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Becoming a tasty cook

As I sat down at the computer to write this column, the aroma of a tasty roast filled the house. Tasty, in relation to this roast, isn’t just an adjective—it’s also a proper name, because this roast came from one of Dex Vogel’s cows. I picked up several boxes of beef from Angus Custom Cuts and, after working my way through a few pounds of hamburger, roast and a variety of steaks, I knew this steer had to have a name, so I christened him Tasty. It fit him well.

This column isn’t about Tasty, however, as he’s going to get his own story just as soon as Dex finishes with basketball and has time to sit down for an interview. This column is about cooking, because it wasn’t until Tasty entered my life that I became a good cook.

Food has never played a very important role in my life. As a teenager, I could have lived forever on Swanson’s® chicken pot pies and Doritos® Nacho Cheese corn chips (then a brand new product) covered with a thick layer of melted cheddar. As I grew older, my repetoire did not grow by much. On my fortieth birthday my neighbor Janet asked me what my ‘comfort food’ was. I stared at her blankly. Food as comfort? Food, I thought, was simply fuel.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have strong opinions about food and diet.  After all, I grew up in an America not only afraid of food (eggs and butter would kill you if you ate them very often) but one enamored with the promise of technology (eat just like the astronauts!—I still remember with fondness some kind of chocolate food product roll I ate with relish, imagining astronauts circling the earth above me, eating the very same thing).

At the same time it was also an America beginning to recognize that when we tried to replicate God, we generally got it wrong, or at least not completely right. A growing natural (now called organic) food philosophy gained greater attention, one that I might have embraced except for the fact that every so-called natural food store or restaurant I ever entered smelled bad.

So I rejected all of it. I developed a philosophy of food that, at its heart, was pretty much a denial of any food philosophy at all. I figured if God made it, and your body wanted it, it was probably good for you and left it at that and there my interest in food ended. Besides, I was a terrible cook. Cooking was simply another chore to me, an activity where you had to do a lot of work (shopping, storing food, cooking it and then cleaning up the mess) for very little return, because everything I made tasted.... well, bad. Given my propensity for burning whatever I cooked, this was not very surprising, but it didn’t lead me toward any great interest in food, either. Swanson® chicken pot pies remained on the menu—God might not have made them, but he made the chickens and the peas and the carrots and that was enough.

As the years passed, my food philosophy slowly grew more sophisticated in the true, dictionary-defined meaning of the word: 1. complex 2. made worldly-wise by wide experience and 3. intellectually appealing.

The complexity came about by developing any opinions at all. Experience taught me that what the food industry provided was lacking—the tomato in the store didn’t taste anything like the tomato that grew in my mother’s garden. And intellectually, it became harder and harder to ignore the very real dangers present in eating the food that packs the shelves of the standard grocery store. Downer cows, e coli, salmonella poisoning... the almost constant stream of alerts and food recalls (this week—anything made with peanut butter!) would make anyone with half a brain a little uneasy, and I always figured I had more than half a brain.

My experience (and experiments) with food continued to grow beyond what industry provides and I discovered Wood’s hamburger meat, Ronniger’s potatoes, fresh eggs from Timothy and Christine Dick, the taste of a Pend d’Oreille Winery merlot (thanks, Ernie and Linda), that first home-grown steer I got from Steve Johnson, and the sheer glory of those sumptuous, pale golden cobs when the corn man arrives at the Farmer’s Market.

On the intellectual side, I also discovered Michael Pollan, who put my growing food philosophy into words in an article for the New York Times on food. “Eat food,” he wrote. “Not too much. Mostly plants.” (You can read it here)

Food, by the way, is that stuff that God makes, or as close as you can get to it. It’s the potatoes from Dave Ronniger, the eggs from your neighbor’s chickens, the cow from Dex or Steve or any of the other people around here who raise cattle (or pigs or chickens or whatever it is you find tasty). It’s not, sad to say, what you find in that Swanson’s® pot pie or in that bright red bag of Doritos®. The ingredients in those products are, more than likely, the ingredients that cause what the Centers for Disease Control say is an estimated three bouts of food poisoning per year for each and every American.

My experience with food grew further still when my son went to work at Dock of the Bay with Barney and Carol Ballard, both of whom take simple cooking to high art. My daughter followed him there within a year, and suddenly I had kids in the house who not only appreciated good food, but preferred it over my own offerings of burnt pizza. I began cooking more, and in the process began incorporating more of God’s food into my meals.

On top of the growing realization experience provided that some food tastes really good—maybe even more than really good—I met David. I won’t try to explain David’s eating habits other than to say I’m not sure if there’s anything David won’t eat, and that includes the mystery dish that’s been in the back of the refrigerator for six or eight months. By this point in his life, I think he may only possess four or five taste buds. And that means he loves everything I make. “Wow, that was great,” he’ll say after using a piece of bread to wipe his plate really clean. “Thank you.”

He thinks I’m a good cook. He really does. And sometimes, I am. The simple secret is in the quality of the ingredients (well, and in watching what you’re cooking instead of going off to check email while it burns). Don’t get me wrong—nobody’s going to come to dinner at my house and say, “Trish, that was incredible! You should open a restaurant!” But they now might actually say, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a roast that tasted so good.” And if that dinner is held in late fall, they’ll ask for seconds on the corn.


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

cooking, food, Dex Vogel, grass-fed beef, Woods Meats, Ronnigers, Michael Pollan, David, Pend d'Oreille Winery

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