Tuesday, November 2, 2010 – Explore the Culinary World

The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.         – from Wikipedia


It was inevitable for me to be involved in the food industry. 

Recently, at the prompting of an article I read, I created a foodography.  Trying to go back as far as I can remember, I jotted down key points in my life involving food.  It was a whole new experience to review my life through the perspective of various dishes.  

But it started with my godparents, Samson and Loretha Butler.  Loretha and my mother had been roommates before they married their husbands.  Both also lived in the basement of the same church I’ve attended all of my life.  So when I was born, the Butlers were chosen as my godparents. 

Basic sheet cake with whipped icing

What’s key to this story is the Butlers owned a bakery.  They provided cakes and other baked goods for lots of events at our church.  And when my parents went to work, Butler’s Bakery became my day care center.  They would drop me off and I would sit in the back, watching them mix thick batters and colorful icings.  Samson fried dough and then dipped them in shiny glaze.  Loretha smoothly spread icing on sheet cakes and then planted pretty flowers on top.  I can still smell the vanilla and sugar.  And that smell is what inspired me to be a baker and chef.

Matzah balls!

The next thing I remember is being exposed to matzoh balls and chicken soup.  As an adolescent, I had a very good friend at school named David Singer.  And I remember attending his bar mitzvah and trying all of the foods prepared for the celebration.  It was also during this time that my mother sometimes did day work for a couple of Jewish families.  Again, it exposed me not only to new foods but a different culture.  I grew up with southern food or soul food as some would call it.  So to taste something other than fried chicken, liver and onions, greens and black-eyed peas was scary.  But it became exciting as I tasted the soft matzoh balls soaked in broth. 

Then, during the 70’s, there was a chain of restaurants called Annie’s Santa Fe that became very popular.  And it was there were I decided to try something other than tacos – the Chimichanga! 

The chimichanga...another fried food for me to love. It's been a long time since I've had one.

It was a tortilla stuffed with ground beef and cheese, fried and then drowned in melted cheese.  IT…WAS…DELICIOUS.  And then I tried the chile relieno…spicy, cheese and again, delicious. 

Steak tartare...raw meat with a raw egg...food safety issues have decreased the popularity of this dish.

In my twenties, I was working at the Hyatt Regency Kansas City.  My exploration of world cuisines continued with perfectly cooked and crispy duck, fresh & raw steak tartare and the sweet and spicy hoisin chicken wings.  These were dishes I served as a concierge at the hotel.  But the job also allowed me the opportunity to visit various restaurants for tastings.  There was the Berliner Bear for German cuisine…Tasso’s for Greek…and Bo Lings for Chinese.  Although they provided a roster of restaurants to recommend to travelers, it also continued to educate me about flavors and textures. 

Sweet, spicy hoisin glazed ribs with sesame seeds (credit: dinnerwith julie.com)

Over the years, I have tasted everything from frog legs to ostrich.  I have traveled the culinary globe from Europe to Mexico through visits to restaurants, hotels and special events.  But it wasn’t until I actually travelled to Italy that I really grasped the importance of culture and food.  And how we are all united. 

If you want to know the truth, I believe somewhere in my family history there’s a bloodline that originated in Italy.  There’s some marinara running through my veins with garlic and basil cells!  So when I went to Italy, there was a part of me that felt like I was home.  I felt a sense of family with the Romans and Venetians.  And I found comfort in authentic thin crust pizza and smooth gelato.

For health reasons, I suggest eating gelato every day when in Italy (photo credit: Lonely Planet website)

It always saddens me when people are resistant to trying something outside their comfort zone.  I know many people who are enjoy the “Americanized” version of a dish but almost refuse to try authentic cuisine. 

Americanized Chinese Food! There's a buffet in Kansas City serving both American fare (nuggets, mac and cheese) and Mexican items as well.

There’s a reason why some herbs and spices can be found in several cultures.  And isn’t it interesting that noodles can be found in Italian, Asian and German foods?  It’s because, historically, as people traveled to different regions of the world, they shared their culture and themselves. 

The signature dish from Red Snapper restaurant in south Kansas City

The focus this month is on all of the various foods we consume.  I’ll cover the good, the bad, and the fattening!  I’ll present the importance of food…and it’s dangers.  And along the way, I just ask that you think about your perspective of food.  Do you focus on food for its health benefits?  Or do you seek the pleasure?  Do you struggle with it?  Does it challenge you or torment you? 

I also ask one other thing – explore your world.  Sometime this month, step out of your food comfort zone, and try authentic cuisine from a different country.  It can be from a restaurant, food cart, food truck, etc.  Or maybe break bread with a neighbor or co-worker by asking them to show you how to prepare a native dish from their country.  It might open you up to a whole new world.  Bon Appetite!


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