was given herbal extracts to “fortify” my diet. Herbal extracts are mostly grain alcohol, and not good for washing down health brand Cheerio-type cereal. The healthy O’s escaped from my stomach, to land on the floor.
One good thing that I learned from eating at my dad’s house, however, was that homegrown vegetables taste the best. I’ll never forget the taste of those tomatoes kissed by the hot Tennessee sun—oh, and topping those tomatoes with cottage cheese, too. Too bad those only lasted a couple months out of the year. Those summer months were also spent with my mother so I rarely got to sample those delicious homegrown tomatoes.
But I did look forward to spending my summers with my mom. She lived in places like Atlanta, L.A., and New York, and she gave me my first experiences in cultural cuisine such as Thai and sushi at a young age. When I was visiting my mom, I was in heaven. I would finally get my break from eating bland vegetables and tofu; with my mom, I ate flavorful vegetables and tofu along—with long-missed foods such as pizza and hamburgers.
Maybe obtaining the knowledge of what bad food is, and how to detect it has pushed me forward in my culinary conquests to find and make great food. Bland, over-cooked, and/or under-cooked food IS bad food. I am aware of what foods are good for the body, but there is also a place for food that makes you mentally happy. I would rather eat a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos, than a plate of limp, lifeless, un-seasoned asparagus. Period.