Just a little about how my love for cooking and healthy eating came to be. It is a jouney that happened many years ago, when I was just a young girl. Cooking has been my life long experience. Eating healthy has been a life long experience. Helping others to discover cooking and healthy eating, didn't really start until I found myself in charge of my fire department's employee wellness program. I realized that I have such a passion for using beautiful, healthy ingredients and I love to inspire others to do the same. These are my stories.
Here it is, 2015, and I am finally putting key stroke to virtual paper after just thinking about it for a couple of years. Hi there, my name is Valerie and I come to you from Washington State. Welcome to my blog. My goal is to share my observations and opinions surrounding food, cooking, food production, health, and the economies and ecologies that surround food. In no way do I consider myself an expert on any of these subjects. I just happen to be a woman who has a life- long passion for cooking, growing food and a career’s worth of observation of what kind of devastation diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer can impose on a life; diseases that may be directly influenced by diet. And lastly, I have had my own personal struggles with food and the effects on my body, which leads me to constantly search for answers. From a young age I noticed allergy like reactions with exposure to certain foods. Over the years, chronic exposure led to a litany of medical problems and frustrations. Once I identified the culprits, I made the necessary adjustments and went on my merry way. However, my body continues to change and many of the same symptoms have returned. My struggle to pin down the perfect diet for my unique system continues. We live in an interesting time when many people seem to be searching around for a style of cooking and eating that suits their personal health and food values. There are so many dietary labels out there to identify where a person fits in to the scheme of society; vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, paleo, locavore, gluten free, clean, etc., etc. The folks who eat a so called “normal” diet must feel like they have to duck the many slings of judgment that calls our mainstream diet in to question. I believe it’s time to take a comprehensive look at food production and diet in this country. Not just so we can all be svelte and look good, but for the health of the upcoming generations and the planet they will inhabit. I am a child of the sixties when the typical American diet was quite “Beaver Cleaver”, “Betty Crocker” and dinner was like “The Waltons”. Even though the modern conveniences of packaged and frozen foods was coming on strong, most of the cooking and eating originated at home. Even when “fast food” came along it was generally a treat rather than the norm in many people’s diets. As our society has sped up and more and more people went to work outside of the home, so has the outsourcing of our daily meals. Who even knows what the American “norm” is anymore? I have a lot more to say on every one of these subjects and other topics as well. My opinions may not always please everyone and I even reserve the right to change my opinion as I learn more and find compelling reasons to think a different way. It’s a journey that will continue every day until I journey no more. For me, growing and cooking food is about so much more than just feeding my family. Food can feed the body and soul, nourish love, and build relationships. At its worst, it can feel like an enemy. Sometimes food and how it came to be in the world can make me feel sad. My personal goal is to surround myself with food that is good for the body, the soul, my taste buds, and the planet. Pretty lofty goal but well worth it. I am so looking forward to sharing this journey with all of you.
How it all began - part one
Tucked away in a corner of the meandering Skagit River Valley, sits a small farm with magnificent views of the surrounding North Cascades. This little piece of heaven is where my love for food, cooking, and gardening began. My parents bought the farm when I was two years old and it will forever be “home”, no matter where I live. I guess nowadays, it would be considered a hobby farm because we only farmed to feed the family rather than making a living. Our place was roughly half gently sloping pasture land that butted up to forested hillsides. The original house was built in the 20's and I am assuming the big old classic barn must have been from the same era.
The idea that a rural family should generate much of their own food was not uncommon for those days. Both of my parents grew up participating in the growing, harvesting, and preserving of their family's food supply. I can not remember a time that we did not have a large garden. Everyone helped with the garden. Sometimes that row that needed weeding felt sooooo loooong on hot summer days. I'm sure I spent more time sitting in the dirt daydreaming then getting actual weeding accomplished. One of the realities of growing and eating that very organic food meant that you had to eyeball your salad carefully, lest you get the unwelcome surprise of a baby slug. Late summer was always a frenzy of harvesting, cleaning, and chopping before the long, long hours of canning, freezing, drying and preserving. There were hundreds of quarts and pints packed away in the basement to supply the family until it was growing time again. The fall was time to bring in the rest of the harvest and store away the hardened off squash, potatoes, carrots, onions, dried beans, apples, and pears. Wild and domestic berries were made in to wonderful jams and jelly. The garden wasn't the only thing that was harvested in the fall. We raised animals on our farm as well.
