New Foods… Chef’s Surprise

 

When I was in my late teens, I found an old purse that had belonged to my grandmother and in it was a shopping list. Among other items, she had written “spigety” and I showed it to my mother and had a little chuckle over how it was spelled. My mom was also amused, but then she smiled at me and said, “And you know–she did not mean “spaghetti”–she would have been buying macaroni noodles for mac and cheese. My mom would have never made spaghetti.”

Well, that was a surprise to me, because we had Italian spaghetti at our dinner table regularly. But, when my mother was a child, she grew up in a home where her parents were first-generation Americans. Her father’s parents had emigrated from Switzerland, and her mother’s dad was Swedish and the mom was born and raised in Scotland. There was no spaghetti served in those homes. Both families were dairy farmers, so cheese was a major food group.

I began to think about my food journey for this post and I’m so lucky that I had the opportunity to broaden my culinary horizons throughout my adult life. Don’t get me wrong: my mom was a phenomenal cook! She had Skills. She created three meals a day for our family (which ultimately numbered 10) and it was a rare dinner in the summer (farmer dinner: mid-day) that didn’t have us setting another place for a guest/guests who just “happened” to drop by right then. Every meal was balanced: nutritionally, colors, textures, flavors. She was a kitchen genius. Practically all of it made from scratch. In the winter we ate from the bounteous canned, bottled, frozen storehouse in our cellar that she had spent all summer packing away.

When we married, my husband was in the Navy and we got to live in San Diego. My husband and I were both Wyoming kids…his family ranched, mine had a dairy farm. We found ourselves in a whole new world. I had–literally–not eaten Mexican food until I moved down there. It’s a good place to be introduced to the world of tortillas, chilies, and all the amazing things you can do with them. I had experienced Asian cuisine because once or twice after high school, I’d gone with a friend to a Chinese restaurant there in our college town. In California, the Peking Café became our special occasion destination.

The real life change is that I began to cook in a whole new way. There were a couple of reasons for this.

#1: I discovered how much food cost! I’d never been aware of the cost of milk, cheese, eggs, beef, poultry, pork, etc. Those foods were produced on our farm, and appeared in our fridge and on our table due to the labor of our family. When I went to the Navy commissary to buy groceries, I admit I was astonished at the cost of all those foods. I had to relearn how to cook. My helpful neighbors taught me the art of delicious tacos, enchiladas, and rice and beans. I found I could take a very small serving of meat and get great flavors anyway.

#2: I found a wonderful vegetarian cookbook and sometimes I’d put in a little chicken or pork, and sometimes we’d just eat the non-meat version. I learned how easy it was to cook in a wok and how great Chinese food was, and how tasty it was with just a bit of that pricey flavor from the pig or cow or chicken. I was also now living where I could garden all year round, so fresh vegetables were always available.

Then, we moved again! This time we went back north. Mr. CowGirl was a civilian again, and he took a job at an Air Force base that enabled us to live hundreds of miles closer to our extended families. We could visit the grandparents more often, and that was a good time of our lives to be in that spot. We also discovered Basque food! There is a sausage flavor, and some spices and crazy delicious stew that we ate at a 4-H potluck. We found a restaurant in Boise. We had discovered a new world of culinary splendor I had never known before. Yes…I bought a cookbook before we left that area!

Our next adventure in Foods I Wish I’d Met Sooner occurred when we headed to a new job back in Southern California. At church, we made the acquaintance of a family whose teens befriended ours, and their mom and I just hit it off. Sushila Prasad was born and raised in Fiji, but was of Indian descent, and when she was a teenager, her family emigrated to America. Her arranged marriage didn’t work out, but she was a hard working woman who appreciated how I helped her with her teens (and here I was thanking them for welcoming us…) because she had a shift at the store where she worked that kept her away from home in the evenings. She insisted on inviting our whole family to her home one night for dinner to express her gratefulness, and that is when I discovered the astonishing flavors of Southeast Asia. Where was this food my whole life?? How had I gotten old enough to be the mother of teenagers and not know about curry, tikka masala, chutney, naan?? I was amazed! Yet again, a whole new world! She ground her own spice mix that she’d learned from her grandma. She’d grown up as a vegetarian, but she cooked meat dishes as well. The whole experience changed my life.

Inevitably, we had to move to another location. It was the hazard of being a Field Service Engineer. This time we landed in Southern Maryland–oyster boats, Amish farmers, lots of trees, blue crabs, and a Naval Air Station. And…stuffed ham.

Unless you’ve eaten it, you won’t understand. I’ll just let you go to the link and read all about it because I don’t have room here. And after you read about it, if you don’t find a reason to travel to Leonardtown and have a meal of stuffed ham and fried oysters then your life will never be complete. Another thing about Southern Maryland food is that when I discovered how simple it was to catch blue crab, and, although picking the meat from them was a lot of work, it was worth it for me to have “free” crab cakes all winter to go to the trouble of being a crabber.

