My father was raised in Texas, where his entire family still lives. My mother grew up on the east coast. They met in grad school and traveled around Europe together, before moving back to the US and having me. I grew up in New York until I was six and we moved up to Massachusetts. So that meant a lot of brunches at nice Brooklyn restaurants. I remember many weekend mornings going out getting waffles with whipped cream, or pancakes, or oatmeal. And meeting up with my parents’ friends.
A lot of my earliest food memories are traditions that go back farther than my memories do. Every year around Christmas my dad’s family would do the winter banquet. It was an annual hours-long, five-course feast put on by his family in Texas on Christmas Eve. There was a turkey, cranberry sauce, iceberg wedge salad with ranch dressing, and pie served among other courses that varied from year to year. My extended family departs on their various holidays quickly after Christmas, so the winter banquet is the only time we all got to spend together typically. So that was really a big deal, that was one of the big moments. And we’d usually do Thanksgiving. We usually spend holidays in Texas or in D.C. with my mom’s family. We would all eat watching the football game. Texas and Washington play each other on Thanksgiving, so no matter where we were it was always the game.
There was always Passover with my mom’s family. Always catered, never cooked by my grandmother. But it was always delicious. That was the first time I was allowed to have wine, and the first time I ever had things I’ve loved my entire life, like matzoh ball soup and the Jewish version of brisket. Those traditions were really the first things for me, that’s really what food meant – the family aspect, the communal aspect. It was a big deal, the food. It was just as big a deal as the family part, because we’d spend a week preparing – bringing my dish, getting all the stuff we needed, and fasting. That was always a huge deal.
And then for my birthday I always wanted the Swedish meatballs from IKEA. This is way before anyone found out there was horse in them. I loved those, and I would probably still be eating them except for . . . but I don’t think they do that anymore.
Very, very picky
I was a picky eater when I was young, very, very picky. I would pretty much only eat pasta with butter and cheese. That was about the only thing I would ever eat. And hot dogs. I ate hot dogs too. But basically from about age two to maybe around 12 or 13 those are the only things I would eat. And so going anywhere with my parents was difficult. The only time I would have other things was during these big main events, like the winter banquet. It was expected that I would eat the dishes there. I wouldn’t eat everything.
There are still things I won’t eat, even though I’m an adventurous eater now. But I don’t do sweet potatoes or tomatoes. That’s always been true and that’s something I got grief for on holidays. It’s a very visceral thing. I think it’s something about the texture. It’s weird because I love ketchup and tomato sauce and pretty much everything that’s derived from tomatoes I really like. I think it really is the texture, maybe a little bit of taste. I’ve never really been able to figure out why. There is no traumatic back story for it. But that’s has been true of my entire life, even as every other real hangup I’ve had has gone. I think that’s why I liked pasta so much. I just liked the texture.
When I was really in the depths of my picky eating, maybe I was 11 or 12, I started making these things. We were big Trader Joe’s people. And they had these things, they were like pitas but they were about the size of silver dollars. They were mini-pitas essentially. And I started taking shredded cheese and putting it on top of a plate of these pitas and microwaving it. I called them melties. And I couldn’t get enough of them. I was so passionate about them that I sent a letter to Trader Joe’s explaining my idea and telling them that they should sell these in their stores. I got a letter back and as far as I know the concept is still in development. I’m waiting for the big bills any day now. I made something very similar for lunch today.
Maybe at 12 or 13 my parents started really pushing me with our daily meals. My parents are really good cooks and they really started pushing me to get out of my comfort zone, to eat things that I usually didn’t. We would do something called New Food Monday. When I was in elementary school and the beginning of middle school was when this was all happening. Every Monday they would try to introduce me to a new food. I could give it the thumbs down if I didn’t like it, but they tried to push my boundaries a little bit. And that helped a lot. Around that time we also started traveling a lot. We drove from Austin, Texas, to L.A. And we went to Italy. And going to Texas and traveling in New Mexico helped me a lot. My parents showed me it could be fun to try new things, not just a chore item on a list. And then when we got to Italy, that really just changed my whole perspective on food. Because it’s so much better than any of the food you can get here – well, maybe not all food, but it’s a cut above. Especially where we were in Umbria, truffle pasta and squid ink pasta. I’m still big on pasta, but using pasta as a vehicle to try to get me to try new things was really effective for my parents.
