Hello, fellow campers, world travelers, and gourmets!
Denise here from the Loire Valley, France. My partner and gourmet gal Gail recently sent me a wonderful article commemorating the life of Robert Haas, the founder of Tablas Creek Vineyards. It was written by his son and was a lovely retrospective of all he accomplished in his lifetime. It reminded me that sometimes we forget to look back and acknowledge what we have accomplished. And most of all, who helped us along as we searched for just what our calling should be. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mentor who will show you the ropes of a specific trade. Usually, we are inspired by a family member or friend who has had some success doing something that we are interested in. Or, as was the case in the article I mention above, you inherit a business and hopefully love doing what your family did. After reading the article I began to look back on my life to see who influenced me to want to cook.
My mother was of Italian (Sardinia) descent but was born and raised in Provence, France. I grew up with home-cooked, Mediterranean meals every night, except those rare TV dinner meals that my sister and I thought were so wonderful. She made many dishes I loved, like pasta al burro, lasagna, and homemade ravioli, and some I really didn’t like, such as ratatouille. She would cook the ratatouille to death, and the result was a slimy mush that neither I nor my sister could stand. Our father was strict, and he wouldn’t let us leave the table until we ate all of it. So we devised many sneaky ways of hiding the offending mush, like hiding it in our napkins and then throwing it in the trash when he wasn’t looking, or putting some of it in our mouths and quickly washing it down with milk. This made us gag. We wished we had a dog instead of a finicky Siamese cat. She was no help at all.
Today I love ratatouille, but only the way I make it. Here is a picture of it. You can find the recipe in The Gourmet Girls Go Camping Cookbook on page 142.
It is far from the concoction my mother made, rest her soul. The vegetables are cut thin and cooked just beyond the point of raw. Delicious! So mom was a big influence, even if a negative one when it comes to this dish. But boy did I learn a lot from her about how to cook!
Mom and Dad owned and ran three restaurants during their lives and mine, so I got to see first hand how hard it is to be successful in that business. The first one was a pizza/Italian restaurant called Pizza Roma. This was in 1962, way before anybody really knew what good pizza was. And to make matters worse, it was in Casper, Wyoming! Educating that demographic about Italian food was, at best, futile. All they knew about Italian food was spaghetti and meatballs by Chef Boyardee. Dad had learned to make pizza dough in Italy in 1955 and it was his dream to open a pizza restaurant when he got back to the states. Here he is in New York on his way to Italy.
My sister and I were put to work making pizza boxes in the basement for the take-out pizzas, and we were not very happy about that. The only good thing about it was that we got to eat a lot of pizza. Did you know you can make pizza over a campfire? Check out our pizza recipes on pages 54-58 in The Gourmet Girls Go Camping Cookbook!
The Pizza Roma lasted a couple of years, then he closed it and reopened as a BBQ restaurant called The Rib Rack. He would pre-steam pork ribs before barbequing them with his special sauce. They were fall off the bone delicious! He also offered prime rib, several kinds of pasta, salads and his famous garlic bread. The Rib Rack was open for several years before my mom convinced him to close shop and move to California. I still make my pork ribs the same way he did. There is a camping recipe for these on page 136 in The Gourmet Girls Go Camping Cookbook.
The third restaurant was another Italian restaurant, Antonucci’s in Newport Beach, California. Dad got to make his beloved pizza’s and mom made the spaghetti and pizza sauces. They both did a bit of everything needed to run the restaurant, and I watched them work day and night to make the place a success. Eventually they tired of working so hard and sold the business.
So no wonder I like to cook! When I look back on my life it is hard to remember a time when cooking food wasn’t a priority in my family, whether it was for the family or the public. So thanks mom and dad for showing me the way. Rest in Peace.
I have come full circle and now live in France, the country where my mom was born, and where food is definitely an important part of life. Here in the countryside, stores close two hours beginning at noon for the most important meal of the day. Even the supermarkets close! It takes some getting used to but that is the pace of life here. Things move slowly and everyone has time to chat with friends and family and digest.
And the cycle continues, as my son Nick became a chef and continues to look for a way to share his talents with the world. He has had his own mentors along the way, and I am sure there will be many more in his future. I do hope one day when he is older he will reflect upon his life and acknowledge all who have influenced his decision to choose a culinary path. And I know I will be one of them.
Hope you are all having a wonderful Spring!
Denise, Gail, and Lindsey