So, now I live in Las Vegas. Not only is it “Sin City,” it is a dining mecca. You can find among the restaurants here one that will serve just about anything you can imagine! I don’t know what new tastes are out there for my tongue to discover, but I am always eager to find them! So if you have a regional delicacy or standard where you live that I’d like to try, let me know in the comments. I can also recommend a restaurant in Boise ID, Washington D.C., Malibu CA, or Solomon’s Island MD for you!

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  1. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I’m hungry again. 

    You can substitute turkey for the ham when stuffing with oysters. That’s how we do it down here for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My grandmother loved oysters (as do I) but my mother doesn’t. So it was not an always thing growing up.

    My family would invite foreign students for Thanksgiving. Later they would invite us over for a meal. I loved having Indian students because I loved the spicy food. I remember having keema samosa for the first time when I was 7 or so. Amazing! 

    Later when I lived in London, I got to know Indian food and regional differences thanks to Indian classmates and friends.

     

    • #1
  2. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Hang On (View Comment):
    My grandmother loved oysters (as do I) but my mother doesn’t. So it was not an always thing growing up.

    My dad LOVED oyster stew when I was growing up. He’d come in on a cold winter’s evening after he’d finished tucking in all the animals and heat up the milk and open that can of oysters. And I’d gag and run out of the kitchen…I really tried to like them. He just loved them. But I couldn’t even look at them. 

    Then, I became an adult. And I lived in Southern California. And I tried raw oysters on the half shell…and I LOVED them! Weird, huh? Well, then when we moved to Maryland, and I ate the oysters that grow in the Chesapeake Bay, I became a total oyster snob. They are unbelievably delicious! Raw,  stewed, roasted, fried…anyway you serve them to me, I’ll eat all you can bring.  Interesting how our tastes change. 

    And the ham I referenced is stuffed with greens, onions, and spices. They often served fried oysters on the side. That ham is just amazing. 

    • #2
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    A great culinary tour!  When I was a teenager, we were invited over to a Korean family’s home for dinner.  None of us had ever eaten Korean food before and our entire experience with Asian cooking was Chinese fast food.  As Italian-Americans, we mostly had delicious homemade Italian food.  We were served homemade sushi (I know that now-then it was just seaweed wrapped rice and fish) and various noodle and vegetable dishes.  Our palates could not handle the exotic flavors of the sushi – although we were all polite — and we talked about it for years.  Now, however, I love sushi and know that if I went back in time, I would have considered it a feast.  Live and learn!

    • #3
  4. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    When I went away to a small college, the first night dinner they served roast pork.  I had never eaten roast pork at home, because my father didn’t like it so Mom never served it.  Thinking about it now, it was pretty mediocre roast pork (compared to how I make it myself), but I just loved it then.  It was great, and I looked forward to having it whenever the cafeteria served it.  Today, I buy pork tenderloins at my local market, where it is actually pretty cheap.  I either slice it into medallions and sauté with herbs, or roast in the oven.  Ray uses the leftovers in his Udon noodles.

    • #4
  5. Tedley Member
    Tedley
    @Tedley

    I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective.  Food is also a wonderful way to experience the world, even if we don’t go as far as Anthony Bourdain did

    Like your husband, I was also in the Navy, although my Navy life contrasted significantly from yours.  In a similar manner as you, I was raised in the Midwest and had minimal exposure to cuisines beyond what my family and acquaintances cooked.  After I went to college on an ROTC scholarship in the early-80s, I reported aboard my first ship in San Diego as a surface warfare officer.  As opposed to your husband’s service, my Navy career ended up taking me literally around the world.  Deployments on ships went to foreign ports with opportunities to try local cuisines.  When I wasn’t on a ship, I was stationed overseas in Japan, South Korea, and Italy, and each of these duty stations included travel within that country and to other countries in the region.  One of the benefits of being in the military was being paid for the travel, and these times helped balance the challenges faced in each of the jobs.  So many great foods with unique tastes, and I’ve really only tasted a small portion of it all. 