Texas has forced me outside of my boundaries
Once I got to college, I don’t really know why, but my taste really changed in food. I started putting a lot of hot sauce on stuff. Really started enjoying Mexican food a lot more. I go to school in Texas so it’s a lot of what we have that’s good. I can’t really explain it – because I never really cared about Mexican food before going to Texas. I had been going to Texas my entire life and eating Mexican food my entire life because my dad was a huge Mexican food fanatic. But I’d never really liked it, never given it much thought. And then, about the time I went to college it just changed. I started eating it, couldn’t get enough of it and now it’s one of my favorite things. I love pretty much everything to do with Mexican food. Part of that was that my dad and I and a friend took a trip down to the border, to a place called Del Rio and we had enchiladas there that just completely changed my opinion of Mexican food. They had mole on them. It was weird, it was the middle of the day and I don’t know why there was no one else in the restaurant. I think it had just opened maybe and we were the first people in there. It was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
Texas has forced me outside of my boundaries a lot. It’s hard to get some things I like. There’s no Italian food, there’s no Chinese food, which are my two real touchstones for food. So I had to think outside the box a little bit.
Barbecue. I would say I appreciate it more now that I’m living in Texas, but barbecue’s always been an important thing. And a reason to go to Texas and a reason to travel outside of the place where my family lives. Because barbecue’s fairly spread out. So my dad and I would take daytrips to visit barbecue places. But barbecue is another one of these things where it’s a little like a family event in that it’s very much an experience. Like Franklin’s, the famous barbecue place in Austin that I’ve been to four or five times now. Where you have to wait four hours in line for barbecue. You get to know the people in line, in front and behind you. They come out and they bring you snacks. You get the barbecue and you sit there and you chat. Then at the end you get the best barbecue you ever had. You’re going for the whole thing. You’re not just going for the food. Because if you were just going for the food there’s places in and around Austin that don’t have those lines. They might not be better but they’re just as good. But everybody’s just so excited to be there and it’s a great experience. It’s like going to a rock concert.
My roommate and my dad and I recently, this fall, went to this place – Snow’s, which never was on the Texas Monthly barbecue list, the definitive account of what’s good in barbecue in Texas. And that was a really incredible thing. It’s a very small town, about an hour outside of Austin. And it was a woman pitmaster, which is really unusual. It wasn’t that long a line because it’s really far, but it was crowded, full of people. They only serve barbecue on Saturdays. They’re only open on Saturdays. There was free beer, a live band. And I got to shake the hand of the pitmaster and say thank you for this wonderful thing. It’s an experience. It’s the whole package and such a fun thing to do. There’s really not anything else like it.
When I went to Texas my freshman year, we had conversations about barbecue where my friends from Texas asserted that they knew the best barbecue place. So my friend and I went to this barbecue place called Iron Works in Austin. Their barbecue is mediocre, I think. It’s not a very highly rated place, but it was the only place he’d ever been. So then, after we finished, I said that was good, but let me take you next week to my favorite barbecue place. So the next week we went to Franklin’s, and I completely converted my friend I think. I asked him which one was better and he said Franklin’s was better, there’s no question.
You have to have parents who appreciate this kind of thing. I know that his parents are not. Lots of my friends’ parents don’t care about food, it’s just another one of the things you have in your life. That’s not true of my parents! I’m lucky that way, in some ways, and in other ways it’s a curse because I’m constantly searching for my next high. Being able to appreciate good food is one of life’s great pleasures, as far as I know.
I have a lot of friends who are vegan. I respect vegans and I think that’s the way things are headed ultimately in terms of food. But I will not be one of those. I will not be ahead of that curve. I’m going to eat meat until they outlaw it. That’s certainly a product of my upbringing. I just had it as a fundamental part of my diet from day one. So there was never any question about it for me. The ethical ramifications are sort of secondary for me, unfortunately. It’s such a fundamental part of who I am.
Chain restaurants in Austin are also good, but there’s not really any reason other than the convenience of a drive through to go to chain restaurants in Austin when there’s so many other great places. They have better ones than they have here [Massachusetts]. P. Terry’s, the local Austin burger place – it’s pretty delicious. We have In-N-Out in Austin, which is my favorite chain burger place. It’s great — you can’t even find that on the east coast. There’s a Shake Shack, which I’ve been to a couple of times, but P. Terry’s, that’s the local thing. Everybody likes Whataburger, which I can’t stand.
The other thing that’s very good in Austin is the Asian food — not Chinese, there’s not a single Chinese restaurant in Austin. But Thai is phenomenal. They have really upscale sushi places that are really, really delicious. I’ve been to a couple of those places. But I miss Chinese food. There’s none in Dallas, as far as I know there’s none in Houston. Maybe it’s the immigrant population, the Chinese moved to the coast? But I don’t have any evidence for that. I think that people just don’t want it. I’ve been to one Chinese place in Austin that was not a Panda Express and I had to take the bus to the end of the line and then walk half a mile to get to it. And it was fine, it’s good. It was delicious.
