Time For Our 2010 Food Writing Contest!

[The contest is now closed! The judges will take a look and come up with top favorites, which will be listed for you to vote on. Thanks to everyone for the great entries.]

A few years ago, we had a food writing contest. It was so successful, I’ve lined up some great prizes, and we’ll do it again. First prize is an evening class for two people at Robert Reynold’s Chefs Studio. Located in SE Portland, Robert offers French and Italian cooking classes for both professionals and amateurs. I’ll have further details on this as the contest progresses. Second prize is a $25 gift certificate to Gilt Club in downtown Portland.

All you need to do is write about a food memory. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about Portland; perhaps your memory is of an evening on Corfu. There will be prizes for first, second and third place, as voted by our readers. Let’s keep the entries to 500 words or less. Email your stories to me, or post them here in the comments for this post. You can read some of the entries from the last time here.

The winner in 2008 was “Granny Moon” for this memory:

Breakfast when I was a kid was a weekend event – cold cereal before school didn’t count. And every weekend it was pretty much the same thing. Daddy would get out his cast iron skillet, place it on the gas stove and start frying. Always eggs. Sometimes bacon, occasionally ham – and if it were fishing season there would be fresh caught rainbow trout from his 4 am jaunt on the lake.

But the thing I remember most was his fried potatoes. If I were really lucky he would grate them, then dump them in the hot grease and make them oh so crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. I’ve tried forever to duplicate that. 4 out of 5 times I almost get it. That 5th time is heaven. Makes my arteries harden just to think about it…

Daddy grew older and ended up having a triple bypass. But he never lost his love of fried potatoes. When he reached the age of 88, I moved to Tucson and lived with him and my stepmom. Over the course of 16 months I perfected the fried potato. Not the grated wonder that my dad turned out; but a thin sliced, perfect circle of crispiness. With a soft center that melted in your mouth.

I would get up at 6 am when Daddy came out of his bedroom to get the newspaper, and we would have a cup of coffee together while I peeled a couple of small potatoes. Then I would slice and fry them up – using that same cast iron skillet and a gas stove. When I served them to him in his recliner, he would eat them with his fingers – savoring every bite.

My step mom always said that I was spoiling him. But I like to think that I was feeding his spirit – transferring the love that he gave his baby girl right back to him, by way of a fried potato.

Here are a couple of examples from me:

Away from home for the first time, waiting for the beginning of college, I was in Sebastopol California, staying in a cold drafty old barn surrounded by apple orchards. The winter wind was so strong, it would blow bits of hay across the old barn floor, covering me with little pieces of summer-perfumed straw while I slept. On my second night, the wind was so strong one of the trees kept dragging its branches across the old tin roof. Warmed by several hot buttered rums, I stumbled outside and climbed the tree, trying to get to that overloaded branch. It broke with a loud crack, sending me crashing into the wet grass, pelted by apples shaking loose from above. Drenched and drunk, but ever the epicure, I grabbed some of the fruit and ran back inside, where I stripped off my clothes and hung them on old saddle hooks in hope they would dry. Shivering under a blanket, and huddling over my electric kettle for warmth, the idea of rum and apples appealed to me, so I sliced some up and threw them in the pot to simmer. As the water bubbled, I bit into one, and for a moment, everything stopped. It was the height of perfection, a diamond thrown from that gnarled tree, unlike any that had come before. I sat naked under grandmother’s old wool blanket, apple juice running down my face, hot-buttered rum warming my hands, listening to  the sound of the rain and the wind flexing tired timbers back and forth. Everything was right in my life.

I can remember my mother packing us in the car to every Thursday to go to the strawberry stand. It was run by a Japanese farmer and his wife on the back side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. We’d pile into the old VW van and wind along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Just before Marineland, mom would park, and me and my friend Jacques would run down the steep dirt trail to the tide pools. At the time I wanted to be a marine biologist, and would dash from one pond to another, picking up rocks to see what was underneath, and carefully putting them back again. Jacques taught me how to smash open a sea urchin, and we’d eat them raw, sitting on a rock with the salt spray floating over our heads. As the tide came in, we’d race each other to the top of the bluffs where mom would be sitting, patiently reading a book. Twisting along the cliffs, we’d follow the coast where a weathered white strawberry stand stood  surrounded by acres and acres of dark green fields. I’ve never had any berries that tasted as good as the ones we’d eat in that dirt parking lot. When we got home, Dad would serve them simply, with a sprinkle of Kirsh liquor and a dusting of powdered sugar. I still eat them that way.

What memories do you have? Email me here.. Please let me know what name you want used when I post them. I’ll announce the prizes in a couple of days.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. JoAnne says

    “Hale’s Best Cantaloupe, best cantaloupe east of the Pecos!” My grandmother was calling it out boldly in a Kmart parking lot in Denton, Texas. I picked up the call and said it even louder standing beside her—I was excited at the age of 8 to be entrusted to help sell the cantaloupes as well as say “hell” out loud. We would show up early in the morning with yesterday’s fresh melons loaded on the old farm truck hoping to sell out before the heat of the day consumed all energy. The other farmers who arrived with similar loads groaned at the sight of us. ‘It’s hard to compete with an old woman and a child’ they grumbled on more than one occasion. As the morning went on, we did sell out of our melons first and loaded ourselves back into the truck for the drive home. My grandmother and her husband ran a 13 acre farm and I recall a local newspaper taking a picture of them standing in corn that towered over his 6’ 5” frame. It had once been a catfish farm with ponds all over it but now leveled, it produced all manner of vegetables, legumes, melons and other fruits. Once home, my grandmother would walk out into the field and thump a few cantaloupes listening for just the right sound before selecting one. She sliced it open and carved it into 12 large smiles of melon. On her half, she liberally sprinkled pepper and used a butter knife to cut each from the rind as she ate. For my half, it was vanilla ice cream and I tried to mimic her use of the butter knife to cut the meat from the rind. She would laugh and say I was the best helper she could ever have and didn’t we sell out fast. The sweet taste of a ripe Texas cantaloupe brings me back home to her kitchen every time.

