Cooking Up A Life

I was raised for a time in a place you have never lived, and have likely never visited.

Williamsburg is an off ramp of I-80, in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the Midwest.

Originally settled by German immigrants, this was the pure heartland; family farms, not yet overrun by corporate farming enterprises.

The thing I remember most vividly about this time of my life, as a very young child, was the food.

My father was a farmer then, in partnership with my grandfather. We grew food, and we ate  practically 100% of what we grew. A visit to an actual grocery store resulted in walking out with a huge bag of flour, and not much else.

By all accounts what we ate you would judge to be unremarkable. It was simple food, simple in design and in presentation.

We butchered our own cattle and hogs. Our bacon was as thick as a 2×4. The steaks and roasts were the size of a coffee table. We did slow food before it became a 50 dollar a plate entree. My mom and my grandmother both had gardens. I want to say they were about a half-acre in size, but at 5 years old, they were the size of the Garden of Eden. I frolicked through those gardens, smelling the earthy mustiness of the unearthed potatoes and onions, as big as softballs. Snap peas flourished on large vines, any number of vegetables comprised row after row of this mini-farm. I remember making frequent trips to the raspberry bushes, sneaking innumerable snacks during my visits.

The food was simple, largely organic, and came out of the ground in mammoth yields. The meals served in our kitchens and dining rooms were nothing short of monstrous. These farmers worked very hard back then, burning many thousands of calories during a typical work day. They refueled with massive portions of fresh vegetables and mountains of meat.

I can’t recall anything ever being served with a garnish or many spices, save the simple ones like garlic powder and salt/pepper. It was simple and good and served up in mega-portions at the hands of the talented women who created it.

During the summer months, the cousins would visit from Chicago for a long weekend and help the men bale hay. I can smell it now-like a freshly mowed lawn on steroids, the dust from the clovers hanging in the humid air. Grandma and Mom and I would make the big midday walk from the house out to the fields, carrying a giant picnic basket, a red and white checkered towel covering up these unbelievable summer sausage sandwiches. We’d sit on the hay rack (a trailer pulled by a tractor), and devour those sandwiches, slaking our thirst with gallons of ice-cold, fresh lemonade.

I started drinking coffee when I was 5. Black, hot and delicious. The one and only “fancy” thing I ever remember Grandma doing in the kitchen was making  pour-over coffee by hand.

When the families entertained, the food was overwhelming in quantity- the crudite was homegrown pickles and celery and carrots. Drinks were whiskey and 7-Up, Budweiser from a can. Dad would let me sneak a sip of beer while he and the cousins and Grandpa played cards. Everything was (I’ll use this word a million times in this story)…simple. To this day, I prefer no Coke in my Rum, no soda in my vodka, and not a drop of cream in my coffee!

Our bread was baked fresh. The smell filled the house with that tremendous perfume that made one want to hurtle themselves toward the pantry counter, snag a full loaf, tear it in half and sink your choppers into it. Grandma was the best baker in the universe, in my opinion. She made  sweet rolls that would make Cinnabon blush with humility.

She also made a German pastry called kringles that we would wolf down with abandon. The pretzel-shaped delicacies were created by rolling butter between layers of yeast dough and letting it rest for hours before baking.

This food was sturdy and solid; hearty and pure, consistently simple and satisfying.  It would never have been featured in a foodie mag or a TV show because it was not elegant, but it was so very, very good.

Mom watched my grandmother and she learned a lot from her. As the years went by, many of Grandma’s masterpieces continued to show up on our family dinner table, even after Dad retired from farming and we moved to “town”, when I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember it like was yesterday. I remember the taste, the texture…and the pleasure of it.

I would sit on the counter, watching my mother prepare meals, peppering her with questions- what’s that, why are you putting this on that, can I have a taste… I made my own little recipe box, to archive my simple creations that I was occasionally allowed to manufacture. Not long ago, a package arrived in the mail at my home; it was that little brown box, the artistry of an enthusiastic child preserved, to be cherished forever.

When I visit Mom and Dad, we still eat pretty simply. My Dad can’t cook much of anything, so Mom performs every task except Grillmaster.  We eat differently now. They don’t have a garden anymore but what remains consistent is the way we eat when I’m home. It’s good, it’s simple, it’s homemade. I know when I ask, “What’s for dinner?” I already know the answer. “Dad’s picking up a beef tenderloin, we’ll stop by the farmer’s market for some Fincel’s sweet corn…” I’ll challenge anyone on the planet to grow better corn-on-the-cob than these people.

This is probably less a story about food than it is about authenticity. Mom and Dad have a couple hundred thousand reasons to be pretentious, but I’ve never witnessed it. The way I was raised as a young child, and the way my parents comport themselves to this day, remains authentic. If I can be 1/3 as real as they are, I will have achieved a great success in my life. Mom and Dad know a little something about values like generosity, kindness, civility and honesty, those sadly antiquated notions of what we are supposed to be as a people. The food represented a way of living that I’m so proud to have been a witness to – sturdy, free of pretension, void of facade.

I love food, and one of the great joys I experience in this life is to cook for family and friends, break open the wine, and sit down to a fabulous meal. My skills in the kitchen have evolved over the years, and while I can make a horseradish/parmesan souffle so light it practically floats above the ramekin, and while I can whip up a pretty awesome panko-breaded halibut fillet with curry and coconut milk, garnished with a mango/cilantro chutney, I respect and remember the simplicity and pure deliciousness of the food I was raised on.

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