I think the cities have a real monopoly on that kind of thing. San Francisco and New York, obviously, two I’ve been to that have been good. L.A. has good Chinese. But I’ve never really been anywhere else . . . I mean here Great Wall is good. For me Chinese food has been huge. I think that’s probably because I grew up in New York, going to dim sum places since I’ve been born. But Chinese isn’t something you can ever make at home. You can’t make dim sum in your kitchen. So that was a special thing for me, and still very much is. I just finished my classes on Friday. We had Great Wall to celebrate because it’s still my favorite. If I could eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would probably be the American version of Chinese food.
I cook most of my meals
No Italian in Austin, but Italian is easy enough to make. I make a lot of Italian. I make some attempts at Chinese food but it’s not all it could be. I really only started cooking in the second half of high school. Very occasionally I would cook something for a special occasion, like for my parents’ birthdays. First thing I learned how to cook were recipes from my father’s grandmother, from Texas: fried chicken and chicken fried steak. So I made those, and pie, which was my grandfather’s domain. He made this cherry pie that was his specialty. It was the only thing he ever made that I could ever see, but he made it damn well. It was amazing. So I got that recipe from him. Started making that. I have created my own recipe out of that, based on that recipe. He used canned cherries and I use fresh. And I have a different piecrust recipe. His was more complicated than I was willing to do. Now I make all kinds of pies. I’m probably going to make a strawberry rhubarb in the next couple of weeks since it’s getting about that time. So pie has always been one of the things I really specialize in. I really love to make them and there’s opportunities for creativity in the rigid structure there.
But I’ve really branched out. I cook most of my meals in Texas. I kind of got a system down where I sort of swap out ingredients based on what theme I’m wanting that night. And I’ve been doing meal prepping. I do four or five days of meal prepping, so I have food. For finals that’s been really, really helpful for me. It’s never the most amazing food I’ve ever had, but . . . I start with chicken usually because it’s very cheap and it’s easy to get. And I either add rice or pasta, and then I do either an Asian-inspired dish or Italian, based on what ingredients I have, essentially. Recently I’ve added Greek lemon chicken to my short list. But I really just sort of mix and match based on what I have in my refrigerator. It can really be anything, depending on the week. I always make it up. That has gone awry in the past but I’ve found the best way to do it is to start with a recipe and go from there. I really like to improvise and I like that about cooking more than baking where you can’t really improvise.
I usually have an idea of what I want to make and I will look up how to do it. Either that or I’ll look at what I have in my fridge and look at recipes of what I can make with those ingredients. I’m trying to work more out of cookbooks because I think the recipes are a lot more carefully put together than the ones online for the most part. I’m really trying to branch out but I will always come back to just the Italian kind of basic food that I love so much.
The other thing I do is I still cook for special occasions, birthdays, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, things like that. So, this year for Mothers’ Day I did a lamb pistachio patty dish with this yogurt dipping sauce. And then for dessert we had burrata and charred grapes. All out of a recipe book. I’ve tried to do a couple of cooking sessions without recipes and I haven’t done very well. So I’m starting to go back to the recipes in the book. Things like that I really love doing – big projects, assignments. It’s really fun. It’s a great way to be creative and to get something really good out of it.
I made this kind of chicken nugget type deal for a meal prep and then just having a friend over and we ate them all. Cooking food in that way is not really something I’ve ever seen anyone my age do. I’ve been over to friends’ houses and they’ve made a dish that they want me to try and I’ve eaten that, but to have like a dinner party — I’ve never really seen that. The only real communal aspect of food in my friend groups is to go out to eat. You go out to eat in a nice place with your friends and it’s fun. I’ve done that a lot. Especially here. And of course I’ve had friends over when I’m cooking something special here, but then we ate with my parents. It’s not really like a potluck dinner or party or anything – they never bring anything. It’s really fun.
It’s really fun to cook for your friends, but the only person I regularly cook for is my roommate. And I sometimes throw a couple of prepared meals his way so he’ll have something good. Well, he buys the groceries too. I will sometimes do a pretty elaborate dish and I’ll get his input on what he wants. But my roommate’s really the only person I share food with in that way, and it’s sort of a matter of convenience. I think that kind of food preparation thing is not really common in my generation. My friends all love food and we do go out. My friends and I have gone on road trips to go get food from other places in Texas. Or New Mexico, recently.
But I don’t really know anybody who knows how to cook en masse. I think three people’s the max that I can feed with my kitchen. My counter space is super limited. I really have to ration space when I cook. Even just for myself. And if I’m trying to do something ambitious it’s really, really difficult. Last year I was living at a place called The Co-op. That was a communal living situation. There was a huge kitchen downstairs that was basically a professional kitchen. And I would work in the kitchen cooking for the entire house. Which was really fun, and one of the things I enjoyed most about what was not a great living situation. It was a very communal dining situation, but that was not really always what I wanted. So some nights I would kind of stay in my room and I bought a hotplate, but that was about the most difficult cooking situation I had. There was no sink I could put food into or trash can in my room that I could put food into. I could make food in one pot and it was an incredible mess to do. So I really only made chili and congee the entire year.
