As political as I believe food can be, I know and feel that food is deeply personal. The way food makes us feel, our memories with food, and our associations are all personal and even intimate. The foods that we love, the foods that I love, all reveal something about me as a person, something about my story and my history. The foods that make us homesick or nostalgic, those foods tell other people something about where we came from and who our people are.
I can't remember the first time I had most of the foods that I eat. I don't remember the first time I ate bread, a sandwich, ice cream, cake. I do remember eating a croissant for the first time because it was while I was studying abroad in Greece (you can get perfectly great croissants in America; I was just an idiot). I was drunk, walking home with a group of friends, and we stopped at a bakery. Chocolate croissants and ham sandwiches were the only two things left, and I don't much like ham. Love at first bite, and I didn't even know the world of croissants that would open up to me after that first one.
I grew up in a small town in eastern Kentucky. There are a number of fast food restaurants - Hardee's, Arby's, McDonald's, Wendy's, Lee's, KFC, Dairy Queen - and there are a handful of locally owned places too. Pasquale's is the local pizza place and my dad's favorite place to get pitchers of Bud Light. Melini's is the Italian place where everyone could, in theory, get pasta, but most people I knew got pizza. There are two Mexican restaurants, La Finca and Mi Monterey, and two (maybe three?) Chinese buffets. Root-a-Baker's Bakery in Morehead has the best strawberry cake I've ever had. Since I moved away, Morehead has gained a second Dairy Queen, a Cracker Barrel, and a small café. That pretty much sums up the whole of eating out in Morehead, so far as I knew it when I was a teenager. All of this is to say, I hadn't seen or tried much of the food world before I left for college in the "big city" at eighteen.
Many of my first food memories are so vivid to me because I had no idea all the possibilities. In college, two of my closest friends were from the Cincinnati metro area and Louisville, so their experiences with restaurants and food were more diverse than mine. The first time I tried sushi was at two in the morning in Cincinnati, OH when a group of us got bored and high-tailed it the two hour drive from Lexington for a late night sushi special where one of our friends used to hang out. We could have found something similar, I'm sure, in Lexington, but the trip was part of the draw. I don't remember exactly how I felt trying sushi for the first time, but I remember driving with all the windows down in the dead of night, sitting in the passenger seat next to a person who would become one of the most important in my life, and screaming out the lyrics to Robyn and Ester Dean. I vaguely remember sitting in the restaurant and thinking that I wouldn't let myself flinch or act like I didn't know what to do when the sushi came. I can't remember if I used chopsticks or not, though I'm sure I did and I'm sure I looked a fool. I get hellbent on things like that. Rice alone was hardly part of my regular diet, but rice rolled up with fish inside was honestly beyond my imagination. I had never even tried fish until after I left home.
Leaving my hometown for college not only exposed me to new people and new ideas, but to the foods associated with different people and ways of life too. I never in my life would have guessed that Greek yogurt would become such a staple in my diet. I certainly wouldn't have ever purchased Fage at the store and known to avoid the 0% or 2% fat (the fat is the entire point, everybody) or to drizzle it with fresh fruit, honey, and nuts if I hadn't spent two semesters in Greece. And Lord! I would have never had baklava in the traditional Greek fashion, so drenched with honey and layered with nuts. Or bougatsa, a creamy custard layered with phyllo pastry and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar - a dessert that I may love even more than baklava, but who's to say? My love of Greek yogurt tells a part of my story that is deeply important to me. Greek yogurt finds its way into many of my dishes because I nearly always have it around the house. Justin even made an omelet over the weekend with Greek yogurt instead of milk because we hardly ever have milk.
My parents were not coffee drinkers either. Coffee didn't come into my life until my sophomore year of college. I lived on campus, directly across the street from the campus library and a Starbucks. I was determined (hellbent, as I get) on an image of myself and the me in that image drank coffee. I hated, hated, hated coffee for quite awhile, but I forced myself to order and drink black coffee every morning. How stupid? I didn't even know how to properly brew coffee myself until after I left college. It was all a guessing game of pouring ground coffee into a filter, adding water, and crossing my fingers. I didn't know about whole beans or coffee grinders or pour overs. A whole world of coffee and all I'd done with my Pike Place was crack open the door.
There are foods that I love that I feel I have always loved, like watermelon. I remember vividly sitting at a picnic table in my uncle's front yard, barely able to see over the tabletop, and eating a triangular slice of watermelon down to the rind. I instantly wanted another piece. I wanted another piece before I was even finished. Watermelon still does that to me. I'll make myself sick on watermelon, I love it so much. But I don't think that sitting on the picnic table was the first time I had watermelon. For some foods, I don't have a beginning and end or a before and after.
Now I can't imagine a morning without warm coffee, and sometimes an afternoon without a cold one, and I rarely add any cream or sugar. I do love hot black coffee. I love how warm and bitter it is. I love how it tastes paired with something nice and sweet. I love how complex it is. So I guess nineteen-year-old me won out on something, and I'll give her that. She didn't win very much.
The crème brûlée this week wouldn't exist if I hadn't cracked open my food world. If I hadn't fallen in love with the taste of coffee in baked goods and experimented with coffee liqueurs and whole beans. I definitely have Cardinal Spirits to thank for this recipe, though. And nineteen-year-old me. She deserves a thank you too.