I spent my youth (as well as most of my adulthood) in the land of meat and potatoes. I grew up in Oklahoma, which was, and still is, a bastion of farming and ranching, a state with a grand agricultural heritage. Acre after acre of rolling grassland is devoted to beef cattle, some of which might be fortunate enough to spend the last few weeks of existence grazing on the famed Tallgrass Prairie preserve. Farmsteads, with fields of waving wheat, corn or other crops, line both the well-traversed interstates as well as the dozens of gravel-specked lanes that crisscross the state like the silky strands that make up a spider’s web.
Living in Oklahoma, a veritable carnivore’s dream, I did not, as one might think, grow up eating beef and corn. My parents were, and are today, amazing innovators when it comes to dealing with ingredients.
Back in the 1970’s, my mother served up broiled lamb chops on a regular basis, before lamb became wildly popular on restaurant menus. She opted for shoulder chops (not the more popular – and more expensive – rib chops), browned them perfectly on a foil-lined tray under the coils of our electric GE range, and served them on a bed of Rice-a-Roni. I have tried, to no avail, to recreate them (as well as the Rice-a-Roni), but it is apparent that it takes a mother’s touch to imprint such a memory. I will continue trying to perfect those chops, for I want my own son to experience his grandmother’s cooking, just as I have for so many years.
My dad, on the other hand, has always been a bit more adventurous in the kitchen. He bakes hearty loves of crusty bread every weekend, plays around with kohlrabi and baby artichokes and sits in his well-worn chair in front of the TV watching cooking shows as he works the daily newspaper’s crossword puzzles – while spending time in their kitchen I have spotted many a folded newspaper with recipe notes scribbled into the margins. My father has plenty of inspiration, for his cookbook collection rivals the cooking section of any national book-selling chain, and the living room coffee table spares no space for magazine titles that do not include food. In my opinion, however, my father’s prized possession is his collection of ‘Time Life’ cookbooks from the early 1970’s that feature cuisines from around the world.
‘Foods of the World’ was a popular series of 27 cookbooks published by Time-Life from 1968 (the year I was born) through the early 1970’s. The individual volumes, each of which offered a broad survey of a particular country or region’s cuisine, were written by well-known experts, including some of the food writers who shaped my view of the culinary world – Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey, James Beard, Julia Child, and M.F.K. Fisher were just a few. The collection opened up my eyes to the world of food that existed outside of my little corner of it. The individual volumes remain collector’s items and are widely available on the secondhand market. I imagine, or at least I pray, that his collection will eventually end up in my possession, but I can’t help but grab volumes when I come across them in used bookstores.
One night, decades ago, for a special occasion of which I’m not certain about anymore, my father opened the volume on Russian cuisine and proceeded to make coulibiac for dinner. In a nutshell, coulibiac consists of a filet of salmon, poached and gently flaked apart and strewn upon a bed of delicate crepes, topped with a rice mixture flecked with chopped hard-boiled eggs and sautéed mushrooms, then wrapped in flaky puff pastry and baked until golden. My little sister and I enjoyed this as dinner while our friends were cutting their teeth on steaks. The recipe involves three pages of instructions and requires a few side recipes, but the end result for me was life changing. To this day, coulibiac is what I think of when people ask me what peaked my interest in cooking.
Flash forward if you will from my childhood to late October 1997, as I stood on a bustling sidewalk at the intersection of 94th and Lexington on New York City’s Upper East Side. I chose to study food in New York before ever visiting, because I knew that if I wanted to learn about the culinary world, I had to immerse myself in the thick of it. New York City is the center of the pie – that last, delicious bite where high falutin’ fruit filling and modest, but perfectly handmade crust meet, creating one perfect bite.
I knew I had come to the right place. I enrolled in culinary school that afternoon with a goal of never working a single restaurant shift. I was going to work for a food magazine, creating the food featured in the glossy, well-styled photographs. And that is exactly how it all played out.
Right before graduation, as my classmates – who were now friends for life – were debating whether to work for Jean-Georges or Daniel, I was trying to figure out how to get to Martha. I became an intern the Monday after culinary school graduation. I went on to work for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for six years. I worked my way up from intern to recipe tester to ultimately, Senior Food Editor. I stayed in New York through blizzards, hurricanes, 9/11, and ultimately, an enormous blackout. It was time to go, and I chose to go back to Oklahoma. I craved what, earlier in my life, I couldn’t wait to leave – open roads, grassed backyards and the option to drive my own car to the supermarket. I had worked at my dream job, with even dreamier colleagues, each as passionate about food as I (many, even more so). I reached the center of the pie while living in New York, but I had to go home to take the last bite.
I left New York in the fall of 2003 and headed back to Oklahoma…a great decision. I met (or re-met, for we were acquaintances back in college at Oklahoma State University) my wonderful husband when I got back to town and we were married shortly thereafter…with a charming lad of a kid to follow a few years later.
I was the Food Editor of TulsaPeople Magazine for 9 years and work as an independent food stylist and recipe developer for other publications – my work has been published in Cooking Light, Real Simple, Food Network Magazine and Cottage Living. I recently became the Creative Director for Edible Tulsa Magazine, which launched in 2014.
You will usually find me at home in the kitchen, at the computer, or chasing around my little lad!