Wednesday, November 2, 2011

0078: "Open Letter to My Niece" - For Rachel

This was the "first" step in our culinary journey.
It brings a smile to my face every time I think of her distrusting face,
but then slowly stuffing a giant marshmallow in her tiny mouth
and then the unbelievably huge smile that followed. 
About a month ago I read this letter and immediately felt connected to Tracy Sestili (the author). My niece Rachel is 13 years old and I must say has a great pallet for her age. Granted she insisted that I let her taste truffled scrambled eggs when she was 5 years old - which she loved! Ever since then we have been on a fun, or at least interesting, culinary ride. Her taste buds are still developing and she still doesn't like some mainstream items such as tomatoes and shrimp. But she tends to be open-minded and tries things more than once knowing that her taste buds are changing and that not all cooks are equal. So, here is the fabulous letter - I hope you enjoy it too...

"For my niece ... Because the internet will be around forever and I will not.
I worry and wonder if you’ll discover the flavors of the world given you are such a picky eater now. Because your parents are not world travelers, I wonder if it’ll take you as long as it took me to discover that fruit can be delicious year round and that the heirloom tomato is far superior to Jersey tomatoes. I wonder if you will continue to despise everything green as you get older and worry you’ll miss out on green delicacies like California avocados and Japanese edamame.
When I was your age, I did not spend a lot of time in the kitchen. As I got older and started living on my own, I wished I had paid more attention to how my mother made her meatballs or how my grandmother made apple pie and a crust from scratch. I do still have both of their recipe boxes filled with recipes where some are handwritten, some typed, and somewhere it’s just the ingredients and I’m left blindly to figure it out on my own. Oh, if only the internet had been around fifty years ago.
They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and I did learn a few staples over the years from my mother that have paved my way to many of men’s hearts. I know how to make spaghetti sauce from scratch, but even if I measured everything exact, it still never quite tasted like my mother’s “gravy.” I’d give you the recipe but I recently learned that you don’t even like pasta! My ears almost fell off of my head when I heard. How can you be 50 percent Italian and not like pasta? I started to think that there was a switch at the hospital but then I recalled that the other 50 percent of you is Irish, from your mother, who ironically happens to also not like pasta with red sauce. Mamma mia!
You’re a beautiful mixture of Irish and Italian, yet your taste buds are 100 percent American and were bred on chicken nuggets and French fries. So, it’s no wonder that I fret that you will not discover how delicious fresh beets can actually taste if made in a salad with a lemon-olive oil dressing where the beets are not pickled. I worry that you won’t discover that as gross as Brussels sprouts tasted when our parents made them, that they can actually be deliciously sweet and a great addition to pork if sautéed with caramelized shallots. 

I wonder that if your mother and I are not around and you have a cooking question, who you will call? Will you consult the internet? Will you know that you need to take the gizzards out of the turkey or else you’ll kill your guests? Will you know that you need to shell the fava beans then blanch and remove the second skin otherwise your bowels will not be happy? Will you know that your meat needs to rest after you cook it to seal in the juices? I actually didn’t learn that about meat until I was forty as I had given up meat because of your grandmother’s leather-like pork chops. 
I am sure that you’ll probably know how to bake because you have a sweet tooth much like your Aunt. I hope that you will find a friend to bake holiday cookies with, a tradition my best friend and I had when we lived close by one another. Although you never met your great grandmother Laquintano, I know you will not give out her family pizzelle recipe and will learn to choose wisely as to who to make pizzelles for since they are so time consuming and a true labor of love.
I can only hope that you will try things more than once when tasting food. As I’ve learned that much like subjects in school that depend on the teacher, food depends on the chef. I did not care for pork for years and I only knew of pork chops on the bone until someone showed me how delicious pork tenderloin could be, especially one with a maple glaze. I’ve also learned that food can take many forms and taste different depending on the preparation. Know that your taste buds change every seven years and those things you didn’t like before, you may learn to love as you get older and it’s totally okay.
I also pray and hope that corporate America has not rid us of the farmers when you get older and that you support your local farmer’s market when possible. It’s a magical place. One where you’ll discover vegetables and fruits you had never tried or even seen before and also where you’ll find that there are a dozen different types of peaches and apples. It’s the place where when you go home and cook up what you just bought, you’ll discover how delicious fresh food tastes over processed packaged food at the supermarket and secretly wish the Farmer’s market was open every day.
I hope that you learn that food is both your friend and your enemy. You never feel good when you overindulge and everything in moderation is a reward in and of itself, including chocolate. I hope you know that it is not okay to eat a gallon of ice cream—ever, even if a guy breaks your heart. My broken heart led me to San Francisco where I not only met your Uncle but also discovered a culinary experience far beyond my wildest dreams. I discovered the earthiness of fresh truffles, the decadence of pate and caviar, the sensuality of sushi, the creamy taste of avocados, the sweetness of figs and that dates really are nature’s candy, and the bursting mouth-watering flavor of Heirloom tomatoes. I discovered that there really is bad wine and there are some fantastic wines. I learned that some wine is not for sipping but for imbibing with a meal and they will complement each other like a necklace to a dress.
I hope that you understand that if you are lucky enough to be cooked for, that you should be grateful. Since every meal, when home cooked, is always a labor of love and even if it doesn’t taste great, you should always remember to say thank you to the chef.
I hope you get the opportunity as I have to eat your way through Italy, Spain and France. These are the things I hope you don’t miss out on and that you discover for yourself and the sake of your palate.
With love.

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