My culinary journey began in childhood even though I didn’t know it at the time. My neighborhood, as well as the larger community, held a mix of families from all over Europe: Poles, Czechs, Swiss, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Irish. These families immigrated to places where others shared their interests, beliefs, language, and history. On a daily basis, this meant that I heard Italian spoken at the barbershop, German at the bakery, and Polish at the corner store.
My friends, the children raised in these families, lived in two worlds. In school, nothing differentiated us: boys wore uniforms of navy blue pants, white shirts, and ties bearing the school emblem. Girls mirrored these colors in jumpers, blouses, beanies, and knee socks. All shared similar interests and played on the same teams, but when I visited their homes, I witnessed another reality—even the air was different. Smells coming from the kitchen spoke of some mysterious alchemy. We were greeted in the language of the home, and my friend would remind his mother to speak English. An admonishment I couldn’t understand came in reply, and then conversation slipped into English, well sort of, and as grandparents joined the conversation I understood nothing at all.
The glue that held it all together was the food. You can bake love into a loaf of bread and share it. This is where I began learning how food traditions pass from generation to generation. And that for all the things kids reject, I don’t know anyone raised on kielbasa and pierogies, or ragú alla Bolognese who doesn’t go out of their way to get the real thing. I was lucky to have shared the real thing within the context of their families.
This early education led me to culinary school where I learned the French classical way of doing things. My heavily stained, dog-eared copy of Le Répertoire de La Cuisine reminds me of hours spent whittling vegetables, preparing aspics, pâtés, galantines, and making sure I had accurately replicated the serving mandates for Tournadoes du Beef, Pompadour: cook in butter, garnish with artichoke bottoms filled with noisette potatoes, Choron sauce on top of the tournadoes, serve with Périgueux sauce.
And then the cooking scene changed. The old rules were discarded like three-day-old fish and experimentation became the rule. One might pick up a menu at a restaurant featuring Nouvelle Cuisine and see Brain Salad with Mustard Ice Cream. I probably passed on that one, but developed my own ideas as I worked at high-end restaurants in the resort town of Stowe, Vermont. I explored the regional culinary heritage, and discovered that what is typically considered traditional Vermont food is based on the input of many ethnic groups over many years and continues to evolve.
My first book, North Country Gourmet: A Vermont Chef Cooks at Home came out in 1991. I wanted to share the kind of food I made at home based on local ingredients purchased, grown in my garden, or foraged from surrounding fields and forest. My timing could have been better, it was published 10 years before the Localvore movement took hold.
Since that book hit the market the food culture in Vermont, as elsewhere, has gone through a metamorphosis. The Vermont Fresh Network partners restaurants and farms with the aim of serving local, fresh food while maintaining the state’s agricultural heritage. Vermont now boasts the highest per capita number of cheese makers and brewers in the United States. That’s right cheese AND beer! Year-round farmers markets are found throughout the state. Fresh local meats, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruits, maple syrup and other products can now be purchased at food co-ops, independent groceries, and have made in-roads into some of the chain supermarkets.
A rocket scientist once told me that you just have to get over it and embrace your nerdiness. I recognized this about myself long ago—I need to know the how and the why. Working with food involves chemistry and physics, and much as I would like to avoid it. . . math. History, geography, ethnicity, climate, and a number of other influences also factor into the equation as do my own ideas rising from experience, travel, training, and personal preferences; in other words, a lifetime of eating and drinking and cooking.
My background includes a B.A. in Fine Arts, M.A. History, and M.A. Education. In addition to a cookbook I published Julian Scott: Artist of the Civil War and Native America. Besides a whole host of cooking jobs, my curriculum vitae includes paper boy, shoe salesman, emptying and cleaning swimming pools (in trade jargon referred to as the crap crew), dishwasher, life guard, truck unloader, house painter, ditch-digger, swamper for a D8 on a gas pipeline, ski mechanic, illustrator, middle school teacher, school director of a hockey academy, and working with special needs kids. Now that I see it in print it looks like a police line-up.
My motive is to share what I have learned from cooking professionally and from observing how other cooks do things. In the kitchen it’s remarkable how many means lead to the same end. I plan to post recipes, cooking techniques, step-by-step photos, and whatever else comes to mind. Hopefully, there is another book in this venture—that’s the plan anyway. I look forward to your comments and questions and feedback. Those of us who love food tend to travel in packs.
I like to eat comfort foods, traditional family recipes, ethnic dishes, barbecue, and things I’ve never tasted before. I’m not going to use truffle oil unless truffles start growing in my dooryard or someone hands me a bagful. I’ve used it in restaurants, but that’s not what I want at home. High quality ingredients do not necessarily mean high-priced ingredients. It’s true that by necessity some things cost more than others, but there is a balance to this problem. I’d rather have one piece of really good bacon than 3 pieces of crummy bacon.
Like every cook I’ve ever met, I love gadgets and gizmos. I am going to feature my favorite tools, ones given to me, those found in antique stores and at garage sales, family heirlooms, and wherever else I stumble upon them. My two-handed cleaver for splitting ox carcasses doesn’t get a lot of use, but I would never part with it. For some reason these devices and doo-dads end up in the back of drawers, the back of the pantry, and generally out-of-the-way. Don’t let anyone throw them away. Cooks love these little treasures.