Don't Take The Food You Eat For Granted
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Whenever I used to go out to dinner with my family, until I was about 13 or 14, the odds were that I was going to order chicken fingers in some form. I loved them, something about the way the juicy chicken breast lay nestled beneath a layer of crunchy, fried breadcrumbs that had been joined as one with a simple dose of egg and flour.
I attribute the now nonsensical adoration of the dish to Nonna, my Italian grandmother, who is no stranger to a saucepan doused in oil, a pasta maker, and “just a little cheese” on top of just about everything. Even at school, I dream of her concoctions: the little braised onions stuffed with mystery ingredients that go down like a smooth shot of vodka, my eyes watering just as they would with the taste of the hard liquor itself. Then there’s her polpette, perfectly shaped discs of potato puree gone through the rigors of battering and deep frying, brimming with flavor I never would have imagined the simple root possessed.
Nonna is my true culinary icon, and the reason I stand here today dishing out foodie facts and recipes like it’s more than the obsession that consumes more time out of the day than I’d like to admit. I comb through blogs like Grub Street, Serious Eats, and Eater in the hopes of scouting out a restaurant or a dish not yet littered with critics. For instance, I took special pride in my managing to finagle a meal at New York’s now nearly impossible to reserve Mission Chinese, and to do so before any of the major NYC critics—Gael Greene, Ryan Sutton, and Pete Wells stand tall as pillars of the food writing industry in the big city—felt like a real “moment” for me.
My friends turn to me for restaurant recommendations now, a complete reversal from the situation of years ago. Sure, I probably could have told you where my favorite chicken fingers called home (still can, to be honest), but that was the embarrassing extent of my culinary skills.
I’ve tried to pinpoint my foodie-360, and I think it all stems from the food allergies that cluttered my edible options until the age of 12. Although many still remain—what’s up, berries, how do you taste? I wouldn’t know—it was my dairy allergy that hindered my every move. My mom, the saint that she is, graciously offered to bake cupcakes for every child in my class on their birthdays so I wouldn’t feel like the odd one out were the treats to include dairy. Things like pizza, yogurt, and milk were completely unbeknownst to the honestly otherwise blissful me, content to snack on what I could eat.
There was, and still is, lots of pasta in my life, lots of bread and other carbs which my family knew for sure wouldn’t bother my easily irritable stomach. At restaurants, my only option was often chicken fingers from the children’s menu—unless I was inclined to eat a hamburger patty, hold the bun please, because it might have milk in it. My parents scoured specialty stores and Pathmark during the Jewish holidays to find dairy-free chocolate for me, a rarity in the ’90s. My mom even wrote away to companies in the hopes of obtaining a list of dairy-free products they produced—how little we realize the importance of the Internet in everyday life now.
For me, as you might be able to detect, eating was a consistent effort for both me and my family on an everyday basis. A copious amount of attention was paid to dining in and out, which I think rubbed off on me in a wonderfully irreparable way. I now notice an attentive and adventurous palate whenever I eat out, unafraid to try the most exotic of foods—balut (fertilized duck embryo), pork jowls and trotter, even geoduck, the most heinous of clams that I still haven’t developed a taste for even though I keep trying.
That, my friends who always ask, is why I love eating out so much. I wasn’t able to as a child, and knowing that I’m developing new, interesting allergies every year has spurred me to act while I can. Boston is home to some of the most groundbreaking new restaurants on the scene. Next time you find yourself content with late night chicken fingers, keep that in mind. Expand your palate, expand your horizons.