Food is something to be experienced. That took me a while to learn. I was a fairly picky kid and some of the texture issues have followed me to adulthood. Give me french fries, cheese sandwiches, a salad bar, and some waffles, and I was happy from the ages of 1-12. Anything else was outside of my comfort zone. Sure, there were things that I had to try and through adolescence my palate expanded, but I was never an adventurous eater. Growing up on a cattle ranch in the wilds of Idaho really set the tone for how I experience a meal, but learning to appreciate preparation as much as the raw materials took some time. So far there have been several lessons that have served me well, no matter what kind of food situation I end up in.
Lesson 1: Just One Bite
Spring on the ranch is the best. The warm shows back up, there are baby animals all over the place, everything seems new and full of possibility. One of the things that has to be done before turning out for the summer is castration of the male calves, and since nothing goes to waste if we can help it, that means Rocky Mountain Oysters were on the menu.
One of the lucky ones.
The year that I connected the dots between the bits of salty, rich, garlicky goodness that we always had the night after branding and the fact that we had spent that afternoon cutting the nuts off baby calves and saving them in a bucket was a rough one. But, my parents convinced me to just take one bite, and it was then, in my curly pigtails and pink cowboy boots, that I realized that bull balls are delicious and it never hurts to just try something.
Lesson 2: Killing OJ
My first 4H steer was named Orange Julius. He was a magnificent animal – 1280 lb of choice Hereford Charlois cross awesomeness. This animal was my buddy. Everyday he was fed and brushed, walked, petted, and loved on. He had personality and would run and buck mischievously every time I let him out after his workout. My competitive streak was really what was at play here – I wanted best in show. No matter how much a farm animal is loved, in the end, it has to fulfill its purpose. For a beef steer, that means getting on the big truck to the processing plant and ending up in somebody’s freezer.
I cried. My dad had to walk with me right up to taking off his halter and shooing him up the ramp with the rest of the poor, doomed beasts. At 11 years old, my heart was broken to give up my pet. My dad told me that time heals all wounds. But what the real lesson here was, is that checks help too. Raising beef is a business. Farming is a business. So is supply chain, grocery stores, restaurants, and the rest. Food can be heartbreaking and it can be transcendent but for someone, it is their life sustaining force in more than the eating way, because it pays their bills. Food doesn’t magically appear at the grocery store. Someone put time and effort in to getting it there and that should be appreciated.
Lesson 3: Just Pick Something
Small town Idaho isn’t exactly rife with high end dining experiences. Growing up, there were a couple of burger joints, a couple of pizza places, two Chinese restaurants, and a steak house that we wore our spurs in to if we hadn’t had a chance to take em off yet. So, after moving out, some friends decided that it was high time that I had sushi. We dressed up for an evening out and headed to a nice sushi place in Spokane. TBH we had pregamed pretty hard and I have no idea what I actually had once the sake started flowing, but I do know that ordering was a ridiculous process only out-dumbed by trying to learn how to use chopsticks.
Chopsticks weren’t that hard but eating rice with them can still go die in a fire.
That night taught me that it doesn’t matter whether or not I know what something is – just pick. Chances are, its great. I still haven’t met much sushi that I don’t love to this day.
Lesson 4: It’s Okay To Spend The Money (if you’ve got it to spend)
I am quite fortunate in that the vast majority of my high end dining experiences have come on someone else’s credit card. This actually trained me very well to order what it is that I want, rather than what I can justify. Part of the fun of anxiety for me is not feeling valuable. This has led to all kinds of fun things, like avoiding doctors visits, buying endless cheap crap rather than the one sort of expensive thing that will last a long time, and ordering the least expensive thing on the menu or pretending an appetizer or a side is a meal. Whether its steak and seafood and bottles of wine worth more than I make in a day, or high concept, 12 course experiences, I’ve learned that those things have value beyond ending up with a full stomach and that sometimes, its okay to splurge. This is how we ended up smoking an Wagyu brisket for 16 hours and enjoying every last meaty bit, and how I’ve expanded my horizons to being good enough for the tenderloin and the martini every once in a while, instead of a burger and beer always.
Lesson 5: Be Curious
I’ve also been lucky enough to travel a little. Sometimes, this means shutting up, stuffing my opinions and fear, and eating things that I’m still not quite sure of in the name of not being That Bitch. You know, the white, American, no spice tolerating, ranch dressing loving stereotype that exists because it’s based in epic amounts of truth? That Bitch. Having soul food with a white cop in a Maryland restaurant on Sunday afternoon was an incredible experience, and not just because I was laughed at by a lot of ladies in church clothes for never eating okra before. So was beer, elk roast, and lingonberry sauce in Stockholm with my Swedish co-workers in a pub on a snowy night. Feeling like a futuristic viking, talking tech in a pub older than my country was pretty excellent. There are times I still dream about once walking in to a grocery store hot food counter in South Florida and pointing at what looked good and walking out with the most incredible Cuban lunch ever. Well, maybe it was the next day when a box of Jamaican jerk chicken showed up at my desk and I nearly died of happiness all over again. One night, I got to sit in an all-but-empty French restaurant in Montreal, taking down an amazing cheese plate and a bottle of wine and watching Canadian Football while the rest of the city slept. Friends of friends end up seeing how excited I get about trying new things and spend far too much of their time showing me the right way to eat and enjoy the endless Vietnamese food they bring to gatherings. It’s the sharing that is the best part. Being curious and willing to try makes it easier to connect with the people around us. Even if it’s just for a few minutes over a meal.
Preferably the kind of meal that happens in a parking lot before a football game. Those are the best kind.