Tomorrow I begin the last year of my twenties. It is a time to reflect and map the path that I will take from here on in my life. What do I value most? Good company, delicious food, the words of those who have gone before, the potential and inherent beauty in the world, and the necessity to keep the world and our community sustainable for future generations–these are the things that mean the most to me and these are the the things that should be guiding my decisions.
As you can see, I have always loved to eat, sometimes to a fault. In the above picture you can see me around 2 or 3 contemplating a chipwich. This is my favorite childhood photo. Most people who cook for a living can recall stories of working in kitchens when they were 14 and slaving away summers and weekends at a fryer or over a griddle, but I didn’t work in a kitchen until I was 24. When people ask me about my favorite thing to cook, I am always stumped. Of course, my favorite thing to cook is whatever it is I want to eat next. My favorite thing about cooking is seeing the enjoyment of other people when they eat it in good company–oh, and tasting it along the way.
I can tell you that when I was 11, we moved into a house where the previous owners had grown prized hybrid daylilies in a huge plot of land in the backyard. They took most of their daylilies to their new home and we were left with a huge raised bed full of beautiful, fertile soil. My mom, a master gardener, took one look at it and starting planning out our new vegetable garden. The harvest was much larger than two adults and their scrawny red-headed daughter could consume, so we passed along our bounty to the neighbors, to family, to friends from school and church, and still we had more than we could handle. We scaled back after that first year, but my parents kept growing and growing delicious vegetables until they moved from that house after I graduated from college.
During those first years, I began to understand something about food that I never fathomed before. Food doesn’t just come from the grocery store or a restaurant. It can come from your backyard, and it is so much more delicious when it does. A homegrown tomato, still warm from the sun can be sliced into quarter inch rounds, sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten immediately. It becomes a totally different animal than those hard, grainy pink things you pull off of the shelf on a January day. We would have sliced tomatoes with dinner every night from July to early September.
My mom had tried to teach me to cook off and on growing up. I have memories of using a pairing knife to chop carrots and celery on this horrible ceramic cutting board that would make me cringe every time I sliced through the veggies. (My parents have since converted to wooden and plastic boards, but at a recent dinner at my grandma’s house I saw that these cutting boards are somewhat of a family tradition and was loathe to cut up ingredients for salsa on one). These early cooking lessons were probably more of a way to keep me busy while my mom cooked dinner so she didn’t have to look after me than an actual attempt to get me motivated in the kitchen.
It was Mother’s Day 1996 when everything changed. On Saturday, my mom tore out a menu from Bon Apetit magazine, placed it in front of my dad and I on the kitchen counter and said, “this is what I want for Mother’s Day.” I was hooked. I can’t remember everything we made, but there were blackberry shortcakes with cinnamon biscuits. We plucked the blackberries straight from the garden, popping a few in our mouths as we filled the basket. All I know is that seeing that spread in the magazine showing how beautiful food could be and outlining all the instructions on how to make it so beautiful was life changing for me. It seems a little silly now, but that was the first time I ate with my eyes. From this point on, there was no turning back for me. I wanted to eat beautiful food and I wanted everyone around me to enjoy it with me.
It wasn’t until I was in culinary school and started working at Muss & Turner’s, my first kitchen, that I started to realize that you didn’t have to have a garden in your backyard to source food locally. Under the guidance of Ryan Turner and Todd Mussman, and most of all, Dave Sturgis, I went from being a silly, timid girl who just wanted to eat beautiful food, to someone who was passionate about where that food came from, how it was prepared and how the guest received it. I started to understand the importance of heritage foods, and that you couldn’t get more ground lamb for your burger just because you ran out and the customers wanted it, you had to wait until those lambs were mature enough to go to slaughter. Things worked on a much more sensitive schedule than I was used to, and nature was in control. When Dave left Muss & Turner’s to come to Athens to work at Farm 255, I bobbed along after him about 6 months later. Getting to work that closely with the ingredients and those that produced them was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I came to Athens, dove into local food, and have never looked back.
While I have taken a respite from cooking locally in my work, I have been working hard with PLACE to continue to foster a strong, accessible local food culture here in our awesome city. We just released my baby, the Taste Your Place cookbook, that can be found at all of the Taste Your Place events happening July 10-24, and I am working hard to help bring you the pinnacle event of Taste Your Place, the tapas tasting at Cine on July 22.
Before I leave you, I want to focus on one last final important aspect of my life….I am in the process of opening my own business. It will be a locally sourced restaurant and market, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and providing a more accessible resource for local foods, both in the raw and made for you with love. We are working hard to find a site, at which time we will be coming up with a name that reflects its location, and then BAM, things will start moving very quickly.
So what you will be getting from me is a deluge of information about local food, things that PLACE does in our community, the progress of the restaurant and anything else that fits within these boundaries. I appreciate any time that you devote to reading this blog. I know that people are very busy, but I wanted to take this opportunity to share with others the things that are important to me.