  2. Paris in PDX says

    I lived in Philadelphia when I was a kid, land of amazing cheesesteaks, east-coast pizza, and the original (read “not Kraft”) Breyer’s ice cream.

    My grandfather owned a small, neighborhood pharmacy in West Philadelphia; he and my grandmother lived in a spacious apartment above the store. I remember going to their home for dinner a few times a month, and how much I loved the entryway, which was tiled and had lion’s heads as decorations every six inches or so in a ring around the top of the tile. As soon as they buzzed us into the house, I could smell my grandmother’s cooking; the delicious aromas wafted down the stairs and filled the little foyer.

    Dinner at her place was almost always delicious. She made her own noodles for chicken-noodle soup (where I first learned that chicken feet are not only edible, but pretty damned tasty as well) or one of my all-time favorite sides, kasha-with-bowtie-noodles (more about that in a moment). My one complaint about her cooking was her insistence on cooking vegetables until the water was more green than the veggies themselves – otherwise, everything she served was delightful.

    My grandmother’s one and only bias was about overweight people, and she made her opinions very clear to all of us. But when we ate dinner at her house ‘we weren’t on diets’, which meant she wasn’t happy unless we stuffed ourselves. Which we gladly did. Her favorite shortening was chicken fat (or ‘schmaltz’), and much of what she cooked was enhanced by the amazing flavor that chicken fat adds to food. I’m sure she sauteed the onions that went into the kasha in chicken fat or the veggies that she put into her chicken soup. With five decades worth of 20-20 hindsight, I now realize those meals were cholesterol-bombs, but we were all blissfully unaware of that issue as we filled our plates with roast chicken, slices of brisket so tender it literally fell off the fork, Potatoes Au Gratin (again, with a little chicken fat for flavoring) and all the other bad-for-your-health but soothing-to-your-soul food that she served.

    Then came dessert.

    As good as she was at cooking main dishes, she was a gazillion times better at baking. Her pie crusts were flaky, and they melted in your mouth (probably butter and/or Crisco in these – not chicken fat!). She made strawberry pie in the summer, apple pie in the winter, and chocolate cream pie all year round. She made a cinnamon-nut coffee cake that made me wish I could have a cup of coffee in the morning, just so I could taste the combination of flavors that my dad so clearly relished – although it went pretty well with a big glass of cold milk if memory serves. She baked three-layer chocolate cakes, with homemade raspberry jam between each layer, covered in dark chocolate icing. She baked rugelach – little sweet, flaky and melt-in-your-mouth bites of pastry that (had they been sold and marketed) would have more than earned the caption ‘bet you can’t eat just one’. Those are the only desserts I remember clearly, but I’m sure there were at least a dozen more that she served at these family dinners.

    She’d send us home with a bunch of aluminum-foil packages (or were they waxed paper?) filled with leftovers from dinner, and I always put in dibs for the kasha-with-bowtie-noodles, even over dessert. And finally, here’s a link to Portland.

    We met friends for breakfast at Bob’s Red Mill store a few months ago, and I found a bag of kasha (which I now realize are called buckwheat groats in the world outside of my ethnic tribe). I bought a bag, and made a batch, hoping it would resemble my grandmother’s kasha even a little bit. I sauteed onions (in olive oil), and followed the recipe on the bag, producing something that was similar to what my grandmother made, but not as good as what I remember. Next time, I might just save a little chicken fat from a whole chicken and try sauteing the onions in that – I bet it’ll taste just as good then.

  3. Carole says

    One of my fondest food memories is of growing up in LA and being exposed to so many different types of food and culture. My parents were divorced so I spent my time between my Mom’s on the eastside of LA and my Dad’s in Beverly Hills. The contrast of food and people between these two distinct areas was amazing!

    On the eastside, I would visit a friend or neighbor’s house with Mexican roots and be treated to delicious, steaming hot home-made pork tamales that were delicate and perfectly shaped. Sometimes, I felt like I was the 10th child in the family when my best friend’s Mom would put me to work (husking tomatillos or helping prepare ingredients for their weekly menudo).

    Back in Beverly Hills, it was all about the wonderful Jewish deli foods that you could get in and around the area. After visiting all the local delis, I quickly became a huge fan and connoisseur of matzo ball soup. Though there were many other delicacies of the deli (like a giant thin-sliced Reuben on fresh-baked rye or perfectly fried latkes those crispy little potatoes pancakes served with sour cream and apple sauce), the matzo ball soup warmed my soul like nothing else.

    The last and most important memory is of my Italian grandmother who lived in the house in Beverly Hills. She woke up every morning at 4am to begin her day of cooking for the entire family that included many extended family members (like Uncle Frankie, Uncle Vincent, Auntie Gloria and a few other usual suspects). She would always start out by making two fresh pizzas then move on to a beautiful home made, perfectly clear chicken broth that we would later add fresh wilted spinach, tubettini and grated parmesan cheese to. My job was to stay out of the way and grate the cheese (which of course, half of it went in to my mouth). In addition to the pizza and the soup, their was a daily mixed grill of meats that included beef steak, pork chops, baby lamb chops, chicken legs, and sometimes frog legs (I think my Grandma would switch the chicken and the frog legs around to trick us). Of course, there was the omnipresent and incredibly delectable red sauce or as we call it “gravy” and pasta to help tie it all together.

    My sisters and I would eat at the counter in the kitchen while the adults sat at the kitchen table (adorned with the traditional red and white checked table cloth), drinking from large bottles of red table wine, laughing, yelling and of course, devouring with gusto, the magnificent food that my grandmother put forth every day.

    Though I now call Portland home and feel very spoiled to live in an area that has an abundance of fresh vegetables, wineries and great restaurants, I feel very lucky to have grown up in a city that offered so many amazing cultural delights.

