If you've known me for any length of time, you probably know I'm really into food and cooking. Heck, at least half my blog posts mention food in some fashion. I thought it might be interesting to chronicle my relationship with food throughout my life. There are a lot of different experiences I've had that have shaped the way I view food. So I'm going to start a series of blog posts about this whole topic. It will be a bit free-form and I'm not sure when I'll be finished, but hopefully it will be at least somewhat interesting.
As many of you know, I was raised in a conservative rural Mennonite community. Mennonites weren't the only members of the community, but there were a bunch of us. Mennonites have had a love affair with food (both eating it and producing it) for a long time. The primary focus of most family gatherings was around food, almost all of it homemade and often with ingredients that were personally raised and/or slaughtered. My grandfather was a farmer and many in the family before him. When I was a young child, my dad drove a refrigerator/freezer truck for Burris Foods, but by the time I was in early elementary school he had gone into business as a chicken farmer, hatching eggs to be precise. My uncle was a hog farmer. These were both what I would know call "factory farm" operations, part of the vast supply chain where America gets most of their food. My grandfather, uncle and father also raised typical row crops, like corn and soybeans. My grandfather sold Growers fertilizer to various farmers, not sure if they are still around or not.
As far as food in our house, we always had a big garden every year and grew just about everything. I grew up both loving and hating it, spending many hours weeding, hoeing, picking and processing food. In retrospect I wish I would've paid more attention. My mom was a food canner and freezer, like most Mennonite women. Even during the winter, we would have a decent amount of food that we had grown ourselves. We would also go blueberry picking for a day every summer, bringing home enough blueberries to put in the freezer for much of the rest of the year. We would also pick peaches to be canned in light syrup for the winter. Most summers my grandparents would go pick up a trailer full of bushels of apples and the whole extended family would spend the day making applesauce, apple butter, cider and whatever else they could think of.
We knew where a good portion of our food came from. We would go pull milk out of a stainless steel cooling tank from a local farm. It was fairly normal for us to occasionally get a side of beef from my grandfather and later my uncle. Venison was plentiful, I was the weird boy who didn't like hunting. I did like venison though. We would even have squirrel on occasion.
Once my dad got the chicken house, gathering eggs was a daily chore. Thousands of them. A few times over 5000 eggs in a single day. These were hatching eggs, so there were roosters jumping on hens all the time when they weren't trying to pick a fight with us. If you went out to the chicken house at night most of the birds would be up on the slats roosting and sooner or later some big old rooster would come tearing down the floor of the chicken house attempting to spur your legs. Double yolk eggs were nothing special, we would get triple yolks fairly often as well. Some eggs wouldn't have a shell develop and would come out feeling almost like a rubber ball. Occasionally I would have an egg laid right in my hand as I reached into a nest. The big problem with that many chickens though is that the ammonia was terrible; it was dusty and hard to breathe.
My mom was really into nutrition, so I learned about stuff like wheat germ, carob and sprouts. She would make yogurt and granola, which is probably why it is somewhat comforting that my wife now does the same thing. We also had to eat practically every vegetable known to man (it's only recently I've been able to eat brussel sprouts again), except spinach because my mom hated it. I love it and it was one of those foods that I started eating after leaving home. We started helping out in the kitchen at a fairly young age and probably started baking cookies by ourselves around 10 or 12 years old.
Not that it mattered much as a kid, but there was never any alcohol in the house and almost none of the adults I knew drank. Most of our social engagements were with other Mennonites and we rarely went out to eat. Alcohol was considered a sin of course, so it took me awhile to even get to the point where I could go into a liquor store and not feel guilty. More on that later. My mother's Scotch-Irish background was eventually going to overrule my Mennonite/German father's ways.
In Part 2, I'm going to talk a bit about how I got started working in restaurants and some of my experiences there.