the genealogy of taste
August 30, 2006

I've been requesting artichokes with hollandaise for my birthday dinner since I can remember. (I vividly recollect eating artichoke heart on the deck of our California house, which means before I turned seven). A friend recently asked what kind of food I cook, and I'm trying to track my cooking genre or influence through my birthday dinner menu.

"Classic, simple" is what I want to say. I think I want that to mean a picturesque town in Provence. I have, after all, been marinating steaks in lavender all afternoon (or at least since I finally located lavender, just a few blocks away, after traversing the 30-block radius of Park Slope at least twice). And hollandaise: My mother might as well have raised me and my brother in Paris for our attitude toward butter.

But I'd just as happily eat steak with chimichurri (a close runner up for tonight's fête), with barbeque sauce, on a hamburger bun or plain off the grill (so long as it's still red). In other words: I really like red meat. And my formative years were spent almost entirely in Texas.

Still, I was born in California in the decade of Alice Waters. I like fresh ingredients. I'd love to grow them myself. I hadn't planned on soup tonight, but one guest calls to tell me that she's suddenly on a liquid-only diet (medically ordered). I jettison the cheese course (ah, France) and remember that I have opulently growing basil and home-canned tomatoes—good ones. Both go into the blender with olive oil, sea salt and pepper; it's fresh, seasonal ingredients at their best. (I had thought to only serve soup to the patient while the rest of us gorged on solid food, but the result is too good; I fill a few vodka shooters with tomato-basil for the rest of us, and I have a very chic amuse bouche.)

My trip to Glasgow in April garnered many a stunning meal, but two things have stuck in my head (which I suspect do not reflect any traditional Glaswegian cuisine): The potato rolls Eli made for Easter dinner and the elderflower cordial perfuming a pitcher of drinking water at a dinner party thrown by ex pats. I'm wary of yeast. It's classic, yes; it does not strike me as particularly simple. But I'm clutching Eli's instructions—and I watched her in her tiny Glaswegian kitchen. Mine don't rise exactly like hers, but even flat they taste like what I remember. But no one will ever know. The rolls were victim to the big-dinner rule that at least one thing won't work: I left them warming in the oven while I broiled the steaks. (Some diners enthusiastically scrape off the burnt layer, but that's not my idea of birthday food.)

Or could "classic, simple" mean American Southern? My immediate heritage is not particularly littered with European or new Mediterranean traditions. My family lines the Gulf Coast (shrimp and grits being two favorites that missed this menu), and I'm proud to claim butter beans in my culinary lineage. But no one fed me red velvet cake while I was growing up; I think I chose my birthday cake in a fit of false nostalgia.

French-California-Southern-Texas: It doesn't roll off the tongue, exactly. But birthday dinner sure tastes exactly right.