  4. Tiffany Lee Brown says

    The orange surprised me. So did the Nutella. We were in Venice, me and the American boy I’d met in Gare du Nord, there to pick up some money being wired to him from back home. For several days we traveled together on the trains, mostly arguing about religion and enjoying it. Now we stretched out on the warm, yellowy bricks alongside a canal, breathing in the spring air, drowsing, rarely passed by other pedestrians, using our backpacks as oversized pillows.

    It was Darren’s 18th birthday, and I, an ancient 20, felt protective of him. He should have a birthday celebration, though both of us were broke and the wire money hadn’t arrived. I converted some of my few remaining Irish pounds into lire and sneaked off to find a little something. In one street, a man sold tempting bread loaves; I couldn’t tell you which fabulous Italian bread type it was, but it was a big, meaty loaf with a crinkly crust that crumbled when you bit in. A wine shop was not hard to find. And in a small plaza near our canal, a tiny street market sprang up.

    The oranges smelled heavenly even from far away, sitting seductively in the sun. I pointed at one, seeing as how I spoke only two words of Italian, and offered the old woman a coin worth approximately 50 cents American. She pocketed the coin and handed me an enormous bag of oranges. “Grazie,” I managed, amazed. Off I tottered with Darren’s birthday feast.

    Darren was delighted. My very awesome Swiss Army knife made short work of the cork, and Darren responded to the bread with a smile.
    “Have you ever had Nutella?” he asked. No, I had not. This was long before you could find such a thing (not to mention a salt bar) in your local Fred Meyer. He smeared a bit of the poopy-looking goo on a hunk of bread and handed it to me. I toasted his birthday, well, as much as you can toast when you’re both drinking directly out of the bottle, and followed a swig of good but cheap red wine with my first Nutella. Oh. My. God.

    I grew up in Oregon. I loved the taste of filberts, as we called them then. I grew up American. I loved the taste of everyday chocolate.
    And here were both tastes, slathered on the wonderful bread, with the wine, in the sun, on the bricks, absurdly charming stone and brick buildings piling up all around us, even a quaintly arched bridge nearby, like something out of a movie. Nutella was my new best friend. Venice was my new best friend. Life was my new best friend.

    I wiped the choco-hazelnut from my knife blade and plunged it into a warm orange. Deep red, almost purple liquid dripped down my hand, splatting the bricks like blood. Startled, I checked my hand, the one holding the orange; it didn’t hurt, but it sure looked like I’d stabbed myself. I realized the purplish blood wasn’t leaking from me, it was leaking from the orange. “There must be something wrong with these oranges,” I muttered. “No wonder they were so cheap.” But the fruit’s flesh smelled citrusy and sweet, floral and deep, not like a rotting thing at all. And the taste, warm and fragrant, was like visiting my grandmother in Southern California, where citrus literally grows on trees and you just pluck it down whenever you please. But richer than a Sunkist orange, steeped in some magical Italian soil, ripened under an exotic Italian sun.

    So we feasted on the oranges, wine, Nutella, and bread, all of which tasted like they’d been created especially to be eaten ensemble. The bond of flavor between these foods was stronger than the several-days’ acquaintance between me and Darren. When we parted ways, he insisted I take the Nutella pot, and I insisted he take half the oranges. Occasionally supplemented by a new loaf of bread or chunk of cheese, this was my diet for the next week, what I ate as I watched the mustard fields of Burgundy roll by the train, not yet knowing about the hearty Provencal stews a stranger, a local, would treat me to when I alighted in Dijon.

    And that’s the story of my first blood orange and my first taste of Nutella.

  5. L'epicier says

    It was on my second trip to Italy to buy pasta machines that I experienced my food awakening. The first trip I was just scarfing up everything in sight, and was just thrilled to be wolfing down all that great food. Then on my second trip I realized something – in every restaurant the food was excellent but the chef used only a few top notch local, seasonal ingredients. It was a super simple style of cooking, to revere the ingredients and do little to bring out their inherent flavors.

    Such a change from America where every young cook thinks he/she is the next Escoffier after only a month or two on the job! In those days (early 90s) local chefs used far too many ingredients – if one herb is good then surely two or three must be better, and fusion cuisine was all the rage. Times have changed and local chefs are more restrained and don’t overdo it now ingredient-wise. We are lucky to live in Oregon where super fresh, locally produced, sustainable-organic-seasonal products are the norm to the chef who understands the value in living local.

    On that trip in Soliera, a tiny burg near Modena, I found the holy grail of foods – Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale – 40 year old balsamic vinegar made by one fellow in a copper kettle and stored to age in his attic. He used six different woods to age, each one imparting its own unique flavor note to the vinegar. The smells are permanently etched in my brain! Later in the family run restaurant that specializes in, what else, balsamic vinegar, all the eyes turned when I walked in, as if they all knew there was an American of all things in the place that night. Donald Trump I am not, but I ate like a king that night. Handmade Mortadella, Lamponi (raspberries) con aceto balsamico, homemade pappardelle, vitello Milanese. All simply prepared and amazingly good.

    Support your local grower! And your local specialty producer!

  6. grace says

    I was a bad Cub Scout.

    A very low badge count, and a life-altering embarrassment at the Pinewood Derby, marked me, early on, as an unlikely candidate for Webelo status, to say nothing of the coveted Arrow of light Award. There were, of course, a few modest accomplishments; a good deed here and there, a winning concept for centerpieces at the Blue and Gold Dinner…

    There were missteps. Perhaps the single greatest was the notion that my mom was Den Mother material. Brian Foster’s mom was a home-ec major. Her den meeting treats were legendary; nutritious, yet inspired. Try as she might, my mother couldn’t hold a candle to Sharon Foster’s whimsical “cub cookies”, or the celebrated peanut butter and banana, pretzel-bread sandwiches.