A lot of my friends don’t know how to cook. I think that maybe there’s a desire to learn how to cook, but no real way of getting there. Not that’s it’s hard. Anyone can look up a YouTube video and follow it these days. Or a cookbook. That might even be worse. With the YouTube videos – for anybody cooking for the first time – your result’s guaranteed not to look like it does on the video, or in the book. I have friends who have tried to learn how to cook, and it doesn’t always come out well. I think that can be discouraging. There have always been people who can’t cook. Now that it’s less of a necessity than ever I think that number may go up. But several of my friends have discovered — me included — how fun it is. And how gratifying it is to be able to cook, not only for yourself but for someone else.
It’s so gratifying to be able to cook
I love to come home after school and fire up the oven. When money’s tight there’s nothing better. I never eat fast food in Austin. I don’t live anywhere where it’s close. Not for dinner anyway. When I’m on campus it’s different. The quality of food on campus is not great so to be able to go home and cook something I really like, it’s so valuable for me to be able to do that. It’s very comforting and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. But a lot of people are perfectly happy to get chicken fingers and french fries and have that for dinner. But I’ll never do that. I know too much of the good life already having been raised in a house with cooks who would never do that. A lot of my friends who don’t feel that way were raised on fast food. I think it’s more common among my friends in Texas than it is here – the affinity for fast food and things like that.
For me, it’s so gratifying to be able to cook something yourself and enjoy it. And not be dissatisfied with it. It’s one of the best feelings.
Recently I’ve been fermenting — my roommate and I. We did four jars, radishes and pickles. And we varied the ingredients to see if it would even work because this was the first time. And they turned out pretty well. The pickles were really, really good. And the radishes, they were really fantastic. That was a really fun experience. I’m definitely going to do more of that.
Things like that I think are pretty popular among people my age. Like baking sourdough, or fermenting are kind of like fads. Things you read about on the internet and then you just try it. And that’s kind of what it was for me, fermentation. I think that’s how a lot of people discover this kind of thing. So it does sort of remove some of the barrier about creative cooking. So you don’t have to have had these amazing foods already to know you want to try them. And I do think the internet’s had sort of a weird effect on people that way. I have friends that like watching cooking videos much more than they like cooking. I’ve never understood it. I hate watching cooking videos because it just makes me want to cook. I think that it’s great if you actually do the things in the videos. If you just watch it and think about steak, that’s different. That’s more like entertainment than food.
I think the experimenting with stuff like fermentation has been really fun for me. It gives you unique ingredients so you can continue to make new things. And continue to experiment, which if you’re working on the same diet like I am, it can be monotonous. I try to buy new things from the grocery store every week. Keeping that sort of fresh has been a way that I’ve managed to make my cooking more enjoyable.
I work at a bakery. I work at what I think might be the best bakery in the country. It’s certainly up there. I’ve worked there for five years now on and off. When I work there, every time I get pastries. And they’re really, really delicious. I eat them more than once a week. So when I’m not at Hungry Ghost I don’t really feel the need to bake. I can never make something as good as something from there. I would like to make bread but I know I’d kill any starter I’d try to raise. The starter they have there is 23 years old. I could get that but I know I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I think I’m in a unique position – among my friends – due to my food-loving background, for appreciating food.
Food brings people together
In my family it truly is a family event to cook. I’ve never had dinner separately from my parents when we’re all staying in the same house. We always eat together. And there’s a lot to be said for that. Food brings people together. It can be a very communal thing, and I think ideally it is. In my family we talk about other food while we’re eating. We’ll talk about food we had in the past while we’re eating.
But I think even more than that for me food is a part of the Jewish faith. And in that instance where I cooked for my parents [when they visited Austin] I made them latkes. We made them together really. It takes on this whole new dimension when it’s part of your heritage and the making of the food is part of the process of celebrating your heritage. And that’s true on my dad’s side of the family too, where it’s much more about the family than the heritage for me in that instance.
The thing with my dad’s family is that food is such a big deal. The food is sort of secondary to the Jewish part on my mom’s side. But on my dad’s side, food is the main attraction. We’re there because of the food. My entire family usually. We’ll all get together and we’ll eat, or go out to eat. There’s so much discussion about what’s the better food, this place or that place. And this place you gotta try and this thing we had back when we were kids. And so it really it is a significant connection to every other part of the world for that side of my family. It’s a great thing to have that connection to food, to have it be much more than just sustenance.