When I was really little, I remember my dad hunting for local venison as our supply of meat. We did not go with him for the hunt but the butchering process was something that involved the whole family. As we expanded our farm to raising animals, my dad cut way back on hunting. I can not remember which critters came first but I still remember the day when we got our first head of beef. My dad traded his high school trombone for a Hereford, who we named “Brown Eyes”. The next cow, "Satina", came from the neighboring Angus ranch. That was one ornery cow. I remember that my brother and I cheered my dad on as he was dragged around the field by the bucking, snorting Satina. He was not amused! Happily, from Satina came the docile “Butterfly”, black with the white butterfly patterned face. She, along with the full Angus “Martha”who was born on the day Martin Luther King died, became the two matriarchs of our little herd. But cows were not the only animals we raised. There were always chickens and ducks and every so often a couple of pigs. We had a rabbitry for awhile but at some point dad said they were just too cute to butcher and he just couldn't do it any more. For awhile, we had a couple of geese. I would pack those poor things all over the farm. I can still remember the smell of their soft downy breasts. They liked to sleep on the doorstep with the dog but that left unfortunate piles behind. Needless to say, we did not acquire more geese. Of course there was an assortment of kitties, a dog and a horse.
The raising of animals for meat is no small thing. It takes a lot of time and energy to properly tend to the animals year around. It was hard as a child to know that some of those beautiful animals would end up on the dinner plate. However, it was also the reality that we lived with and a real education about the proper rearing and humane treatment of farm animals. My not so fond memories include having to eat the organ meat. It was just a given that you do not waste the life that was just taken. Well, even though I ate plenty of organ meat when I was little, I will gladly step away and let someone else eat the liver (shudder). Mercifully, my grandmother had skills with offal and would come to our house to grind up different sandwich spreads and such, which were far more palatable. Speaking of my grandma, she is part of a better butchering day memory. On days we would cull chickens, she would come and help with the cleaning and plucking. Then we would stew up at least one chicken and hand make egg noodles from the pullet eggs in the hen. Now that is your classic “down on the farm” cooking.
Eggs were a big part of our diet as well. That was definitely a kid task to go rifle around the next boxes and collect chicken eggs. The duck eggs took more work because the ducks tended to hide their nests. Or the other silly thing the duckies did was lay their eggs in the pond. So my brother and I would go bobbing for eggs in the duck pond. The duck eggs were so rich compared to chicken eggs and made cakes very rich and yellow. Of course finding rotten eggs was good for the arsenal of things to throw at your siblings. Just don't do it by the house, pew!!
This was the lifestyle of my entire growing up years, just as it was for some of our extended family. When my grandparents moved to Eastern Washington, they were able to grow fruits and veggies that didn't do well on our side of the mountains. When they came to visit, their car would be loaded with fresh and canned goods as well as cartons of frozen fish. My grandma became quite the fisher woman and would freeze trout in milk cartons filled with water. There is nothing like a nice fish fry for breakfast. In the same vein as my paternal grandparents, my family would supply my maternal grandparents with fresh produce, once they moved from the country to the city.
Today in America, most people only augment their groceries with homegrown produce if they have it available. My family augmented our homegrown food with groceries from the store. Typically, we shopped for groceries about once a month. After all, how many of us can produce our own grains and adjuncts? One thing we usually bought was milk. Martha got milked when she was fresh, but Angus are not known for their milk production. Plus, we had to keep the calf's needs in mind. But it was always a treat to have a little fresh milk and cream for butter. The rest of the time it was an industrial size carton of non-fat, powdered milk that had to be mixed up daily. Sometimes we would buy day-old baked goods as a treat. The rest of the time we baked at home. The biggest difference I see between then and now is the availability of almost anything, at any time of the year. Even the store bought produce was seasonal when I was young. Seasonal produce was something to look forward to and I almost never saw exotic fruit.
