A couple of years ago, a fellow foodie invited me to write a cook book (that’s how I prefer to think of it, anyway). I’d never really even considered writing a cook book. She said, “You know, just put your favorite recipes in it”, and suggested that I add some things I’d learned about cooking overseas. To give you some background, for nearly ten years we lived in a country that was not only high-altitude—which has its own challenges – it also had a shortage of gourmet food sections in the groceries. Heck, it just has a shortage of what a cook from around here would find available in the most basic of Piggly Wiggly’s. Who are we kidding? So we had to make substitutions – we had to go without ingredients sometimes – we had to be creative. What we learned about all that is that it is possible to substitute – if you aren’t too picky and can use your imagination. But I digress.
Another reason I’d never considered writing a cook book is because I’d never really read a cook book. I have a bunch of them, and I might occasionally pore through particular chapters looking for a new dish, or a new variation of an old dish, or that same old dish that I’ve just forgotten how to make. But I don’t call that reading. When in Mississippi two summers ago, however, that changed. I went to the library and looked through the food section, looking for something akin to Cornbread Nation, the series of food-writing anthologies put out by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Instead I found a shelf full of mostly cookbooks. I brought home two – one was a book about iced tea, the other was about Southern food, and had little vignettes from cooks, authors, mayors, and others—all about food. And I discovered a new genre of reading. Yes, these books had more than just recipes and tabbed dividers, to be sure. And in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t read every word of every recipe. But I think I can say with integrity that I read at least two cookbooks that summer. Then my mother decided I needed another book – it was more book than cookbook, but also had lots of recipes – and the writing was very much about foodways, and in particular, Southern foodways, which I have grown over the past few years to be very interested in – nay, fascinated by.
Yet another factor in this journey is that I’m not sure I can really claim to be much of a cook. I enjoy cooking. I’d rather cook than work most days, but I haven’t figured out how to make that morph into an income yet. I love to experiment with recipes, and if I have any skill at all, it’s a knack for putting together decent meals out of whatever I can find in the pantry or with leftovers. If every dish turned out in the end as I imagined it in the beginning, now that would be something. I guess looking at it that way, most of what I put together in the kitchen is generally edible – it’s just not always the same final product that I envisioned.
What have we learned so far? We’ve established that I may or may not be a cook – though I definitely want to be one, and pretend to be one at times. I may or may not be a writer – though I definitely want to be one, and try to be one at times. But I’m definitely a foodie. What’s that?
From www.slashfood.com:  “To be a foodie is not only to like food, but to be interested in it. Just as a good student will have a thirst for knowledge, a foodie wants to learn about food. Generally, you have to know what you like, why you like it, recognize why some foods are better than others and want to have good tasting food all or certainly most of the time. This doesn’t mean that you can’t eat flaming hot Cheetos every now and again, but it does mean that you don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s a nutritionally balanced meal. ..Just like food, learn about food and, most importantly, eat food.” Truth be told, I’ve probably been a foodie for a long time, and just didn’t know how to define myself. Until I actually looked up the term, I defined it as I see myself. I love to eat, but I’m not a glutton (unless it’s pizza or ice cream, in which cases that deadly sin comes a-hauntin’). I like to try new things – even weird things. I like to try new restaurants, and I know that holes-in-the-wall often produce amazing food. I like to read about food. I like to watch the Food Network, and have even convinced my children that they love it, too. (Each child can recognize a variety of food personalities, and can define words like “plating.” I’m very proud.)
I like to learn about food – history, tradition, innovations – anything. I like to cook, though I detest washing dishes, and I’d love to go to culinary school some day to figure out what all I’m doing wrong. I want a big kitchen some day with a Viking Range.
I plan my vacations around the restaurants available, and I remember them by what I ate and where. I can’t tell you what I wore on my first date with Melissa, but I can describe the meal from our date night in Hawaii. From where I sit, this makes me a foodie.
So what have I discovered, now that I know who I am? First, I should tell you, I wrote the cook book. It was short and sweet, made up mostly of recipes I had gathered (not developed) over the years, mixed in with food stories and quotes, and a few tips for substitutions. It was, to overuse a cliché, a labor of love. I have also figured out that all my reading and learning on the subject of food, while useful, is not the same as experience. I have had a few conversations recently with folks in the restaurant business and have come to realize that I need to apply some if this knowledge in a kitchen before I open my big mouth. One thing I can do with a big mouth, though – eat!
Jay Reed lives with his family in Starkville. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .