I wasn’t always adventurous with food. Until I was about 14, I preferred my spaghetti and broccoli and Hamburger Helper and Poptarts over anything else. When I was 14, a new girl came to school. Her name was Polly Day, and she and her family had just moved back to the US from Bolivia where they had been missionaries for years. The whole family fascinated me. They spoke Spanish and rode motorcycles and stargazed and gardened and wore flowing, bohemian dresses. The Days were hipsters before hipsters were even a thing, and I fell in love with all of them.
My mom and Mrs. Day became fast friends, too. One year, for Mrs. Day’s birthday, she invited all her friends to celebrate at her favorite Thai restaurant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We lived in Fort Smith, an hour south, but there was no Thai food in Fort Smith. Fort Smith was still excited about our new TGIFridays and its Sampler Platter full of fried goodness.
Fayetteville was the hippy town. They had the university. They had big companies like Walmart’s home office and Tyson Chicken. They had the artists and the liberals. (Sidenote: my first live concert was at the university in Fayetteville when I was 13. My mom drove me up to see the Counting Crows and we sat behind these college kids who were smoking pot and I was so intimidated by everything going on around me that I barely remember the concert, but they sang Mr. Jones and I loved it.) Fort Smith had the blue collar workers and the factories and the military base and the conservatives and a bit of an inferiority complex that would only grow over the years.
At the time, my worldview was being shaped by the Southern Baptist church I was attending. See, Polly Day was also the first person to invite me to church. So, I was learning about holiness and right and wrong and love and condemnation and fear and hope. I was learning that there was a battle between good and evil and that you needed to be on the good side. I was learning that there were safe activities and activities that you wanted to avoid because they could put you in the path of temptation.
So while I was being taught to be in the world and not of the world, I was also realizing how big the world was! A big part of the Southern Baptist church is mission work. We were constantly hearing about other countries and other people groups, and, yes, it was all focused around their need for the Gospel, but it was also focused around God’s love for them. So whether or not you believe in God or organized religion, I hope we can all agree that learning to love other people is the most important thing we can ever strive to learn. The church (and my mom) taught me how to love people. They taught me how to appreciate people who were different from me. They taught me to seek out the stranger and the outcast and the foreigner.
And it’s because of the church that I tried Thai food.
One cold winter’s night, my mom and I bundled up and drove the hour north to Fayetteville in our ’91 Honda Civic named Tootsie. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, and I was nervous about this Thai food. It was the first time I was trying food that was really different.
I remember walking into the warmth of the dining room from the cold, windy street and loving the way the room glowed orange. It was my first time seeing Buddhist imagery and statues. I was taken aback, but I thought that if a Godly woman like Mrs. Day ate there, then it would be okay for me. I remember the laughter of the table and the big plates of pad thai and drunken noodles. I remember how the spice hit my virgin tongue and took my breath away. I remember the flavors like lemongrass and cilantro that had been previously unknown to me.
And then there was the mango sticky rice. Oh. my. goodness. This fruit that I’d only had a couple of times before on top of a warm bed of sweet rice on top of a banana leaf! It was at least as good as my Hamburger Helper.
That one night lit a foodie fire in me that I hadn’t previously known. Then, one day, in high school choir, my friend Sally had a magazine with her. Sally loved gardening, and the magazine she was reading had really good gardening articles in it. I noticed food on the cover and asked her if I could take a look. Turns out, It wasn’t just about boring gardening; it was full of recipes, too! And the recipes looked delicious. It was the first time I’d held a magazine about cooking, and I was hooked. I tore a subscription card out of the middle, folded it in my pocket, and, when I got home, asked my mom if I could subscribe to Martha Stewart Living.
That was the beginning of my love affair with Martha. She taught me the “proper way” to cook and about fancy, northeastern dishes that I’d never heard of in the south, and I soaked it up like a sponge. Martha had, for me, incredibly complex, multi-step recipes, and I dove in headfirst, happy for the challenge, wanting to make the best. Even today, if I’m searching for a recipe, I’ll turn to Martha Stewart first.
While Martha taught me class in cooking, the Food Network taught me comfort. You can say what you want about the commercialization of chefs, the hit-or-miss recipes of Rachel Ray, and the mediocrity of the current-day shows, but the early years of Food Network were quality. I grew up with Alton Brown, Tyler Florence, Mario Batali, Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver, Giada De Laurentiis, and Anthony Bourdain. While Martha taught me how to cook fancy, WASP food, the Food Network taught me how to make food my life. Alton was the scientist and would do crazy food experiments. Tyler, Mario, and Giada cemented my love for Italian food and ensured that I knew that “al dente” meant “to the tooth.” Ina added some French flair to her WASPyness, Jamie taught me a love for gardening, and Anthony showed me the foods and cultures of far off places.
My exposure to food and cultures from all over the world only increased in college. I’m thankful that the University of Arkansas had a really strong international student program, so I had friends from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, China, Iran, Palestine, Romania, and Africa. All of these experiences and people have lead me to the place I am today, to the journey I’m on today. The world is full of stories that are told through food, and I intend to find as many as I can.
What’s your first memory of trying a cuisine that was different than what you grew up with? Comment below and let me know.