The following writing originally appeared as a guest post for a dear friend and fellow blogger’s site, Defining Delicious, in the Fall of 2012. I recalled this picture of my grandmother today and felt her presence around me. Some dreams never fade.
Some of my fondest memories from childhood commenced on the long rocky roads that led to my grandparent’s farm. Our windshields would be thick with red dust, a cemetery for lovebugs, moths, and mosquitoes; Kenny Rogers, John Denver, and Neil Diamond kept us company on the three-hour journey into the muggy, blistering heat. The air was stagnant, reminiscent of the southern marshes of Louisiana or Mississippi. Coined “Czech Country”, my family was from just West of Houston and South of Austin, where rice farms donned the landscape and steer grazed empty fields. My ancestors emigrated in the late 1800s from Moravia, and my mother is of the fifth generation to be born here. Her family was so engrained in the Czech culture that English is her second language, and Shiner beer was a mainstay at early family gatherings.
My grandparents owned a small ranch, where heifers, bulls, and cows roamed behind bob wire fences. There was a pond, which my grandfather filled with catfish, and where my cousins and I would swim, imagine western shootouts, and stare into the southern starry sky. In the mornings, my grandmother would wake me up to feed the chickens and gather eggs; the blend of brown, cream, tan, and white shells filled my basket, and when I returned from the coop, my grandmother was in the kitchen, warming the cast iron skillet on the stove. The smell of strong coffee permeated the house. Breakfast was served with sausage and white bread, mustard always on the table. On special occasions, we would partake in kolaches, but mostly these were reserved for parties and reunions, weddings, and funerals.
There was a garden patch where tomatoes, corn, onions, green beans, and cucumbers sprouted from the earth. Even though peaches were not plentiful in this part of Texas, during early summer, my grandmother would buy them on the side of the road and can them. We ate peaches at every meal I can remember at my grandparent’s house. The fruit so vibrant and fresh, the syrup so viscous, it would creep down the side of my mouth as I engorged my stomach with goodness.
I suppose I came to associate the smells, tastes, and traditions of my family’s table with my proclivity for well prepared foods. I watched my grandmother pluck and clean a chicken in her kitchen sink, then break it down, batter and season it, and fry it to create the most amazing dish I have ever eaten. My mother is able to do the same, although, farmer’s markets were not as popular when I was a teenager, and store-bought chickens just aren’t the same. Country mashed potatoes with sweated onions were just as important to the table, with specks of black pepper and melting butter. Fresh green beans with bacon rounded out our meal, with a bowl of peaches for good measure.
I believe that a big part of what defines us as a people, a culture, lies in what foods we are exposed to and learn to love. For me, it was what was found on the farm, coupled with a Czech heritage of sausages, kolaches, stews, and potatoes. I am partial to brown eggs, soda bread, okra, and coffee. I find myself longing for liver and onions, not only because it was introduced to me in that kitchen, but because the pasty texture and unusual flavor are among my most preferred tastes. I can eat peaches every day. For me, my heritage has come to help me define my delicious. I crave fresh, vibrant, and juicy. I devour homemade. I reminisce about family. That is why we flock to chef owned restaurants and progressive menus, like Houston’s L’Olivier, Underbelly, and Caracol.
When I was in college, I waited tables for an amazing entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio. We had daily specials like pecan crusted sea bass and apple-glazed pork chops (circa late nineteen nineties, folks!); each plate was carefully paired with a varietal, nothing too fancy, but this is where I learned the basics of Sonoma Cutrer and Beaulieu Vineyards. After my career started and my heart led me into the sommelier’s arms, I began learning more about wines, and how to pair them with my favorite foods. One of my fondest memories is of my first date with my husband. He led me to a quaint French restaurant in a well-known part of town, whose menu comprised of such fabulous choices as escargot, mussels, frog legs, pate, steak diane, cassoulet, and duck. Of course I ordered the liver and onions. And he ordered me Bordeaux. I fell in love with the earthiness of the wine, the way I could taste the soil, the labors of the field workers, and the smell of dark fruit. I decided he was a keeper, and my wine education began. (He would later say he loved me for ordering a single malt scotch for dessert.) Today my favorites range from a nice summer Rose to a refreshing Lambrusco, and a simple Cote du Rhone to a dry, yet rich Amarone.
All these encounters have shaped my palate, from learning how to articulate the ingredients in a Chef’s special, to watching my grandmother batter chicken. Discovering how to pair that crispy bird with a nice sparkling Rose is another acquired skill. I have found that these events are part of my unique family culture, which I lovingly refer to as sommfamily. The point is, the continuation of the farm fresh culture of my youth must press on and become part of our sommfamily’s culture. Our heritage. Our DNA. One of my main jobs as a parent is to help our children define their delicious. I know it can’t be found in a box, package, or container, but rather, what fresh ingredients can be compiled, deconstructed, and thrown together in cast iron skillet. And paired with a nice Burgundy, of course.
Eat well. Drink well. Cheers.