In my adult life, I have attempted to keep as much of this way of life as alive as possible. There have been times when I lived on properties where I was able to produce large amounts of my family's food supply. There have also been many years when it just couldn't happen due to location and/or time restraints. I get really itchy during these times and usually have at least the minimum of some raised beds for fresh greens and herbs. It's been those times when I really started looking around to find what alternatives to gardening are out there. I have come to really appreciate farmer's markets, subscription farms and the increasing availability of organic produce in the grocery stores. There is a groundswell of small family farms that sell pastured and humanely raised meat and eggs. Finding small farm dairy products is a little more challenging. There is hope for anyone looking to find quality ingredients. I am just so grateful that I am once again in a situation where I can be responsible for much of food I partake in. There is something just a little extra delicious and oh so satisfying, when you nurture your dinner along from the start to the plate.
So, this is where the ingredients of my childhood came from. Next time, I will share how I began to cook. So long for now.
How it all began - part two
Many of my childhood memories are found in food. I suppose that is not all that unusual, considering it is one of the most repeated and potentially memorable daily activities we do. My very early memories are more like snapshots of my mother feeding my brother in his highchair, which looked more like a card table with a seat cut out of the middle; Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast; holiday meals with relatives.
Holidays....always the best!...if you are a kid that is. There are two distinct holidays that stick with me. When my Harris grandparents lived near us, we always went to Christmas Eve dinner at their house. My Grandma Sarah was at least half Norwegian and was raised in a household in Minnesota that was largely Norwegian influenced. I cannot remember the full meal that was offered but I do remember the lutefisk! Boy, do I ever remember the lutefisk. All of us kids would peer at it, soaking in pans, which had been relegated to the mud room. You see, lutefisk is a dried whitefish of some North Sea variety that is soaked in lye. I'm sure back in the day it made perfect sense to soak your food in poison as a preservation technique. Well to make the fish consumable, it had to be soaked in fresh water to remove the lye and reconstitute it. Then, if I remember correctly, it was steamed to reveal a gelatinous fishy end product which was eaten with potatoes. I was required to try it and I was ever so grateful to then move on to the Swedish Meatballs. To this day I serve.....Swedish Meatballs! What? You thought I developed a taste for fish Jell-O? Apparently, that Norwegian gene is defective in me.
Thanksgiving was another fond memory for many reasons. We usually spent that holiday with the Northup side of the family. My Grandma Eleanor was quite a traditional cook and while not necessarily super creative, she was meticulous in her methods. I can vividly recall the “Norman Rockwell” image of Grandma pulling a giant turkey from the oven. The sides were always very traditional and perfectly done. The family was large so we would set makeshift tables of plywood and sawhorses so we could have banquet style seating that stretched through two rooms of the house. The turkey was always carved at the head of the table and grace was always said. The pies stand out in my memory because in addition to the traditional pumpkin, we always made apple and mincemeat. Our mincemeat was usually made with venison and beef suet. I don't know why, but left over pie for breakfast the next morning...mmmm the best!
While my grandmothers were a huge influence on my cooking interest, it was parents who were my first models. Both of my parents cooked. Typically it was my dad who would wrangle the troops in the morning and make breakfast. He could get quite creative at times and I didn't know until many years later that not everyone ate things like fried bologna and hotdogs. Of course we also had lots of steak and eggs from the farm. The best was when we had pigs and would have fresh side pork. I think that has faded in popularity over the years for some reason but it's hard to describe, since it tastes nothing like bacon. Weekends were always the best because that is when we would have pancakes. At times we would have syrup from our own maple trees but Western Washington Big Leaf Maples do not have nearly the sugar content as East Coast Sugar Maples. The breakfasts I dreaded were the hot cereal days. I was over the moon when it was oatmeal with raisins because that meant it was NOT the horrible Cream of Wheat! Turns out, I am allergic to wheat so maybe it was a subconscious revulsion. Dad was also pretty good at the “empty the fridge in to a pot and make something out of it” department; something I seemed to inherit.
