It seems only fitting to start this blog with what inspired it: a memoir essay I wrote for a food writing class taught by cookbook author Corinne Trang. The positive class feedback I received on this piece, and Corinne’s advice to my class of aspiring food writers to start blogging and develop our food writing voices, lit the fire in me to take the leap.
“Repeat after me, Gammer. Crumb buns,” said my older brother Maurie, correcting our grandmother as she prepared what she liked to call “crumble cake.” It was 1963, and at four years old, he was barely big enough to stand on his tiptoes so he could supervise her method of scrambling eggs. But he was already a perfectionist, culinary critic, semanticist and future iron chef.
So when Maurie challenged me to an iron chef competition in the summer of 2001, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. A week-long family reunion in Woodstock, Vermont, provided the perfect panel of judges: our wine-and-food-loving family. The rules were as follows: Mom would choose the “mystery” ingredient that would provide the theme of the competition’s four-course meal. Each of us would prepare two courses.
Mom’s first suggestion, cumin, was rejected because as the main ingredient it would overwhelm the palate. We enthusiastically received and worked with her second suggestion, chanterelle mushrooms. Unlike the chefs on the show, we had several months’ notice to plan our menus.
Our menu selection reflected our personalities and tolerance for risk. He chose recipes that he’d successfully executed before; they were from his culinary muse and celebrity chef Charlie Trotter. The first was a homemade ravioli stuffed with duck confit and chanterelles; the second, a seared salmon with a side of roasted chanterelles. I decided to improvise and recreate from memory a vegetable timbale recipe I’d had at a catered event: stacked layers of roasted red pepper, slow-roasted plum tomato, grilled eggplant, grilled shitake mushrooms, and a slice of goat cheese, topped with mache and served at room temperature. In my iron-chef version, I substituted sautéed chanterelles for the grilled shitakes. Serving this room-temperature first course was a strategic move on my part. It is light and can be plated ahead of time, a fact which bought me more time to prepare my more labor-intensive second course, a pecan and fig crusted shrimp dish I’d invented.
Due to the limited kitchen resources for the ambitious meal we’d planned in tandem, we started preparations at dawn. Maurie prepared the duck confit, imported from Paris, with which he had flown from Texas to Vermont. He then prepared the roasted mushroom stock that would form the base for the ravioli sauce. Running on adrenaline and up early too, I commandeered the oven to slow roast the plum tomatoes for the timbale at 200 degrees, in olive oil, freshly chopped rosemary, parsley, thyme and garlic. We jockeyed for position and for the use of bowls, pots and pans all day. Unaccustomed to having guest chefs infiltrate her domain, Mom struggled with the urge to wash dishes.
As we prepared our dishes that day for the competition, Dad assembled the unorthodox jury. Joining him were panelists Angus, my parents’ 1-year-old black Labrador retriever; Adrian, our 1-year-old nephew; our 7-year-old nephew Patrick; our older brother, Giff; and my sister Nancy’s stepson, Nicolas, who was visiting from France and had been specially chosen for his sophisticated European palate.
It was nearly eleven o’clock at night by the time the fourth course was served. The verdict was nigh. Ever the diplomat, Dad couldn’t pit one child against the other, so he had ensured there would be a tie. The jury was rigged, and the tiebreaker explained: we would play a Japanese game called “Amida” in which each of any number of contestants traces a different path through a complex system of vertical and horizontal intersecting lines to determine which one arrives at a randomly designated exit point.
So by random chance, I emerged the victor. But to my surprise, the competition was a gift that kept on giving: We received cumin in our Christmas stockings that year.