August 23, 2007

Real Food

Recently I was contacted by the Hellmann’s marketing team, who asked if I’d like to participate in a discussion about ‘Real Food’ as part of their new campaign on Yahoo! Food. The In Search of Real Food campaign tracks Dave Lieberman via blog posts and video episodes as he travels across the USA in search of “real food”. In addition to Lieberman’s posts, a number of bloggers have also been asked to write about “what real food means to real people (you)”. And so, without further ado, I give you my thoughts on ‘real food’.

Real food is subjective. Would you call a cheese sandwich made with processed cheese slices, (you know, the ones that taste the same regardless of whether or not you remove the plastic coating) and Wonderbread real food? It’s not something I’d ever crave anymore even if it’s something that brings back memories of eating at the long wooden table at my Grandpa and Grandma’s house when I was little. Since my tastes have changed, I would no longer call that good food, but it’s real nonetheless. All food is real. The fact that you put it in your mouth makes it real. That doesn’t make it good, healthy, tasty or satisfying, but it does make it real. So perhaps a better question would be, what do you consider good food, (and perhaps this is what was implied all along)? Good food is what comes out of your home kitchen, it’s whatever makes you feel good, it’s what brings people together, it’s what stands in the background of memories. Food is inextricably woven into our lives and with nothing more than a rich aroma or little nibble, food can transport me to a different time or place.

A real, fresh strawberry can take me all the way back to being a toddler when Mom would plunk me down in the dirt in the middle of the strawberry patch, usually wearing little more than a pair of summer shorts, while she weeded. I would emerge hours later, sticky and red and covered in strawberry juice. When I eat a real strawberry now, one that’s bumpy and lumpy and tastes like the sun, I can still recall those early times. In contrast, one of those genetically modified strawberries that are the size of my fist, perfectly coloured, free of blemishes and utterly tasteless, do not arouse the same feelings.

What other memories can food elicit? The smell of baking bread reminds me of Mom and her big bowl of dough that would sit and rise in the sun. My Mom makes the best bread in the world, but unfortunately she baked most of it before I was born. After I came along, the bread baking continued, but dwindled significantly and then drastically when I started school and Mom returned to work. After that, it seemed as though the only time there was bread baking was when my older brother came home from University. This is despite the fact that I was around all the time and would plead for some of Mom’s delicious homemade bread. Eventually I accept the fact that my brother has special privileges and there would only be bread if he was coming home to visit. I’m still bitter about that, but I’ll try to keep going. The mention of fromage blanc takes me back to my time in France. It’s been years since I’ve been and since I had some but I can still remember it so clearly. That’s the way with quite a few tastes from France, even though at the time I didn’t realize all of the new foods I was trying and loving, I now wish I could get them back. Today when I think of fromage blanc, it’s not only of the taste but of a place I’d love to return.

Family traditions are also bound up in food. Sweet and sour spare ribs give way to thoughts of an enormous pot bubbling away on the stove at Grandma’s every Christmas Eve. Homemade pierogies remind me of my other Grandma and the blue plastic pierogi press she used to use. Angel food cake is always served on Dad’s birthday, black forest cake is served on mine. Mom’s zucchini relish is the only reason I eat hotdogs. Although it was just this year that I found out that the recipe Mom follows for her famous Zucchini Relish, does not even call for zucchini. It was an overabundance of zucchini, (that persists today) that necessitated a change in the recipe that has been duplicated ever since. Zucchini is tricky that way, it’ll find its way into all sorts of recipes, like Mom’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake, (pictured above). That’s another food I associate with growing up. Chocolate and zucchini was a normal combination in my house but I recall numerous occasions when I would share my chocolate zucchini cake with friends and they would always be shocked to learn what was inside it. I can’t tell you how many people claim to hate zucchini but will gobble up a piece of this cake. Real food has that power though, it can change minds and win friends.

For me, real food is also a creative outlet. I like to play with my food and combine unusual flavours and textures. I like the challenge of making a new dish. I like being able to use fresh ingredients from my garden or the local market. And I like to create for other people. I cook and bake for others because it makes me happy to make others happy with food. It’s how I share best. Simply put, Real Food is good food, good friends and good memories, no matter how you make it.

If you’d like a little taste of my memories, then give Mom’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake a try:

2 ½ cups flour

½ cup cocoa powder

2 ½ tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 ½ tsp grated orange zest

2 tsp vanilla

2 cups grated zucchini, (or more, it generally depends on the size of zucchini I have)

½ cup milk (I’ve also used sour cream)

1 cup nuts (walnuts work well)

1 cup chocolate chips

Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

In a large bowl, combine oil and sugar, then beat in eggs. Stir in rind, vanilla and zucchini. Stir in dry ingredients alternately with milk, nuts and chocolate chips. Pour into a large greased bundt pan or a 9x5 pan and 12 muffin cups and bake at 350F for 1 hour, (less for muffins) until tester comes out mostly clean.

Icing is optional, Mom’s original recipe calls for ¾ cup icing sugar mixed with orange juice and ½ tsp orange zest. A chocolate glaze works well too.

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Valli said...

Your mom's Chocolate Zucchini Cake sounds like REAL food to me. To be a fanatical cook skipped a generation in my family...only my oldest brother and I have a love of cooking and inventive recipes. My mom found cooking to be a chore. I do have foods that I loved as a child even so. I loved eating homemade buns my dad had just pulled from the oven slathered in butter. They would also make some mean potato fritters and roesti that are always a comfort to me.By the way I nominated you for a "Droolworthy Blogger" award.

K & S said...

all the delicious things that are coming out of your kitchen sound like real food to me. this cake included!

Peabody said...

Not all food is real food...I don't trust fat free cream cheese to be real food. If my dog wont eat it(and she will eat her own poop) it can't be food. :)
Your cake on the other hand is definitely food...good looking food at that.

Kelly-Jane said...

Real -v- processed is something I think about now and again, although probably more now I have little one.

A few weeks ago I took her with me to buy petrol, she chose a sweet at the counter. Mini jelly lips, red and cute. She loved them, but they were obviously full of more than sugar, water nad gelatine because she was sky high hyper for about 4 hours afterwards. Of course she is desperate for more, even a few weeks later.... I didn't think something fake now and again would be that bad, but It's really made me think and check labels more closely.

Youe Mum's cupcakes look real and delicious to me :)

jerry said...

This sounds absolutely wonderful as usual. Brylynn. I wish I had your talent for baking!

I was asked to do an article also, Here's hoping we see one of our names up there in the future!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Bri, what a beautiful post! I can relate so much...
Many of the memories I have about my mom are related to food, even though I didn't have her around for long (she worked as a cook before marrying my dad). And she used to bake cakes and make delicious food and desserts for us.

Your text is so moving, it took me waaaay back!

Kevin said...

Those look great. I will have to try baking with zucchini.

Cynthia said...

There are lots of things in your post that one can relate to. I think that real food is relative, it changes as we change...

The Gourmand said...

This is a wonderful story.
I agree with what you are saying. Real food doesn't have to be caviar, foie gras and black truffle. Seriously!
I have no objection to eating junk food at all- these definately have a place in our hectic lives. I love pizza and a certain type of hamburger, freshly made, that is available from a well known fast food establishment (think golden arches).
But what is important to remember is that our lives shouldn't revolve around these foods. Junk or proceessed food every now and then is not going to kill you. I feel sorry for people who eat processed food everyday- they don't know what they are missing out on.

Kristen said...

Some of my fondest (and earliest) memories are all food-related, and your words brought back some very good memories. And the cake sounds very yummy :)