I am obsessed with food. I am tormented, transfixed, seduced, beguiled and smitten by it. Savory more than sweet, spicy more than hot, and local and seasonal more than not. When I'm not eating, I'm reading about food, shopping for food, watching television shows about it, photographing it or writing about it. I've been thinking about the seminal moments that shaped the way I think and feel and interact with food.
Some people eat to live. From my earliest memories, I've lived to eat. I've daydreamed about lunch while eating my breakfast and planned for dinner all day long. I've traveled around the world in search of famous goat cheese, truffles in the countryside and fresh cider in an orchard. I measure and plan trips not by miles but rather by meals. For example, how many cheese courses will I be able to eat on our next trip and when will I meet my favorite winemaker?
I owe my sense of gastronomic curiosity and passion to my parents; they exposed my brothers and me to a wide variety of cuisines growing up. Our day-to-day fare was a combination of Shenandoah Valley Southern sprinkled with a healthy dose of Arabic cuisine. Add to that whatever Julia Child or Craig Claiborne was cooking, and you get the picture. My mom's a great cook, and when I left home I realized that I carried with me her passion for food and curiosity to try new things.
As a 9-year-old in 1976, I was wowed by a visit to the King Tut exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Room after room was filled with extraordinary gold treasures, but none more precious than the caper that sat upon my tuna salad at lunch. It was the first time I put one of those sharply briny and chewy little morsels into my mouth, and I was entranced. The caper was my friend. Surrounded by exotic treasures from a king's tomb, I was transfixed by the mysterious pull of a tiny berry. (For the record, I majored in art history in college and continue to seek out the caper in its many variations.)
When I was 14, I spent six weeks of summer with my aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin in the South of France. My most enduring memory (aside from the frolicking topless friends of my cousin) is the cheese box. A simple square Tupperware box had a prominent spot in the refrigerator and on the table at every meal. Opening it revealed the most gloriously stinky collection of French cheeses. From ripe Camembert to tangy blues, this was a far cry from the Land O' Lakes American cheese of my home. A new world had opened before me. I still order a cheese course whenever it's on the menu, and I've made pilgrimages to several cheese-makers both here and abroad. River City Cellars satisfies my Richmond cravings for the most part, but no trip to New York is complete without a stop at Murray's or Artisanal and no trip to London without visiting Neal's Yard Dairy. While studying abroad in college, friends would smuggle back hashish from Amsterdam to our home base in Rome, while I would stash away rounds of aged Gouda and Leiden kaas. As the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin once remarked, "A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."
I started working at a local restaurant when I was 15, including stints as dishwasher, prep cook, occasional line cook and salad bar guru. It did hone my basic knife skills, which prepped me for later catering and cooking gigs. It unfortunately also introduced me to a world of smoke breaks, singed hair and the generally dysfunctional world of mediocre kitchen restaurants. I quickly learned what I didn't want to do for the rest of my life. I quickly learned that my food obsession did not include a career in a restaurant. But I left richer with the knowledge of oyster-shucking, onion-chopping and deep-frying.
Traveling through Provence with my new fiancé was an experience basking in the romance of our engagement several days earlier in Paris, we drove through fields of lavender and groves of olive trees enjoying the culinary richness of France and Provence: oil-cured olives, Cavaillon melons, evenings in cafés sipping Pernod and dinners of fresh fish and local game. And of course the cheese course every night. It was divine.
One afternoon while I scouted possible dinner venues in Arles, I spotted an intriguing sign over a restaurant a wolf stirring a pot of stew. I'd always been intrigued by new foods, never afraid to venture off the path. I perused the menu in the window and yes there was my prize wolf (filet de loup)! I skipped back to our hotel giddy with excitement at what lay ahead. We soon returned for dinner, and I pondered the wine list a hearty red seemed appropriate. And then it arrived and the eye of the whole fish before me looked at me, mocking me with his silent stare. Voilà this "loup" came from the sea, and is better known as sea bass.
About 10 years ago, I started keeping a dinner journal, recording particularly special meals. This practice evolved into an obsessive daily affair a way to chronicle my everyday consumption. When I had the opportunity to work with a San Francisco artist on a project that chronicled patterns of consumption, I realized that there are others out there like me. Recording what I eat serves as an epicurean archive as well as a motivational tool to expand beyond some of my favorite dishes. It also forces thoughts about where my food comes from and what impact my eating habits have on the environment and the community in which I live. It's led me to the world of local farm shares, a greater appreciation and support for local slow-food purveyors, and a desire to eat more seasonally and locally. S
John Haddad writes a blog, Food for Thought (www.inmystomach.blogspot.com), where he chronicles his eating patterns, muses about current events and describes his culinary adventures.