    While I struggled with various knot tying techniques, my mom made countless attempts at tackling the cub culinaire. I knew, as I’m sure did she, that my salvation as a scout in good standing rested squarely on her shoulders. Failing to locate an article in Boy’s Life that offered up a path to cub-treat dominance, my mom relied solely on a natural fighting spirit, and an unlikely ace.

    Behold, the waffle iron.
    Armed with grandma’s Jules Verne-esque breakfast contraption, my mother, as if guided by a blue and gold angel, proceeded to craft the snack that would instantly propel my status within troop number 221.
    The “waffle-wich”, as it has come to be coined, was a marriage of lightly buttered, thinly sliced egg bread, smoked ham, and cheddar cheese, browned to perfection between the toothy vice-grip of the iron. The resulting nubby, crunchy, oozey goodness was an instant hit with all the cubs (Brian Foster included).

    Thanks Mom.

  7. Laurie Watson says

    After many hot hours riding as a passenger on a motorcycle, past the many private beaches where we had no right to sit or swim, we finally arrived in the coastal town of Genoa, Italy. We quickly set up our tent in the overcrowded campground and asked the host for a restaurant recommendation. “Down the hill,” he said. “Very good – you like.”
    We easily found the place, and it was mobbed – a good sign. After a short wait we were shown to a table with a cat sleeping beneath it, oblivious to the hubbub around him. As I sat, I could hear the pizza maker loudly thwapping dough behind me. I looked over the menu, but I already knew what I wanted. This was Genoa, home of Pesto Genovese! That was what I would eat.
    The waiter arrived, and I requested pasta with pesto, to his puzzled response. I scanned the menu for help, but didn’t see anything familiar. Just then, another waiter passed our table with a platter of spaghetti bathed in fragrant green sauce. I pointed excitedly – that’s what I want!
    “Oh, pesto spaghetti!” he said, finally understanding. Soon he returned with my own luscious plateful of this southern Italian specialty. Happily, it was everything I expected and more. Creamy, redolent with garlic, basil and olive oil, it was the best pesto I’ve ever eaten.
    To this day, I have been unable to recreate the perfection in that single plate of food, no matter how I vary the basic ingredients – basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and cheese. Perhaps one has to experience this dish in the region that created it – with a cat beneath your table for ambience.

  8. John Book says

    Growing up in Honolulu, the only thing I worried about as a kid was the sun going down. I was surrounded by a wide range of ethnicities, and with that a diverse amount of foods. Saturday morning meant mom, dad, and my sister were at home together, which usually meant breakfast and a morning full of cartoons. It would be a surprise visit from my grandfather that would make our day, for a surprise visit usually meant he would be bringing over a huli-huli chicken wrapped in newspaper. In Hawaiian, “huli” means to turn or turn over, and a huli-huli chicken would simply be a rotisserie chicken cooked over kiawe wood with different types of spices, as a kid I didn’t care what was on it. What I did care for was the taste and that crispy-but-not-burned skinned that got all of us smiling.

    I lived in a neighborhood adjacent to a school, and on some mornings we could smell the chicken roasting from their parking lots. In fact, even with modern conveniences like e-mail, instant messages, and Twitter, people to this day still follow the trail of the huli-huli chicken by word of mouth, driving around, looking for rising smoke, and of course having a keen nose. From afar, it seemed like my grandfather was the Twitter of his generation, as he always knew where to buy the best chickens, cooked with certain woods and spices, and it would always taste good. In truth, he had a job that made it possible to “talk story” and know what was going on throughout the island, so if it meant a school 15 miles out of town would hold a sale, he’d be there to pick it immediately.

    My grandfather was a busy man who lived his own life, but food was the one thing that brought us together at any given time. If it wasn’t chicken, it was a box of a dozen Long John’s or cream puffs from our favorite bakery, maybe lychee or mangoes from a family who were picking them in their yard, or a box of manapua (char siu bao) from a restaurant owned by a lady friend. He was not an easy man to read or know, but he knew how to make us smile and in return, we got chance to see him smile. I did not get a chance to talk with him deeply before he became ill, but in the few times I was able to get a glimpse into his life, it seemed he simply wanted to share what was passed along to him. Food as a communicator was something done automatically, and as someone who has been curious about what makes myself and the world tick, I realize that a newspaper full of chicken, or a pink box full of eclairs can be the first step towards learning more than what you knew before, and making sure people kept their communication lines open. I am forever thankful.

  9. Steve Wino says

    We traveled to France because of unfortunate circumstances. My wife’s mother died and I wanted to whisk my wife away from her sadness. She had cared for her mother for years, calling her each night to check in on her and ease her loneliness and spending Saturdays with her, helping her with chores, and driving her for errands, to visit family or to just get her out of her apartment.

    I had resisted going to Europe for years, thinking I would find myself walking for hours in boring museums. Instead, I learned a new attitude about life. On every corner, neighbors converged at the boulangerie, catching up with the latest news or gossip while waiting in turn for fresh baguette. The fromagerie displayed pungent, aromatic balls of goodness. The patisserie called out its siren song of forbidden fruit, ok, maybe fruit dipped in chocolate.

    I vowed I would be adventurous in my exploration of French cuisine and fearlessly ordered escargot. I thought “they’re nothing more than land scallops” and envisioned the scallops navigating so elegantly underwater while wondering how well the escargot compared as it slithered along the ground. But escargot became my new avarice.

    We fell in love with duck confit. We woke up for coffee and planned our schedule to coincide with the opening of a local bistro. As soon as shops began to close for lunch, its seats filled quickly. No wonder. Its lunch special consisted of duck confit with mustard on the side, a simple salad of fresh greens, lightly dressed, and sliced fried potatoes. We could sit, enjoy the remarkable richness of the duck, freshness of the greens, and salty crunch of the potatoes, savor a glass of wine, and breathe in all that is Paris, while contemplating the remainder of the day.

    But our great mystery was how the bistro sold us such a delight as duck confit for such a reasonable price. As we traveled through France, the answer began to dawn on me. Each menu featured foie gras, obviously the national treasure. I realized that foie gras was the raison d’être for the duck and, to my good fortune, this meant we enjoyed reasonably priced duck throughout our month in France.

