I grew up in Slidell, Louisiana raised by immigrants. My dad is Iranian, my mom is first generation Spanish-American and my grandparents, who lived down the street, are fresh off the boat from Spain. When people hear that I grew up in Louisiana they automatically assume that I grew up eating Cajun and Creole cuisine at home but for me the taste of home is slow cooked Persian lamb stew, saffron soaked paella topped with shrimp, stuffed squid in ink sauce, Tortilla Espanola and fluffy Persian rice with crisp buttery tadig. However, I did grow up eating plenty of regional Louisiana food. Outside of the house, either at friend’s houses, parties or restaurants, it was all about creamy etouffees, smokey andouille, rich gumbos, spicy crawfish boils, po-boys, tons of fresh regional seafood and so much more. Growing up, I was completely spoiled when it came to food. Inside and outside of the house, food was always an amazing experience.
Food has always been important to me even though I didn’t always realize it. Every family get together was centered around a meal. A giant, delicious meal that was prepared by hand. I always took it for granted that food was going to taste good. All the women and many of the men in my family are great cooks. They made it look so easy. It was a given. Food is delicious and cooked from scratch.
Being surrounded by so many amazing cooks and hostesses inspired me to learn how to cook. How hard could it be, right?! I was in high school when I told my mom I wanted to take a crack at making family dinner. I had never cooked a meal before in my life. I had dabbled here and there and was an accomplished chocolate chip cookie maker but never a meal maker. However, I was determined to shine. To make something amazing and fabulous. I was going to blow my family away. The recipe I chose… Shrimp Newburg. I had never eaten it before but it sounded pretty special and the picture in the Betty Crocker Cookbook was inspiring. There next to the recipe was a picture of a flaky, buttery pastry shell overflowing with plump shrimp smothered in a creamy pink sauce. It looked heavenly. My mom tried to talk me out of it. She suggested lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, a baked chicken. I was offended. Those were all way too pedestrian for me. My version of family dinner was going to be the stuff of legend. My mom patiently humored me and took me grocery shopping. We bought the ingredients for my masterpiece and my mom also picked up stuff for spaghetti and meat sauce. You know, for tomorrow’s dinner. I recruited my best friend to be my helper in the kitchen. My sous chef. She didn’t know shit about cooking either so you can see where this is going. We toiled in the kitchen for way longer than it should have taken and produced exactly two tiny servings per person of Shrimp Newburg. Other than the texture of the sauce being totally wrong and it being an inadequate amount of food, it came out ok. By ok I mean edible. Everyone ate their snack size portion and then my mom made the spaghetti and meat sauce. It certainly wasn’t the stuff of legend but it wasn’t a total disaster either.
The experience gave me even more appreciation for what my mom did in the kitchen. Pulling together a meal wasn’t as easy as I thought and she did it every night. That’s right, we had family dinner almost every night. Growing up in my family it was important for the four of us, my mom, dad, brother and myself, to have dinner together on week nights. With few exceptions, we ate dinner as a family. I didn’t realize how important this was to me until my dance class schedule changed and conflicted with family dinner. It was only once a week but I hated it. I hated not eating at home. I hated not getting to hear about everyone’s day. I hated eating fast food by myself in the hallway of the dancing school while my family got to eat my mom’s home cooking all together. I can remember the night when I finally cracked. My mom had dropped me off for dance class a little early and no one was there yet. I had my happy meal in one hand and my dance bag in the other. I sat in the dark hallway and ate my chicken nuggets as tears rolled down my face and into my BBQ dipping sauce. A kid crying over eating a happy meal! I was a freak. But that night I told my mom how unhappy I was and we compromised that she would save me a plate of food for after class. I was much happier.
My slightly disappointing experience with making family dinner didn’t dampen my interest in cooking one bit. When I got to college I missed home cooking and occasionally busted out my singular pot to make some spaghetti and meat sauce or mac and cheese in the dorm kitchen. However, I longed for a proper kitchen where I could experiment and cook for real. I finally got that opportunity when I did my junior year abroad in Spain. It was the first time I lived in an apartment and not a dorm. It was my first proper kitchen. I shared it with two Spanish girls who always had a stockpile of home cooked foods they would bring back from their parent’s houses on their bi-weekly trips to the neighboring town. They rarely cooked so I usually had the run of the kitchen. I had brought the copy of Joy of Cooking that my mom had given me as a going away present and some measuring cups and spoons. This little kitchen in Salamanca, Spain was going to be my laboratory.
I taught myself, with the help of an occasional long distance call to mom and the Joy of Cooking, how to grocery shop, pick fruits, vegetables and meats, dress a chicken, make stock, cook a pot of beans, serve a meal, and much more. It was wonderful. I felt like a grownup and I loved it. I took my new found skills and passion for cooking back home with me and continued to play around and experiment and learn. A year of trial and error cooking had turned me into a pretty decent cook so when I returned from Spain I had lots of willing guinea pigs to try my creations. Also, it was college, everyone was broke and I was giving food away. It was a win win.
After college I moved back to New Orleans, then to Cleveland and finally landed in Los Angeles. Throughout my moves and travels, I have had the great fortune of living with people from other countries, ethnic backgrounds, and regions of the US who also love to cook. Living with them, cooking with them and eating with them has broadened my knowledge and experience of food and cooking. I am so incredibly grateful for that. Living in Los Angeles has also broadened my food horizons. There are so many different types of authentic ethnic cuisines represented here. It never gets old and there’s always some new flavor profile, ingredient or technique to learn and master and I’m very happy to be a perpetual culinary student.
What’s your cooking story? What was the first meal you ever made? Leave it in the comments!