As published at The Lake County Bloom.
My mother used to say “I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” whenever she was about to unload something that had been bothering her…for a while…like gnawing at her. I’m not sure why she ever let it get to that point but she did and when the time came, she had her say.
My uncle used to say "I gnawed it to the bone" by which he meant, I did all I could, tried everything and no, it wasn't result you’d wanted. There is a dog with a bone. Bonehead means stupidly asinine. Boner…never mind. Dry as a bone. Bag of bones. I enjoy the term bare-bones which I use to describe anything supremely stripped to its primal form, free of embellishment and superfluous niceties.
In the world of food, bone is the greatest dichotomy, full of life and taste, and yet inedible.
In this column, I hope to talk about food and the bare bones of it. Food and life, and experiences. Food during times of great joy and sorrow. The act of cooking food, even learning to cook food. Food in its simplest form. Even the lousiest setting or server on earth cannot ruin a stellar plate of food delivered to the table and it is the food that interests me, pure and simple. The bare bones of it and yet, hopefully, the brilliant complexity. I hope to write about the food of neighbors and friends. How the act of breaking bread together builds bonds. Food with family, with wine. Food when on holiday or for a horrid cold. Our nation's obsession with oversized, over-salted, over-processed foods and how it impacts our home cooking, our markets, and our dining out experiences. Yes, the long and short of it…let’s talk about the bones of food.
I taught myself to cook in a time before Google. When, if a recipe called for something like zest or turnips, my only options were to go to the library or call a friend. Since my corded, push-button phone was always warm from my latest conversation, calling was my preferred method even as cookbooks became a near addiction.
I’m not even sure why I decided to learn to cook, honestly. I was living in Northern California and, for the first time in my life, had exceptional food in restaurants. My curiosity to create such works of deliciousness was peaked. And here I made a classic “new cook” rookie mistake. I loved Japanese food and I thought I’d teach myself to cook by purchasing a Japanese cookbook, frankly, because it had beautiful photos. Yep, I probably should have read the recipes, even the ingredients…of which I knew none! The book gathered dust even as the cookbook section at the bookstore continued to draw me. My next purchase was of two books: The Cuisine of California by Diane Rossen Worthington, with only drawings, and Giuliano Hazens' The Classic Pasta Cookbook, which was very pretty with far simpler recipes than those I'd tackle years later using his mother Marcella's many books. Those two books would launch me into the world of home cooking for simple reasons: I knew what goat cheese was and what pasta should taste like. And even though my Italian family made really lousy food, one of the oxymorons of my life, I knew exactly how long to cook pasta as if it was in my DNA.
There were successes and there were stellar failures. I can’t even count the number of inedible dishes I made much less the ones that were just not…right. I nearly burned down my apartment building several times and had to get the counter Formica repaired after an incident which also decimated a pot. There was the curmudgeon of an old fart on an early Saturday morning at the grocery store when no one else was around. For some reason, there was a decided lack of signage and he looked like he knew what he was doing. So I asked him if this (pointing) was a turnip. He said, "Yes, and it has been for about a thousand years.” I skulked away but felt victorious and thought “Ok Sunshine, you can take that attitude home but I got my turnip for my Jamaican Split Pea Soup, and even you cannot ruin that.” But I kept trying, and somehow I found someone who knew how to zest, someone who knew what a turnip was, and someone who’d marry me because, among other reasons, I didn’t over sauce my pasta.
Life is funny that way. You start out on a path ‘just because’ and pretty soon that path leads you to people and places you’d never expected. Food is a good path. It leads you to real people who do a real thing in a world of a lot of fake. Find yourself some people who love real, bare-bones food and you will find yourself among friends any day.