    And now I live in Japan with a Japanese wife and speak Japanese, which has helped me discover the wide variety of cuisines in each of the different regions of Japan.  This variety is present in all of the countries I visited.  The cuisine that we normally consider Italian, pizza and spaghetti, predominates in the Naples-Rome area, but other parts of Italy have their own cuisines and variations that are awesome.  I miss the Mexican food I could get so easily in SoCal.  I made it to China a couple of times, the Lord only knows how many variations of cuisine they have.  I once had some great Indian foods on an Indian Aircraft Carrier that I’ve never seen elsewhere.  The roadside restaurants in Thailand that my driver would stop at were great.  Neighboring Thailand is Vietnam which serves a tasty soup called pho, pronounced the same as “foe,” that you can also find in the US in strip malls for a reasonable price.  If you make it to Hawaii and want something that is different from the expensive touristy places, there’s a small Chinatown near the cruise ship piers with small restaurants and a food court that offer cuisines from around Asia.  The atmosphere is unprepossessing and the prices are reasonable.  You’re right about Vegas, too many great dining choices to take them all in during occasional visits. 

    The whole topic makes me nostalgic.  After COVID, I want to start visiting these countries again.

    • #5
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This cooks tour of so many foods and experiences is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2021 Group Writing Theme: “Chef’s Surprise.” Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #6
  7. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Tedley (View Comment):
    As opposed to your husband’s service, my Navy career ended up taking me literally around the world.

    Ironically, once he was no longer in the Navy, his field service job ended up taking him all over the world! In the Navy he was a “training device man” and just moved from base to base in San Diego working on flight trainers-both helicopter and jet,  and a really exotic submarine trainer. His job later was working on the first unmanned air vehicle (they call them drones now) that the military acquired. He went everywhere working on The Pioneer.

    Pho is fantastic and delicious, and we have a place called House of Pho a few blocks from our home! Yummy! In San Diego, we had a group of neighbors from Laos who’d been brought to the U.S. through a rescue operation. We’d trade food–they loved my homemade pickles. Their food was seriously spicy!

    But, I’ve never been able to love the flavors of Japanese food. I’ve been treated to some excellent restaurants by friends who have also lived in Japan (Navy) and they were experts in the cuisine. But…it’s not a happy taste in my mouth. I’ll keep trying. Maybe it will be like oysters, and one day my taste buds will love it!

    • #7
  8. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Life without spaghetti?  I can’t imagine it.  I’m of Italian ethnicity.  ;)

    What a wonderful post.  If you want to sample the foods from across the world, you should come to New York City.  I’m told there is at least one restaurant for the foods of every country in the world.  But I have only sampled a few with diminishing interest in the exotic.  

    • #8
  9. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Manny (View Comment):

    Life without spaghetti? I can’t imagine it. I’m of Italian ethnicity. ;)

    What a wonderful post. If you want to sample the foods from across the world, you should come to New York City. I’m told there is at least one restaurant for the foods of every country in the world. But I have only sampled a few with diminishing interest in the exotic.

    I’ll bet NYC has it all! We ate at an Ethiopian restaurant in D.C. once. The food is served on a big round bread that is made from a fermented dough. You tear off a piece of bread, and then scoop up some lentils, or stewed meat, or any of the other delicious toppings that are placed around on top of the bread. I LOVED the flavors in all the toppings. I did NOT love the flavor of the fermented bread. Maybe one has to get accustomed to it…I like sourdough bread. But this fermented bread did not make my mouth happy. 

    • #9
  10. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    My dad LOVED oyster stew when I was growing up. He’d come in on a cold winter’s evening after he’d finished tucking in all the animals and heat up the milk and open that can of oysters. And I’d gag and run out of the kitchen…I really tried to like them. He just loved them. But I couldn’t even look at them. 

     

    My grandparents loved oyster stew as well. Also, in the winter on Sundays for dinner after a big midday meal if I was staying over they’d have oyster stew with pimento cheese sandwiches and leftover vegetables from lunch. My grandfather was the one who made the stew as well. It’s the only thing I know he ever cooked. I was more than happy to partake.

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Then, I became an adult. And I lived in Southern California. And I tried raw oysters on the half shell…and I LOVED them! Weird, huh? Well, then when we moved to Maryland, and I ate the oysters that grow in the Chesapeake Bay, I became a total oyster snob. They are unbelievably delicious! Raw, stewed, roasted, fried…anyway you serve them to me, I’ll eat all you can bring. Interesting how our tastes change. 

     

    You’ve got me on that one. Just will not touch raw flesh. Sushi is taboo for me. Same with raw oysters. Know people who have gotten life-long medical problems (hepatitis) as a result. Granted, it was in South America., but still . . .

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    We ate at an Ethiopian restaurant in D.C. once. The food is served on a big round bread that is made from a fermented dough. You tear off a piece of bread, and then scoop up some lentils, or stewed meat, or any of the other delicious toppings that are placed around on top of the bread. I LOVED the flavors in all the toppings. I did NOT love the flavor of the fermented bread. Maybe one has to get accustomed to it…I like sourdough bread. But this fermented bread did not make my mouth happy. 

