I was not raised in a family of cooks. My parents grew up in the Midwest, in the second half of the last century, during a period in which a great deal of culinary knowledge was lost. Our signature meals came out of cardboard or cellophane or, most often, some combination of the two. My dad who, for the region, is something of an epicure, loved to “spice up” boxed holiday stuffing by tossing it with lightly sautéed onions and peppers. My mom took many a weekday dinner out of the chest freezer in the basement.
My first experience of what I would think of as “good food” — when I was around 10 years old — was a bacon blue cheese burger. The details of time and place are lost to me, but I still remember the euphoria of that first bite. I was transported, caught in a delirious tide of new textures and bright, tangy umami flavors, and I was determined to return. Though I could not tell the difference between cilantro and thyme (all small green things were interchangeable to me) and wasn’t familiar with any stovetop setting other than “high,” I spent many prepubescent hours in the kitchen attempting to recreate recipes from Alton Brown, Ina Garten and Giada De Laurentiis. I loved the way the chefs spoke about unfamiliar places. I loved how they whisked me to a world where it mattered how you cut an onion.
My pursuit of culinary knowledge became an escape from the mundane, the provincial, the working class. Tossing a soft-boiled egg and nori into a bowl of rehydrated noodles, I could forget that I’d never had ramen that didn’t come out of a 30-cent packet. Pulling together a budget imitation of savory, ricotta-filled crepes, I could pretend the real thing wasn’t more than an hour outside of town. Cooking was freedom from poverty and suburban boredom.
To the degree that it existed, my parents’ culinary snobbery manifested in taking extra care with one Midwestern staple: potatoes. My mom was raised on instant mashed potatoes and loathed them. Her small protest against the product was an overflowing bowl of russet potatoes next to the stove, which I don’t recall ever being empty in more than 18 years of cohabitation with her. And while my dad was happy to serve us frozen pizza, his face would twist with revulsion in the face of dried, flaky bits of tuber. Their disavowal of what was once a family staple instilled in me the realization that sometimes, something better to eat waited on the other side.
My parents split when I was young; I don’t really remember the time they were together. My mom and dad’s new partners, both kind, gentle, generous men, brought their own culinary flair to the family; respectively, pot roast braised with off-brand Coca-Cola and tater tot casserole. Together, my parents, my brother and I remained a take-and-bake household, a Lean Cuisine household, a Hot Pocket household. We were not people who took joy in the preparation or consumption of food.
My brother and I spent our youth shuttling along the western edge of Lake Michigan between our mom and my stepdad in Green Bay, Wis., and our dad and his partner, who were forever moving from house to house somewhere along the edge of Chicagoland. I felt most alive during our rare weekends there, spent draped in cosmopolitan anonymity. Watching people lounge at the downtown beaches and casually dine at upscale restaurants, I saw a fantasy of my adult life play out in front of me. Like the chefs on Food Network, the people who lived in Chicago knew of the world and its wonders. I wanted to be the sort of person who had a passport, who could hold a conversation in another language. I wanted extraordinary, I wanted grand, and I was convinced they existed only somewhere else.
Since I left the Midwest after college five years ago, the everyday act of cooking and eating has become an ever-present opportunity for self-improvement. I’ve learned to season breakfast sausage with sage and white wine, and top a chirashi with shiso chiffonade. My dinner spreads have evolved to include dishes that once felt alien and impenetrable, like duck tagine and vegan béarnaise. I’ve learned to cherish marinated tofu, braised leeks, roasted brussels sprouts and all manner of food my family rejects.
When my stepdad entered hospice care in Wisconsin this summer, and I began the dizzying plummet into grief, I started questioning my endless search for more. What if in improving the quality of my life, I had given up something more meaningful?
Returning home, I hoped to introduce my family to the joys of saffron rice and lamb Bolognese; my goal quickly changed to getting them to eat anything at all. Grief does strange, confusing things. For weeks, my mom had been subsisting on a diet of sour candies and fruit. My brother emerged from his room only in manic flurries, leaving kitchen surfaces smeared in teriyaki sauce. I searched for some nourishment they would accept or some recipe they would find enticing, but I realized that I didn’t know what their comfort foods were, or what or where they ate on a daily basis. Going back home to New York, a place most of my family has never visited, felt simultaneously like a relief and a betrayal.
Even though I have moved from city to ever larger city in an attempt to improve myself by seeking a more exciting life, New York — like no other place has — feels like home. Yet my urge to find something different, better, still remains. I no longer believe this appetite can ever be sated. I’ve achieved the metropolitan life I always wanted and now long for something small and quiet and sweet — something closer to what I could have had if I’d never left the Midwest to begin with.
During his first and only trip to visit me in the Northeast, my stepdad told me he knew when I was young that I would be “a city person.” He saw in my child self a yearning for something bigger, bolder, busier.
This was the first Christmas that my family was without my stepdad. As I sit in my bedroom in Brooklyn, mourning his death from a thousand miles away, I wonder how my life would have been different if I had been satisfied with what I could find in Wisconsin. What if I hadn’t chased a sophisticated world of New York kitchens, a career of studying and serving food? My family, surrounded by ketchup and ranch instead of roux and romesco, have taught me that fulfillment is a choice. I could have been satisfied with S.U.V.s and strip malls and maple trees. I could have chosen American cheese and frozen hash browns and Kringles. My life would have been different, but it would have been good.
Especially around the holidays, family recipes — including my mom’s recipe for mashed potatoes — always bring me back to my first home. When my heart aches and I am feeling especially homesick, I recall frigid Midwestern nights and tuck into a bowl of the good stuff.
Hannah Chouinard is a Wisconsin expat living in Brooklyn. She is completing her Master’s degree in Food Studies at New York University this Spring.
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