    I periodically order duck, including duck confit. I have never enjoyed it quite as much since our trip. Maybe you just have to be in France to experience it the same way.

  10. Super Dave says

    In the fall 1997 I had planned on throwing a big party to celebrate the five year remission of my cancer. It was a chance to thank everyone that had been such great friends and provided me support in getting well. The five year point seemed appropriate, but my best laid plans were undone when at my checkup the doctors found the cancer had spread to my lungs.

    Instead of a party, I was having surgeries, chemotherapy and readying myself for a bone marrow transplant. Thanksgiving was coming and through an unrelenting stream of begging, I convinced by doctors to let me see my family and fly from the East Coast to Portland. They packed me a cooler full of drugs and I arrived in Portland looking (and feeling) like a ghost. Being somewhat unfamiliar with Portland at the time, I asked my sister to make reservations for us at a “really great restaurant” for Saturday. I really wanted to have my some acknowledgement that I had indeed made it five years.

    We arrived at Paley’s Place and once we had filled everyone’s glass with wine (including myself, against strict orders) I stood up and thanked everyone for being there. As I struggled to maintain my composure, I explained that while I had planned on my celebration to be a bit more grandiose circumstances dictated that the party be a bit more modest. Nonetheless, I had made it five years and I was determined to recognize the accomplishment. It was at this point, we all realized that this was likely to be our last time together as a family and the mood became decidedly somber.

    And then my 85 year old grandmother stood up. She had started drinking earlier in the day and had a penchant for ill-timed, inappropriate comments. We all looked at each other nervously as she proclaimed, “I propose a toast to David! We hope you live longer than we anticipate!” She then sat down and took a long pull on her glass of wine. The table erupted in laughter. It was what we were all thinking but afraid to say. It was finally a party, a family meal with all our unique craziness. We ate fantastic food, drank really good wine, told stories, and argued over things of little consequence. It remains the best and most memorable meal of my life. The food was wonderful, but sharing it with people who were acknowledging their love for each other made it something special. The meal is now part of family lore. I live in Portland now, and at each five year anniversary from my bone marrow transplant, I have dinner with my family and I toast my grandmother.

  11. Tara Dublin says

    I was raised Jewish; therefore most of my memories are connected to food in some way. My mother’s matzoh ball soup, in particular, is the food that always triggers that sense of taste-memory in me. It was served at every holiday dinner of my childhood. A simple whiff of the broth and I’m six years old, helping her make the matzoh balls. Or I’m 13, and we’re making the soup together as part of my Bat Mitzvah studies; I’m 19, home from college and needing Mother Love.

    I’m all growns up now, not especially religious any longer, but I still love that soup. The closest you can get to it in Portland is at Mother’s Bistro; Lisa Schroeder is Portland’s Jewish Mother. When I can’t be with my own mom, Lisa is the perfect stand-in.

  12. Kathy Pape says

    Three times, restaurants have taught me how to cook. First time was at the Otis Café out toward the Oregon Coast. It’s a tiny place and was bustling on a Friday night. To get to the bathroom, I had to walk through the kitchen and there was a heckofa line. While standing in line, I watched one of the cooks deftly pinch those perfect, raised triangles along the edge of a pie crust. She made a loose triangle shape with her two index fingers and thumbs and gently swept up the pastry into soft peaks along the edge. It was magic to behold and the next time I did a pie crust, I got it right!

    The second time was on the island of Murano near Venice, Italy. I am half Italian-American myself and longed to be a good Italian cook. Pouring over Marcella Hazan cookbooks, I struggled and struggled with risotto – the second most perfect food in the world in my opinion. (Pizza is first.) Sitting at an outdoor café at lunch with a glass of wine, I ordered the seafood risotto. With the first bite, it all became clear. So this is the right texture and consistency! Every grain of rice hung together but lightly so, easily pried away with my fork or better yet, my tongue. Whamo. Next time I cooked risotto at home, I got it right!

    Then, halibut at Clarklewis in Southeast Portland. Growing up in the Midwest, I hated fish probably because most of the fish we had was frozen. It was then thawed and baked to within an inch of its life. Add tarter sauce. Living on the west coast since 1983, I grew to love fish but could never cook it very well. The concept of “done” was a mystery to me and most of my efforts had very Midwestern results. The halibut I had at Clarklewis one night was perfection – snow white and as smooth as butter with a briney goodness. Now I make a fabulous halibut with orzo dish regularly and I get it right! So thank you professional chefs of the world for teaching us amateurs!

  13. says

    Back in 1984, I got hired to be the teaching assistant for SMU’s Summer in China undergraduate program. Mind you, that was only five years after the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China so it was still a pretty adventurous destination. There were no McDonalds, no Starbucks, only two Western-style hotels in Beijing and none at all in most cities. We ended up eating a lot of weird stuff on that trip: eels fished alive from a tub in a street market stall, decapitated, skinned in one smooth motion, chopped into bits and stir-fried on a wok improvised from an oil drum; “club sandwiches” that consisted of bad white bread, a butter-like substance and pickles; a delicious skewer of delicate meat cooked on a street corner brazier that our guide later informed us was probably cat. By far the funniest experience, however, was the dumpling restaurant.

