My mother is not the greatest cook in the world. (Hi, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day!) Don’t get me wrong; she could prepare a meal without ending up with a blackened, smoking husk of what once was food, but what she cooked when I was growing up was mostly mediocre. There was a lot of bland chicken breast and unimaginative salad. We went out to restaurants a lot—Mom’s cooking more than a couple days in a row could get rough.
So how, people always ask when this comes up, did I end up a food obsessive working at Cooking Light? My mom. She may not be very good at making it, but she loves food, all food, and taught her son to do the same.
Once, on a trip to visit my grandparents in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, my family went to the Rustic Inn for garlic crab. Mom (to be fair, Dad, Grandma, and Poppa were there too) set a whole crab in front of me, handed me a giant wooden mallet and tiny fork, and told me to go crazy . I was four years old. To this day, I love crab, and the Rustic Inn, if more for sentimental reasons than anything else, is my favorite restaurant in the whole world.
My parents took me for sushi for the first time when I was about seven. Somehow—despite Dad introducing me to wasabi by telling me to "try the green stuff! It’s delicious!"—I loved it too. By the time I was 10, Mom and Dad had introduced me to just about every kind of food you could get in the Chicago suburbs, which is a lot. They had no qualms about feeding their little boy anything—football-sized burritos and tamales at El Famous Burrito; scallion pancakes, bibimbop, and fiery kimchi from the little Korean grocery near my grandparents’ house; proper deep-dish Chicago-style sausage pizza from Lou Malnati’s; eggplant parmesan from La Rosa just around the corner from our house. Food was a vast, glorious world to be explored, and none of it was forbidden or dirty or gross or wrong.
And the only thing we’d talk about when eating out was other
restaurants—where we had eaten this same dish better, why one Chinese
place’s shrimp with lobster sauce was in a thick brown gravy and
another’s in a runny opaque-yellow one, which Chicago pizza joint had
the best crust (for the record, it’s Pizzeria Uno: not the chain you
can go to all over the country, but the original, on Ohio Street, which
has a different recipe from the franchises). I was well on my way to
this career by the time I started junior high. Heck, Golden Chef, a
Chinese restaurant that opened a few months after I was born and which
we ate at about once a month for my entire childhood, catered my bar
I may not have had the most well-developed cooking skills when I
moved out of Mom’s house, but I certainly had the confidence to give it
a try. And now she makes me cook for her whenever I come home to visit.
My mother taught me to fear no food, to taste everything, and to
learn as much as I could about it. So I guess it was destined from the
start that I’d end up here. And in a way, it’s mom’s dry, overcooked
chicken’s fault. Thanks, Mom. And happy Mother’s Day.