Culinary Confessions

By Maryellen Burns

I confess. I am obsessed by food. I like to grow it, buy it, cook it, share it, consume it, talk and write about it. 

Over my lifetime I’ve probably eaten more than 70,000 meals and snacks.  Assuming that at most meals I eat or drink four items (bacon, eggs, toast and coffee) and for lunch or dinner an entrée, vegetable, starch and occasional dessert, I’ve probably prepared more than 100,000 individual dishes and consumed more than 50,000,000 calories. 

There is very little I haven’t eaten – from grits to chocolate covered ants, watermelon to durian fruit, pizza to pozole.  

Over the last twenty years or so I’ve become besotted with finding where a particular type of food or drink originates from; how recipes change from one region to the next; the people, places and processes behind the folks who grow, distribute, prepare and serve the food we eat. 

I once owned more than 4,000 cookbooks, have eaten out as many as four times a day, and traveled thousands of miles to go to a restaurant recommended by a friend. 

I’ve also been known to make a dozen or more U-turns to stop at a rural farm selling F.R.O.G. and T.O.E Jam or some other local delicacy; treat myself to a lobster roll and spicy crab soup at a right off the beach clam shack; drink a “black and white” cream soda at a 1920’s soda fountain, smack dab in the middle of the town pharmacy; take photos of vintage restaurant signs and yes, post photos of my meals on Facebook. 

For years I’ve tried to figure out how this obsession came about. 

Unlike most of the mothers in my neighborhood who learned to cook from their mother or grandmother – homemade Tamales or Portuguese beans, Spaghetti with Marinara sauce, Sauerbraten, Stinky Tofu, or Sukiyaki my mother was tepid about cooking and had a very limited repertoire. 

A dollar or less purchased three pounds of hamburger or chicken and figured in many meals. Spaghetti, meatloaf with vegetarian vegetable soup smeared on the top and roasted potatoes soaking up the tomato grease on the sides, Grautburgers – a blend of seasoned hamburger, onions, and green cabbage wrapped and baked in Jiffy Roll Mix. Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes swimming in butter, Chicken with Bisquick dumplings. 

Our dad cooked during the week. Pot Roast with Lima Beans, Pork Chops with canned Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, Creamed Tuna with Peas on Wonder Bread Toast, canned Dak ham, iceberg lettuce salad, canned peas or canned spinach fried with a scrambled egg, and like every other household in the city, fish sticks on Fridays, as the law didn’t allow grocery stories to sell fresh meat on that most sacred of Catholic days. 

At ten my father revealed that we were Jewish. I wasn’t to tell anyone for fear of anti-Semitism, but that allowed us to be introduced to what became my favorite foods. Bagels, lox and cream cheese; pastrami on rye; dairy spaghetti made with onions and parmesan cheese that came out of a green box; noodle kugel, and a summer favorite, farmers chop suey – a mélange of cottage cheese, sour cream and fresh cut radishes, cucumbers and celery. 

Years later, when I became a professional caterer, my mother revealed that she was never allowed into her mother’s kitchen. My grandmother Mayme was known throughout Hollywood for her exquisite cooking — Charlotte Russe, Chicken Kiev, Kaesespaetzle with Schnitzel, Asparagus Tips ala Hollandaise, Medallions of Spring Lamb, Chasseur and Apfelstrudel. Their maid and cook Chloe was black and equally renown for her Jewish cooking – braided Challah bread, crispy potato latkes, and juicy brisket and slow cooked black-eyed peas, buttermilk fried chicken, hot water corn bread, fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler. 

I couldn’t understand how my mother could be surrounded by food like that and not yearn to cook it. She confessed that she was a very picky eater and rejected all of it, insisting on simple broiled lamb chops and parslied potatoes and was forever banned from the kitchen. 

I confess that I’m glad my mother didn’t teach me to cook. Otherwise I might be making the same dishes over and over and over again. I prefer to explore new tastes, ingredients, and processes though I also confess that as much as I thought my parents were horrible cooks, I dream about my mother’s Grautburgers and simple roast chicken and my father’s brisket with onion gravy. 

Confession is good for the soul. On October 6, at 7 pm, former food editor Sue Robison will moderate a panel with food writer Debbie Arrington, restaurateur Bobbin Mulvaney, Chef Kathi Riley, and recently retired ARC cooking Instructor Roxanne O’Brien. They’ll reveal their secret food fantasies, occasional mishaps in the kitchen, guilty pleasures and otherwise embarrassing moment. They might even share some of their not necessarily rated G stories as well.

They’ll invite you to share your culinary confessions. Or, drop us a line at renaissancesocietysacramento@gmail.com and we’ll feature them here. 

My Mother’s Roast Chicken

1 4-lb roasting chicken

Oil

Salt, pepper, paprika and garlic salt. 

Six Russet potatoes cut into eighths. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Drizzle the chicken with the oil, rubbing it into the skin. Season, to taste, with salt, pepper, paprika and garlic salt. Place the cut potatoes around the chicken. Roast for approximately 1 ½ hours, basting the skin with the juices halfway through.

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