    Our group had gone to visit the famous gardens in Shanghai’s old city. From the garden we could see crowds of people eating at a restaurant across the lake so some of the guys decided it would be a great place for a mid-afternoon snack. Six of us, five guys and me, approached the lady at the front counter of the restaurant. Using my very bad Chinese, her minimal English and lots of hand gestures we told her that we would like five yuan (about $3.00 at the time) worth of dumplings, handing her a bank note to show what we meant. She nodded understanding and ushered us into the main room overlooking the lake and gardens. First, she displaced a group of people already eating at the best table, insisting, despite our protests, that the foreigners should have the best spot. Then every employee in the place arrived to scrub the table extra clean. A few minutes later, a waitress arrived with a stack of bamboo steamer baskets. There were six of them, each basket holding at least a dozen dumplings. It was a little more than we wanted to eat and we were surprised that such a small amount of money would buy so much food but the dumplings were delicious, light and well-spiced, so we ate all of them. Just as we finished the waitress arrived with a second stack of baskets. We were stuffed but we thought it would be rude to not eat at least some of this helping. Our chop sticks and chewing had slowed considerably when the third stack arrived—that’s about 216 dumplings all together for those of you keeping score. Horribly embarrassed but sure that eating any more would probably lead to an even more embarrassing explosion, we made our excuses in any language we could think of and beat a hasty retreat. I still can’t eat dumplings all these years later without remembering the expressions on my students’ faces when they brought out that third stack of steamers. Absolutely priceless.

  14. Jill-O says

    Sunday mornings were always special at our house when I was growing up in Brooklyn. My dad, always an early riser, would get up and go out and bring back all kinds of delicious things for breakfast…along with the Sunday NY Times and Daily News.

    On Sundays, my dad read every section of BOTH papers, and didn’t really get up until he was done. Along with that he would have tea, the only thing he could cook, and usually 2-3 bagels. OK, sometimes it was a bagel and a bialy and something else…because there was always a choice. He made sure of it.

    My dad would first go to the bagel store – on Sunday morning they were all still warm and fresh, and he would get an impressive assortment: plain, egg, sesame, poppy, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and a few bialys. All well-baked, nice and brown on the outside – we agreed on this as a family, no pale bagels.

    Then he would go to the appetizing store and get all kinds of tasty things for us to put on our bagels and baked goods. Things like scallion cream cheese and smoked sable for my mom, veggie cream cheese and nova lox for me, baked smoked salmon for my sister, whitefish salad for whoever wanted it. Funny, but all he ever wanted on his bagels and bialys was butter. He stopped here just for us.

    The next to the last stop was the bakery. Brioche rolls, onion boards, onion rolls, raisin buns, jelly donuts, cream donuts, crullers, crumb cake, and black and white cookies…whatever looked good and whatever he knew we loved. Sometimes one of us would make a special request the night before, or leave a note on the bathroom mirror all of us shared.

    The last stop was for the newspapers, the heaviest of the load he had to carry back home. And he would come back, make his tea and sit down with his first bagel and the NY Times. There we would all find him when we got up every Sunday morning.

    I was usually the next one up. And I would look through the bags and boxes and make my choices, usually cutting things in half so I could try more things and have more variety: half a pumpernickel bagel with veggie cream cheese and lox, half a bialy with butter and baked smoked salmon, a small slice of onion board with butter only. I would take my seat at our table and my dad and I would read the papers and eat our bagels until the next person would get up and join us, usually my mom.

    Now on Saturdays, my mom would often make us breakfast – bacon, eggs, French toast, sometimes even pancakes. Then we would get to chores or errands and everything that needs to get done on a day off. But on Sunday, it was all about the bagels and breads and spreads and sweets…and the newspapers, and my dad presiding over it all, in his quiet way, showing his girls how much he loved us by feeding us all of our favorites, every week, every Sunday.

    My dad has been dead for over 25 years but I still cannot eat a bagel or bialy on any day of the week without thinking of him and our Sunday mornings. I was a lucky girl, and I know it, and I miss him very much, but I know that he loved me…there was a black and white cookie for me in that bag every week. Thanks Dad, you were the best.

    • Chef Adam Bernstein says

      Jill – Thanks… I grew up on Long Island and my father, also gone now would also get up early and take me shopping at all the same kinds of stores. I had 4 brothers and this was our only true quality time. Hummintachen)honey and poppy seed filled danish) smoked salmon & sturgeon (the deli guy would sneak us a taste before slicing the rest), lox and all kinds of cream cheese, herring in sour cream, whitefish salad – thanks for bringing me back to a gentler time when sharing Sunday brunch was the best of everything!

      • Jill-O says

        Glad it resonated with ya! I went with my dad on some of these trips when I was very young, but as I got older, I got up later and later.

        Hey, when were you at CIA? I was at Vassar in the mid 80s!

        BTW, I go to Kenny & Zuke’s for my bagels/lox/whitefish/spreads fix these days…not quite the same, but still darn good and we’re lucky to have ‘em here.

  15. Chef Adam Bernstein says

    I bumped into this contest as I am a twitter follower of the food dude and have always wanted to put this foodie experience down on paper. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

    My name is Adam, I am the Exec. Chef / Owner of Adam’s Sustainable Table in Eugene, Oregon, The Greenest most sustainable certified full service restaurant in the United States.

    As a life long culinarian and third generation restaurateur I have had a life filled with remarkable food experiences. Tapas and Paella in Seville, Spain, Seafood extravaganzas in tiny coastal villages off of the coasts of Portugal, southern Spain and eastern, Italy, 4 star Michelin restaurants with truffles, game and foie gras in Paris, beignets and gumbo in New Orleans, curry and noodles in Thailand, BBQ in Kansas City, Chicago and North Carolina, Crayfish right from the water and family clam bakes to beat the band. Choosing that one event, THE ONE that sits atop and still permeates my memory is no easy task, but the experience I am about to tell continues to grip me in the same way my first love still somehow haunts my heart and mind with a clumsy and nice youthful joy.

    I was still a young culinarian at the time and while I had been working in kitchens for years it was prior to my time at The Culinary Institute of America.

    When I was growing up my father spent quite a bit of time in Asia on business. In the late 1970s he decided to take us all there for a family vacation in order to broaden our perspectives and to give us a sense of what his life was like while he was gone. The trip began in Bangkok, Thailand and ended with time in Hong Kong and Kowloon, China.