    Injera. I like Ethiopian food as well. Injera is ok, but only ok. South Indians have something similar (as far as being a large flat bread) – dosa. Dosa is delicious. It’s crispy at the edges and soft towards the middle whereas injera is spongy.  

    • #10
  11. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Very neat post! Thanks for sharing the experiences. As a claims adjuster I got travel the country a fair amount so I got a chance to experience a lot of different types of food. I’d never had or heard of goulash, pierogis or Cincinnati Chili before say… 2012. And I don’t really think I could’ve told you about a pizza place in my area that did Chicago deep dish.

    Going back to school was/is a good experience because now I’m surrounded by Korean, Indian, and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants. It took me almost six months but I finally figured out what Indian food I like at the buffet. Boy… that was such an intimidating experience at first. 

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    I’ll bet NYC has it all! We ate at an Ethiopian restaurant in D.C. once. The food is served on a big round bread that is made from a fermented dough. You tear off a piece of bread, and then scoop up some lentils, or stewed meat, or any of the other delicious toppings that are placed around on top of the bread. I LOVED the flavors in all the toppings. I did NOT love the flavor of the fermented bread. Maybe one has to get accustomed to it…I like sourdough bread. But this fermented bread did not make my mouth happy.

    We have a great Ethiopian place near us and I enjoy it but the menu is geared towards going with people and sharing a bunch of little dishes together and I don’t really like that… but yeah. Another experience that I would have totally missed had I not travelled and been around people who would get me out of my little food bubble.

    • #11
  12. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    Our next adventure in Foods I Wish I’d Met Sooner occurred when we headed to a new job back in Southern California.      

    Life is a culinary journey. Everything else gets in the way. 

     

     

    • #12
  13. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):
    My grandmother loved oysters (as do I) but my mother doesn’t. So it was not an always thing growing up.

    My dad LOVED oyster stew when I was growing up. He’d come in on a cold winter’s evening after he’d finished tucking in all the animals and heat up the milk and open that can of oysters. And I’d gag and run out of the kitchen…I really tried to like them. He just loved them. But I couldn’t even look at them.

    Then, I became an adult. And I lived in Southern California. And I tried raw oysters on the half shell…and I LOVED them! Weird, huh? Well, then when we moved to Maryland, and I ate the oysters that grow in the Chesapeake Bay, I became a total oyster snob. They are unbelievably delicious! Raw, stewed, roasted, fried…anyway you serve them to me, I’ll eat all you can bring. Interesting how our tastes change.

    And the ham I referenced is stuffed with greens, onions, and spices. They often served fried oysters on the side. That ham is just amazing.

    I had a similar experience with clams.  I couldn’t get close to them as a kid, not even as a young adult.  Then, newly married, 24 years old and visiting an elderly relative on Deer Island, ME, dinner was corn she had grown and clams she had dug.  Steamers.  Steamers and corn on the cob.  I could eat, or I could be hungry all night.

    The steamers were delicious.  I have enjoyed clams in all ways, and since then oysters and mussels, ever since.  Thank you, Aunt Louise!

    • #13
  14. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    It is remarkable how many people will not even try ethnic foods.  Some people figure, “I’ve made it 70 years without eating some crazy Indian (or whatever) food and I’m not trying it now.  Get me a hamburger.”

    When my wife and I travel, we try to find cuisine that we cannot get at home.

    • #14
  15. Tom Davis Member
    Tom Davis
    @TomDavis

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    A great culinary tour! When I was a teenager, we were invited over to a Korean family’s home for dinner. None of us had ever eaten Korean food before and our entire experience with Asian cooking was Chinese fast food. As Italian-Americans, we mostly had delicious homemade Italian food. We were served homemade sushi (I know that now-then it was just seaweed wrapped rice and fish) and various noodle and vegetable dishes. Our palates could not handle the exotic flavors of the sushi – although we were all polite — and we talked about it for years. Now, however, I love sushi and know that if I went back in time, I would have considered it a feast. Live and learn!

    Here is a great and simple recipe for oyster stew (eastern North Carolina recipe):

    Ingredients:

    1 quart of shucked oysters (unwashed if available)

    6 slices of hickory smoked bacon (widely available supermarket bacon is fine, but make sure it is hickory smoked)

    Directions:

    Cut bacon into 1/2 inch chunks

    Saute bacon in cast iron skillet on medium to medium low heat until translucent (my wife calls it wiggly bacon)

    Do not pour off bacon grease unless you have really cheap, cheap bacon.  Pour oysters into skillet, turn up heat to medium or maybe medium high.  Cook until oyster flaps just begin to open, but no longer.  

    Serve immediately and season with freshly ground pepper.  Add salt carefully.  Washed oysters will need more salt than unwashed oysters.

    • #15