My Mom was more the creative type. She was raised on thoroughly “Midwest” style of farm food and seemed determined to change it up. Now this was the Sixties so there were definitely some typical dishes of the times. Such as, Jell-O as a salad. Jell-O served as a transport medium for all manners of add ins like cottage cheese, pineapple, carrots, cabbage, nuts, etc., etc. It was also a handy dessert that presented spectacularly when molded in to a variety of fetching designs, with beautiful layers of colors and add ins. A dollop of Dream Whip and voila! Mom really got creative when my brother developed pretty serious allergies and went through a food elimination process. For the first time we were exposed to “alternative” foods like soy and rice for wheat replacements. Little did I know then, those “alternatives" would become my life standard as an adult. I'm not sure my mom particularly liked to cook but it was a necessity. One needs to be creative when you have a freezer and pantry filled with a lot of the same items, year after year. I cannot even begin to calculate how many woman hours she has logged to canning, freezing, drying, juicing, pickling, etc., etc. Clearly I have some of my mom's genes too.
Living in a very rural area with few restaurants and no real cultural diversity meant that my exposure to cuisines was fairly mono-culture. There was the occasional Chinese restaurant or “Italian” which was Shakey's Pizza. The first time I was truly exposed to different cuisine was when I was 17 years old and spent the summer in Mexico City. My eyes were blown wide open to different food, tropical ingredients, flavors and attitudes about food. The dish that forever changed me was a family style platter of paella. I had never tasted saffron in my life. I never had that much seafood, in one place, at one time. I had no idea you could put that many ingredients in one dish! I went to Mexico with concerns that the food would be too hot for me. In reality, I had no frame of reference of “hot” because I never really experienced chili peppers. I found out that, the little bit of Spanish DNA that my grandma always theorized we have, seems to suits me. It has taken me years to explore the vast variety in the chili world. Turns out the hottest dish I had the entire summer was a spinach dish. Who would have guessed that? Within days of returning from Mexico, I set about recreating my favorite dishes from that summer. Within weeks of returning, I had moved from home to set up my first household where I started college. A new phase of my cooking life was born.
How it all began - part three
I was a Camp Fire Girl when I was a kid. At some point, we made beaded headbands with the Indian names that we selected for ourselves. I remember laboring over that decision because I believed it really needed to show my personality. I ended up selecting “Wild Goose” and looking back some forty years later, I think that was a perfect choice. I was a bit gangly, not particularly graceful, running about with hair flying wildly in the wind, and maybe a little silly. I probably could have been considered “a creative type” which could be translated to “create a big mess”. From a very young age, I was always dreaming up the next kitchen project to tackle. I knew every page of the half-dozen cookbooks we owned. The more elaborate and over the top fancy, the better. I wanted to learn it all and the desire to cook everything started at a very tender age.
I started kindergarten when I was four years old. At that time, class only lasted a half day. We lived a long way from the school so I couldn't just go home when class was released. My Grandma Sarah would pick me up at mid-day and take me to her house until it was time to catch the school bus. Those afternoons became a daily cooking lesson. My grandma, Sarah Harris, was an amazing cook. I'm not sure there wasn't anything that she couldn't cook. More than anything, she was a phenomenal baker. I seriously doubt she ever bought a loaf of bread or a pastry in her life. I have such clear memories of her, explaining the steps to start the yeast, the aroma of the proofing dough, and the anticipation of punching down the lofty pillow of silky dough. Probably the most intoxicating scent in the world is a still warm, freshly baked bread slice, with a puddle of melting butter and a spoonful of homemade jelly – heaven! I guess I was a little gosling, imprinting on the motions, the smells, the tastes, and the feelings that surround the family kitchen. Grandma and I talked cooking every year that we walked the planet simultaneously. We had cooking projects that involved anything new and different like fondu, to which my grandpa would hrrumph and complain under his breath that we were going to eat “gol darned hippie food”. She was adventurous well into her later years. We would plan Chinese meals on the phone and each practice different style of egg rolls before the big spread. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Grandma was a master in the preserving department. She made an incalculable number of pickles, jams, jellies, relishes, canned fruits and veggies. Not only did she share her recipes with me but she was my own personal help line when I was canning on my own. Grandma really was my first teacher in the kitchen.
