I have a secret I have to admit. Although I now feel like the reigning queen of all things Italian, including food, there was once a time when the idea of something wrapped in a tiny package, stuffed with cheese, and covered in sauce had no appeal to me.
I remember very clearly an evening at the dinner table when I was perhaps four or five years old. On my plate was a serving of ravioli, and there they rested for some time. Because my mom believed in the “you-either-eat-this-or-nothing” philosophy, I had very little choice but to succumb to the pressure of taking a bite of the Italian cheese pillows. I cannot recall what I thought after those initial bites, but I do remember the aftermath: me, isolated in the living room with a grape freeze pop watching as my mother cleaned up what remained of my dinner…on the floor.
Looking back now I find it rather hysterical that there was actually a time when ravioli and other items such as lasagna were things I dared not to touch. When I was younger and I harassed my mother about what would be for dinner, she knew exactly what things would make me perk up and what would make me sneak to the closet for a snack before dinner. Amusingly, I preferred the taste of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to the natural, creamy cheese fillings typical of many Italian preparations.
Italian items were not the only things on my would-not-eat list. To this day I do not understand the concept and recipe for American Chop-Suey. My grandmother (the non-Italian, Portuguese grandma) always liked to serve us grandkids this New England dish made of ground beef and elbow macaroni in a thick tomato sauce. The secret to the sauce’s thickness? Ketchup. In what world ketchup and pasta should ever mix I do no know of one. To Italians, this dish commits multiple sins. Not only does it combine meat and pasta together, a rarity in Italian cooking except for a few exceptions such as pasta Bolognese, lasagna, and pancetta-laced sauces, it also uses ketchup as a tomato substitute. Perhaps this was the dish that made me realize that real Italian dishes like ravioli were not that bad after all.
And of course there were other things I would not touch. Artichokes? Nope. Avocados and guacamole? Nowhere near my tacos. Sloppy joe sandwiches? Never in a million years. Possibly even more pathetic than my refusal ravioli was my dislike for mashed potatoes. How could someone, especially a young child, not like mashed potatoes!? For me, there was something about the texture that was just not appealing…
Although I might have refused my fair share of my meals and ordered only chicken fingers when out at restaurants, my palate has refined itself dramatically over the years. Who would have ever thought that the little girl who once became sick over cheese ravioli would grow up to be someone who orders octopus in Greece and searches out menus for anywhere that might serve duck? Someone who does not reject the coniglio, rabbit, her host mother serves for dinner? Someone who spends her free time reading food blogs and researching recipes? Someone who devotes an entire Sunday afternoon to cooking Boeuf Bourguignon for her family? Not me, that is for sure.
Julia Child said she was 32 years old when she started cooking because “up until then, I just ate.” Ever since I started cooking in high school, food and spending time in the kitchen have become two of my passions. Even when I struggled with food issues and thought anything on the plate posed a significant threat to my body, I eventually grew to appreciate the complexity of food and its appeal to renew the body and spirit. I came to view cooking as a lively experiment, a comfortable method of exposure to food. As I searched for recipes, I learned what ingredients worked well with others and which did not. I learned that coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant; oregano means “joy of mountain” (thank you, Rachael Ray); caramelizing onions is a slow process that requires patience and careful attention; a watched pot really does seem never to boil; and so long as it does not come in a green can, cheese does really make everything taste better
By being in the kitchen, I realized that there was more to life than a blue box with a bag of orange powder.