I was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. Those of you familiar with northwest Indiana, or who have driven through it on the way to Chicago, know that the landscape there is somewhat bleak. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the steel mills along Lake Michigan were still going strong, which was good for the local economy but not so good for the environment. I remember a lot of gray skies, and red sunsets that were made even more ruddy by the pollution from mill smokestacks.
The area was comprised of working-class families from diverse ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latino, Polish, Irish, Dutch, Eastern European, English, Italian, German. Despite this I was not aware of any grand culinary traditions in the area. I guess everyone was trying to be “American.” This was before the explosion of interest in food and food traditions.
In our house Hamburger Helper, canned vegetables, and cheap beer were staples. My father once complained because my mother served hamburger seven nights in a row. She was an inexperienced, unmotivated cook who was trying to keep a family fed as best she could, and she knew she could rely on hamburger. Sometimes we’d have spaghetti or beef stew from a can. “Whole wheat bread” was a brand called Roman Meal, which is about the least wheaty wheat bread I know. In the summer we’d get fresh tomatoes, green beans and corn from local farmers, but outside of those and iceberg lettuce I don’t remember much fresh produce.
My experience and knowledge of food expanded slightly while attending Indiana University in Bloomington in the late 1970s, but the real awakening came after college. With a degree in Drawing and Painting, and no desire to attend graduate school, my career prospects were not exactly wide open. My first job after college was as a dishwasher at a small restaurant in Bloomington called Le Petit Café. They served “French provincial cuisine”: the food of the French countryside, relatively simple but satisfying dishes made with high-quality ingredients.
Le Petit Café was run by a couple who had moved to the US from France. How they landed in the middle of Indiana I don’t know. Patrick was sort of maitre d’, sommelier and chief of staff. Marina was the chef and also chief of staff. They were friendly and generous enough to serve employees a free meal after every shift, lunch and dinner, including wine! During the two years I worked there, I sampled a terrific variety of French food and drink.
The real eye-opener for me was that all the food was made from scratch. Today high-quality ingredients and dishes made from scratch are not newsworthy, but in the early 80s, to a young kid from Gary who grew up on processed food, the food was a mind-blowing revelation. I had never tasted such food, or enjoyed food so much. Obviously the French were on to something.
Le Petit Café completely changed my attitude about food, and for that I will always be grateful. No more frozen dinners and brownies from a box. Cooking from scratch became my mantra and it continues to this day. Thankfully Le Petit Café also continues, and I highly recommend a visit if you're in the Bloomington area.
Since leaving Le Petit Café in 1983, there have been numerous other influences on my cooking. I met my wife in 1987, and at the time she was a vegetarian. During the first years of our relationship I learned a lot about vegetarian food and grew especially fond of foods from the Middle East and India, including hummus, tabouli, bulgur with chickpeas and tomatoes, Indian potatoes with spinach, lentils with garlic and tomatoes, samosas, basmati rice, and many others. Also through my wife I was introduced to the wonderful vegetarian cuisine of Mollie Katzen, first through the Moosewood Cookbook and later through The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and other books. Mollie’s creativity continues to inspire me.
Today I’m more passionate than ever about food and healthy eating, and have a wide range of interests that somehow come together to become dinner. These include organic foods, “super-foods,” whole grains, American barbecue, grilled food, tea, and the cuisines of Thailand, India, and the Middle East. Oh, and donuts.