Lessons with Grandma gave me a great start but my cooking skills might have not gone too far if my parents hadn't given me free range in the kitchen. When I think back, it was pretty gutsy of them to let an eight year old loose in the kitchen. I had a knack for using every mixing bowl and pot in the house. The kitchen usually looked like a hurricane hit it by the time dinner was ready for the table. While I referred to the recipe bible, Betty Crocker of course, I largely took a trial and error approach. This really is the method that I have built on through the years. This is how I developed the “feel” of cooking as well as a muscle memory for the basics. For me, the learning has never ended.
Over the years, it's the tidbits I picked up here and there that have folded in to my own personal style. Well before there was Food Network or Cooking Channel, there were at least two TV chefs that captivated me. I was always excited when the antenna was able to pick up the channel that had Julia Child. She was heroic to me but the chef that is fondest in my memory was closer to home, Graham Kerr. The Galloping Gourmet was my absolute favorite. Quite the opposite from the serious Child, Graham's energetic and humorous style amused me to no end. Looking back, I'm sure much of the humor was way over my head. But I do remember that he always had a glass of wine in front of him as he romped his way through each recipe. I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Kerr a couple of years ago. I was so thrilled to find out that he is still out there, promoting sustainable farming and eating practices. He has done just wonderful work.
Sometimes, it's the littlest things that stick with you and change your style forever. When I gave birth to my son, complications made it necessary for us to stay in the hospital for five days. Just before going in to labor I had made a pot of soup in preparation. My mom had come across the state to help out with the baby and I told her about the soup. I felt like something was not quite right with it and I just could not place it. She said she would doctor it and put it to use. I tried some after I got home and couldn't believe how much better it tasted. It turned out, all she had done was add a can of tomatoes. What a difference that made and I never forgot that. That was when I started to understand how to build flavors and complexity. Just like music, my soup had been a solo instrument or maybe even a duet. It can sound a little thin until you add the rest of the band and bring in the high and low notes.
My home cooking experience has been embellished just a bit with time spent in some small commercial kitchens. I worked in the grade school cafeteria kitchen as a helper to the lunch ladies, which was thrilling for me. I did that as often as I could all the way through high school. I got my very first restaurant job at fifteen. I was the cook's assistant at a local, family style restaurant . I can not tell you how excited I was to have that job. It was especially exciting when the cook took her dinner break let ME run the grill! Super exciting. That gave me a taste of restaurant cooking and a foundation for my first job after leaving home. I was a short order cook at the Big Scoop Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor. I found out that cooking in a restaurant is such a different beast than cooking at home. I did that for a couple of years but at the same time I became a nurses aid and worked in a nursing home. I was in school, intent on becoming a nurse and the call to medicine became stronger than the lure restaurant life. For a very brief stint after my son was born, I became the breakfast and daily special cook for a little diner out in the middle of the Palouse wheat fields. Learning to cook eggs on a flat top was yet another new learning curve. That was the last time I ever cooked in a restaurant until I got to play with Random Howse a couple of times last year. As I started poking around the RH kitchen as the “guest chef”, I was really astonished how many lessons from my past had stuck with me.
My experiences amalgamate to a strong base for a home cook but it's been tested a few times. Over the years I have been crazy enough to tackle huge feats such as, catering my own daughter's wedding. At the end of that evening, I believe it was the most exhausted I have ever been in my entire life! Well, I take that back – the salmon dinner we put on for Dad's Celebration of Life was pretty dang close. This is saying a lot since I have done many exhausting things like Fire Academy, triathlons, ropes training, etc. So, why do I do it? I just love it. I love the challenge. I am still learning and growing. In fact, the more I learn, the more I find there is to learn. Television and internet has taken this humongous world, with its thousands and thousands of cuisines and an even bigger variety of ingredients and spices than I can even imagine, and make it all available with a few key strokes. The internet has also connected me with people who share my passion that I otherwise would not have met. They bring their own unique experience and tips to add to my repertoire. My grandma is no longer with us but my daughter and I are the ones talking food now. The next generation is here and believe me, they have their own palate and preferences. I am the grandma now and hopefully I will have a positive influence on their attitudes about food.
Half a century + down, half or so to go. So many dishes, so little time. Gotta get cooking!