Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let There Be: Cooking and the Creation of Food, part 1

My bachelor meals consisted mostly of instant mashed potatoes and homemade fried chicken.  Sometimes canned corn, too.

When I was somewhere between 5 and 6 years old I wanted to be a fireman.  Me, and every boy in America, that is, wanted to be a fireman when we were so young and impressionable that the only occupation we could truly comprehend is so full of valor, bravery, danger, and overall manliness.  Soon we start to understand that there are, presumably, other options.  And that’s when I decided that when I grew up I would be a chemist. 
                What, pray tell, does a chemist do?  According to my once limited knowledge, a chemist experiments with chemicals and compounds, creating new ones for only two purposes: 1) to blow stuff up, and 2) to cure cancer.  I, somewhat fuzzily, remember my Uncle Emil asking me when I was a young’un, what I wanted to do as a chemist, and my answer was to cure cancer (would that I could).  That’s roughly when the theme of creation entered into the definition of who I wanted to become.  I wanted to MAKE stuff.  To create.  And my brain was so wired that the external expression of those internal urges was to, at the time, know more about the microscopic realm and to use that knowledge to mold and make new things.  “Chemicals” that would cure diseases.  And, of course, other chemicals to blow stuff up.
                As public schooling tends to do, it dulled my dreams more than it inspired them.  By the time I was nearly finished with middle school I didn’t think much about what I was looking forward to for the rest of my life.  And, no offenses toward my parents, but they were in the midst of a divorce, so my transition from boyhood into manhood was one I was left to battle on my own, with whatever counsel and guidance I gleaned from my peers and grandparents.  Luckily the local trade school was making its rounds to the area schools to garner recruits who would forgo the usual high school for something more intriguing, and something they claimed was more promising.  It was their program in culinary arts that piqued my interest.  At that point I already enjoyed cooking, if only it was to help my grandmother prepare meals.  And my palate was finally growing away from Kraft Mac’n’Cheese to my grandfather’s home baked macaroni and cheese.  From frozen fish sticks to grandma’s chicken and noodles.  (I was an incredibly picky eater as a child.  I remember crying at the dinner table for hours because I wasn’t allowed to leave until I ate my peas, or the stew lovingly made by my mother. )

My skills at graphic designer weren't half-bad. I designed these name tags.

                Taking my cue from the visitors from Oliver Wolcott Regional Vocational Technical High School, and yes that is its real, ridiculously long name, I decided to head towards their culinary program.  To get into the program of your liking every student first had to take 3 days trials of each of the 12 shops offered by the trade school, then a 10 trial of each of their 3 favorite shops, and from there you would choose your preferred shop, and the school would place the top 20-25 contenders into each shop, depending on their academic performance, and aptitude for that trade.  In this process not everyone would get into the shop they wanted, and be turfed to a less desired one.  For most of the students this less preferred shop was culinary arts.  Because of its aptitude for mediocrity, and its lack of passionate teachers or students (at least while I was there) cooking lost the attractiveness I once saw in it.  I, instead, decided to study graphic communications for the following three and a half years. 
                I liked graphics.  A lot.  Primarily because it allowed me to externalize the same drive to create that both “chemistry” and cooking allowed.  But the post 9/11 economy, which no young adult should ever have to exit high school into (I graduated early summer, 2002), wasn’t receptive to my half-assed attempts to get a graphic design job.  I had one night job during my fall semester at college that lasted all of a month before I was laid-off.  And it was barely related to graphic design, as I merely washed and prepped large silk screens.

Building a solid wall and steps is still more straightforward and simple than making a hollandaise.  Except when there's building inspectors involved in the former!

                From there my main creative outlet for nearly 6 years was carpentry, masonry, and landscaping.  Which was fine, for the time.  I barely paid the bills, but I was able to create.  Houses, sidewalks, chimneys, fences, lawns, and so much more.  As all things tend to do, that came to a sad end.  I got a much steadier job, but with it came a very limited capacity to create.  It was at that same time that my, at that time, girlfriend (then fiancée, now wife) finished college and came home.  I rediscovered my long lost love for cooking as a form of creation.  I could now cook for more than just my lonely bachelor self! 
In these brief two years not only have I been practicing the craft, but I’ve been educating myself.  Recipe aren’t good enough, because they so limit one to cooking that dish alone.  I want to learn to cook, and to create new foods.  When I was much younger I took piano lessons for a couple years, and I had two books I had to study from: one book with pieces I would have to practice and learn, but the other book, whose purpose I didn’t know enough to appreciate at the time, was called “Piano Theory” and taught music.  I now thirst for these “Cooking Theory” books like my life depends on it.  They aid me in expanding my creative abilities, and applying them to all manner of dishes and ingredients.
The drive to create has defined me for as long as I remember.  I believe the desire to create defines all of us, to an extent, and that is what part two will concern.  The creation of food is my passion, if only to say I made something … anything.  Unlike a stone wall, though, I can now eat my creations.  Well … most of them.

At last my skills are finely honed into the worlds absolute best baked macaroni and cheese with smoked gouda, creamy havarti,  sharp cheddar, carmelized onions, double smoked bacon, and a panko/Parmesan crust on top.

“The Olive Garden recently sponsored a contest where the winner wins a trip to Italy.  I don’t know about you but I personally am hoping the winner is their chef.” – Conan O’Brien, December 14, 2010


  1. catherine burgess pattersonDecember 16, 2010 at 9:15 PM

    when i cook it is always an experiment. i wonder how this would taste with that. i love to eat and it has always and forever shall be. i told someone i love to cook and they said the truth was that i love to eat. after getting upset and doubting myself i realized I LOVE TO COOK!!!. Ask George Smith some time about the green peppers i put in a salad for a picnic once.i love the finished product of my experiments.

  2. And where is the recipe for this Mac and Cheese??? Looks and sounds awesome!

  3. I used Alton Browns recipe from his show Good Eats:

    Except instead of 12 oz of cheddar I used 2 oz, with 5 oz. smoked Gouda and 5 oz. creamy Havarti. When adding the cheese I also added some bacon and some caramelized onions I had prepared before hand. And I added about 1/2 cup of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano to the breadcrumb and butter topping. The whole dish takes a surprising amount of prep work, so I don't make it often, but when I do it sure is special.