    One evening we went out early for a mysterious field trip that began by bording a small rather rickety and charming sampan (A flat bottom Asian skiff usually propelled by two oars. used for cargo, transportation, mercantile or living quarters). Two Chinese, a man and a woman both toothless rowed us to a nearby island just of the Hong Kong shore. We were six white American men and boys and my mom. I felt sure this tiny ship would fall apart as it truly looked to be held together with spit and noodles. Never the less after a few minutes we were on this tiny island that could not have been more then 4 small blocks square (2×2). On the dock where we were deposited was a classic Chinese fisherman’s market. The market took up one of these small blocks; it had a thatched palm roof and was edged on all sides with huge fish tanks full of live fish, some as small as my pinky finger and some as large a 10-pound grouper. In the center were 55 gallon wooden barrels filled to the brim with all sorts of strange and familiar shellfish, live eel swirling in the black darkness and barrels and barrels of live prawn the size of a construction workers thumb. There were also huge bins of crushed ice that had 25 pound tuna, 6 foot long halibut and huge live Pacific crabs. It was overwhelming for a seafood lover such as myself who grew up on the water and around all sorts of fish. I was and still am amazed at the fresh, clean ocean smell of this obviously busy market that was open 7 days a week. The constant screaming of unintelligible Chinese as the local merchants and restaurants of Hong Kong bartered with the fish mongers for their merchandise, one minute sounded like an argument to the death, the next moment all smiles and hugs as the fish man wrapped their fish and the chefs and merchants trudged there weighty bounty to a waiting sampan.

    Our host for the day, long time and current family friend Johnny Chen walked us through the market with an excited fish monger and translating a description of each fish, shell fish or sea monster. Every once in a while he would point his finger as something and then the fish monger would retrieve an excited and squirmy fish of some kind out of a tank and drop him into a waiting bag of ocean water. We were all given bags of water with live moving seafood and asked to pick something out. When this strange, exotic chore was completed we were all laden down with prawns, crayfish of all sizes, grouper looking fish, monkfish, sole, rockfish, flounder, snails etc.,etc.

    That was when the magic began, turns out that the rest of the island was filled with restaurants that only carried vegetables, rice and some dim sum. Yup, you got it – they were there to service the fish market patrons. We went into what I am sure was the best of the best of these restaurants and deposited our bounty of rich, live sea fare into the kitchen. There was a huge oval table waiting there with all of my father’s associates, mostly Chinese, some American and some British comprising a group of about 20 people.

    The dinner began with all sorts of dim sum (I came to understand later that they had used the scraps to make these amazing little tasty morsels). Crispy bags with ground prawn & scallop, Sharks fin soup, ducks tongues and bills, poached octopus sliced thin with pickles cucumbers, tiny ½ dollar size buns filled with any number of unrecognizable fillings. Course after course the dishes just kept coming and coming and then arrived on these huge platters almost spilling over with giant prawns as big a construction workers thumb and with there heads still attached (eeeeek!!). They called them Chinese bar-b-qued prawn for lack of a appropriate translation, they had clearly been dusted in salt, garlic, ginger and spices and then quickly wok sautéed in a super hot wok with almost no oil, almost but not quite flash smoked in their own juices. The ritual for eating these amazing gems was to twist the head of and suck the juices out, then you sucked on the whole prawn to get the flavor off of the shell and then you finished by removing the shell and eating the warm perfectly cooked prawn with it’s sweet just out of the ocean flavor. Surely one of the most, if not the most exquisite gastronomic moment of my life.

    My brothers and I could not stop chowing down on these puppies, were unaware that you were not supposed to eat the last prawn of the platters. The Chinese believe if you do not leave food on the platter that they need to bring you more, because surely you did not get enough and they must be good hosts to save face. A concept in juxtaposition from the eat everything off of your plate or there is no dessert mentality that my 4 older brothers and I were brought up with. Eventually some one filled us in and sheepishly we left some prawn on the next platter. The dinner was completed with traditional dishes, the flounder was sliced 1/4 inch thick and 8 inches round then lightly batter fried for 30 seconds and served crackling hot with a little fresh sea salt and pepper – that dish made my eyes roll back in my head, crayfish in a Cantonese style sauce lightly green from the crayfish tamale used to finish the sauce was heavenly, the spicy and garlicky snails with their weird fingered shells were mind boggling. I could go on forever, but hey I have to get to tonight’s service. All I can say is that I can still see the un-gutted sole on the counter in the kitchen as it was filleted live and the giant woks aflame with prawns. Forever on I understood what perfectly cooked shrimp should be like.

  16. Roberta says

    The Scots and their Haggis
    Written by, Roberta Owen

    The morning after driving 9 hours from London to Onich, Scotland, I was famished. I knew my usual “coffee and toast” for breakfast wouldn’t cut it, so I opted for the Full Scottish Breakfast. I had a vague interpretation for this breakfast prior to ordering it. I knew it was big; I knew it had more meat than what my stomach’s monthly consumption was used to; and I knew it had a few recipes with foreign names. Fried haggis. Black pudding. Back bacon. Oatcakes. I just thought to myself, “When in Scotland, do as the Scots do.”
    I ordered the Full Breakfast. The coffee and toast were good – they certainly know their Marmalade. I looked around me and spied a few visitors in the lodge eating a very simple tea and toast, possibly cereal, breakfast. My fiancé ordered the same as me, with a few variations of styled eggs and opted for tea over coffee. The food came and my stomach growled with a low burliness to the waiter as if to say, “Thank you”.
    I poked and prodded.
    “What is this anyway?” I pointed at a brown pool of what looked like minced beef, with tiny little white balls.
    “Try it and find out,” my fiancé said in his English accent.
    “It looks a little unappetizing.”
    “You can’t go to Scotland and not have Haggis. It’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eifel Tower.”
    I saw his point. I scooped a spoonful in my mouth and chewed. At first I couldn’t really tell what it tasted like. It tasted like meat. My impression of meat, anyway, is not held in the fondest light. Asked to be a connoisseur for a rib-eye steak versus filet mignon, I would fail miserably. Is there even a difference? I was thinking these very thoughts when suddenly every single one of my ten thousand taste buds were finally connecting to my brain and every message was saying the same thing: the Horror!
    My face contorted, scrunched up, and I tried in all matters of vanity to keep a sensible face. I was a foreigner in a beautiful village surrounded by some of the friendliest, robust people I had ever met. And here I sat, the rude American, choking on her food in complete disgust, wanting to spit every gram and grain of everything in this so-called “recipe” … out.
    To give you an idea of my impression: simply put, and this is all only in matters of personal opinion, it tasted like meat soaked in blood with onion, spices and grits.
    It took me a minute to calm down before I looked at my fiancé and asked,
    “What exactly is ‘Haggis’?”
    “It’s sheep organs. The heart, liver and lungs. I’m not a big fan of it either.”
    The rest of the Full Breakfast was delicious. Huge, but good. I had come down from our room to the Lodge’s tea room famished. I left with an experience I will not forget and a full stomach.

