I started cooking when I was a kid, kneading dough, frying eggs and chopping. My mom was often found in the kitchen baking pies, making fresh bread, stews, lasagna and assorted varieties of pasta. My dad cooked too, making spicy Asian stir fries, soups and more pasta. I am of Italian descent, Calabrese to be exact, a region of hearty sauces and pungent flavors. On more than one occasion there were wheels of cheese so intense it was like a punch in the face to open the refrigerator.
While my father’s parents remained in Italy, my mother’s lived down the street and food was our primary method of socializing. Walking towards their red house into a time warp of 70’s decor including upholstered furniture the color of mushy peas, the smell of stuffed mushrooms, lasagna and fried cutlets were commonly wafting from the windows, ushering in a Sunday afternoon. Food was comfort and safety.
Besides the standard Chinese fare that is familiar to Americans, I didn’t start experimenting with flavors much until a little hole in the wall of a North Indian restaurant opened up down the street from my high school in Connecticut. At that time I was already sure I would be off to Art school and my ragtag group of artistic friends reflected my rather bohemian path. We started getting takeout and I was entranced by this delicious mash of spinach and lentils called Dal Saag and the giant puffy naan bread that came along with it. I began stocking new and unfamiliar spices and seeking out global cuisine…Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, Ghanian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Nepalese….I wanted to identify the essence of these places by the palette…a virtual method of travel through the sense of taste and smell. Was it spicy, sweet, nutty, sour, salty, creamy, bitter? I began to notice common spices that make such different flavors when combined with the right ingredients. Cumin and cilantro are vital to many Mexican and Indian dishes. So why do they taste so different? Add cinnamon and cilantro to a red sauce and top it with some yogurt and you find yourself with a taste of Afghanistan…but add oregano, garlic and basil and find yourself with a fabulous Italian pasta sauce. Why does a pinch of nutmeg bring out the flavor of spinach? Why does butter have to be cold for a pie crust? Why do egg whites turn white? What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? What are the health benefits of a raw carrot or a cooked one and why are cucumbers so good for your skin?
I worked in restaurants on my summer breaks. While I enjoyed having more experience with food, I did not care for the hectic pace and the standardized method of preparation. I wanted to experiment and contemplate.
These are some of the questions I ponder and seek answers to, finding remarkable correspondences each and every day, often entranced by the beauty of the geometry of a cross section of a piece of fruit or vegetable. Cooking is the counterpart to my practice as a visual artist. An expression of flavor, scent and potential energy, a merging of art and science.