  17. Veronica says

    My sophomore year of college was the first time I lived with my very own kitchen.

    I shared a two-bedroom apartment with way too many roommates and it was the first time any of us had lived on our own with no parents or cafeterias to cook for us.

    You could say it was a learning experience.

    I was the most food adventurous of the group so I would often be the one in the kitchen whipping up something for everyone, even though I had pretty limited technique and knowledge of ingredients. And very little money. We were all flat broke and shopped exclusively at Food-4-Less for the cheapest ingredients we could find. One of the best deals there were the 10-pound sacks of potatoes that sold for under a dollar. God bless the Northwest!

    But our knowledge of what to do with the potatoes was limited to mashing, baking and frying them into a (usually undercooked and greasy) hash. Once we’d had our fill of these starchy delights, we pondered other directions for our cheap potato bounty. One night, one of my roommates with a sweet tooth and a weak grasp of chemistry wondered aloud how long it would take for the starches to break down into simple sugars.

    “Carbohydrates are just, like, sugar, right?”

    “Potatoes are called pommes de terre in French,” offered the literature major. “That means apple of the earth.”

    “I love sweet potato pie,” I jumped in. “Maybe I could make a sweet and potato pie!”

    The potatoes were sliced thin and slathered with some cheap jam that came in a bucket. I layered them lovingly in a baking dish and dotted them with butter (or, if I’m being honest, margarine). I sprinkled the top with cinnamon and brown sugar and set it to bake for, oh, 2 hours or so at about 350.

    Everyone gathered around to taste the resulting steaming purply-brown concoction. Once we chiseled a small corner out, we each took a bite… and discovered that the French must be a very poetic people if they are capable of tasting a potato and thinking of an apple because this was monstrously bad and nothing like the sweet pie we’d all envisioned.

    That year I figured out much more appetizing frugal recipes like dals and curries, frittatas and lasagnas, soups and stews. I also created some other ill-advised culinary beasts – usually involving ramen noodles. But what I will always remember is the lesson I learned that day: potatoes are not apples, no matter what the French say.

  18. Dawn says

    In a fit of rebellion I decided to move to Louisiana from the west coast. I had spent my life in California, Nevada and Oregon, and wouldn’t have known andouille from okra. I drove up to my Baton Rouge apartment in a moving van and was instantly hit by the complete difference in the culture. My boyfriend and I settled in to our new home, adjusted to he heat and made some new friends. Right about then I truly learned to eat.

    There was a restaurant around the corner from our home, Cafe’ American, named after Rick’s in Casablanca. The food was nothing like Moroccan though, it was South East Louisiana creole and Cajun. Stuff that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. One night we had company, and there was a kitchen disaster at home. After the fire was out we walked to Cafe’ American and let someone else do the cooking. We started with the sweet potato hush puppies, moved on to salads that were really just a vehicle for copious amounts of dressing. When our main courses came is when I learned the meaning of food and friendship. We had each ordered something different, everything was put in the center, and we shared each spectacular dish. Sure the food was amazing, but the experience and the sharing is the Louisiana spirit of food.

    Sometime later a friend told me that you know you eat like a Louisiana when your eating a great meal and talking about other great meals you’ve had, and are gonna have. My boyfriend and I returned time and again to that place, learned to judge a po’boy by the number of napkins you need to eat it and the perfect flake of fried catfish there, but that night, with our friends, is the one that sticks in my mind the most. Reminds me, I should give them a call…

  19. Frieda Lighthouse says

    Sometimes a moment defines a relationship. A smell can bring back a part of your life. Some colors. . . . I’m alone with Grandma in her little Brooklyn kitchen. Her yellow canary is singing, runs of high trills. I glance over at the red and yellow plaster boy and girl on the wall, familiar and funny. Out the window, a gray day, pigeons swoop. Grandma’s at the refrigerator, getting out the little blue ceramic container of schmaltz. She shmears it on some pumpernickel, and smiles as she hands it over, her blue eyes sweet. It’s not something we get at home, it means Grandma, and it means feasts and stories about Russia, and poignant silences when we look at photos of her family from the Old Country, and walks under the El. I bite in, stare at the shiny gold Bon Ami can on the sink, and just know, at that moment, how lucky I am to be washed in her love.

  20. VeronicaSarah says

    I remember one day a few months ago I had an unexpectedly wonderful dining experience in Hood River at Nora’s Table. I am usually cautious about trying new foods so I avoid most gourmet restaurants but threw caution in the wind for one evening. I ordered a salad and a Southern inspired pork sandwich with a gourmet twist. The salad wasn’t an ordinary salad. It had an amazing balsamic homemade dressing and was topped with crunchy fried shallots. The pork sandwiches were no ordinary pork sandwiches. The waitress said the pork was cooked all day, molded into patties, and then fried which created a really nice texture. It didn’t seem overly greasy either despite being fried. Overall I was very impressed and will now seek out gourmet restaurants instead of avoid them.