i wrote this post in silence…

…which explains why it’s all over the place.  I’m no good with silence.  I need noise in my life to make it work.

Some people did pots of coffee in college.  I didn’t understand coffee.  Or wine for that matter.  Beer was a lost cause, still is.  Coffee tasted bitter-burnt to me, but my mother savored hers, insisting it was great because you could have it in lieu of dessert and feel satisfied. I picture her now with both hands around a mug of it, her eyebrows raising then falling into a squint.  “So good,” she’d say shaking her head.  She made the same face when it came to red wine. “People who know wine, know it’s all about red,” I imagine her saying.  Though we both now love our un-oaked whites.  It must have been autumn when she’d said it.

Other people did Xanax or some other prescription drug they’d borrow from a friend who had unlimited refills.  I, however, abused the TV Food Network to subsist college.

I was an English major, which meant writing.  To this day I rarely write in silence.  I get too distracted, my mind wandering off.  Some writers beg for an environment free from temptation, insisting on writing in public libraries where food is outlawed.  I write in loud cafes with windows and trays of baked goods.  But in college, I wrote in my apartment–I moved off campus with a roommate just to have my own kitchen and living room, so I could entertain—being drip-fed a diet of TV Food Network demonstrations as I wrote my papers.

I remember writing a paper about Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg while watching Emeril top a puff-pastry-wrapped brie with a cursive doughy “E.”  I stopped writing and leaned toward my wipe-board and added “brie” to the list.  That night, between paragraphs, I baked a brie, toasted up some brioche, and dipped Crispin apples into the pool of it.  I know people ate ramen.  They also had coffee, drugs, and alcohol.  I had food that didn’t come from a package, a box, or a cup.

Even as far back as middle school, I’d complete my homework, sitting Indian-style on the floor of our den, with a few bowls of Rice Krispies covered in clover honey, while I also watched television.  “But how are you getting any work done?” My mother would question as she passed through in her apron.  But my parents let me do it my way.  I was earning good grades.  It wasn’t broken.  I got my way.   When I finished one subject, I rewarded myself with a handful more of Crispix.  I’d already finished the snap, crackle, and pops.

Back when it was Two Hot Tamales and Two Fat Ladies, I stopped eating cereal and opted for Jersey tomatoes with olive oil and coarsely-ground seasonings on hunks of ciabatta.  I scheduled my classes around my courses, and I worked it so I only had to be on campus three days a week.  On my days off I worked at Zagat, culling survey blurbs, fact checking, insisting they get an online format going.  Part of me wondered why I was attending a liberal arts school instead of a culinary institute.  “Because I have a brain,” I used to say.  I didn’t say it aloud, but it’s what I thought.  I was limited and naïve.  Affected.  An ass, really. And I didn’t think I was all that different from who I was in college, until now, when I revisit how I thought of the world.  Or at least, a microcosm of it.

I didn’t realize how brilliant you have to be to succeed in the culinary world.  It’s not just talent; it’s definitely smarts.  I’m not talking about the chemistry of foods, or knowing how much food to order. It’s personality.  Managing people.  Being humble. I think I would have made a disastrous chef, at least at that age.  I’m softer now.  Literally.  I’m working on the rest.



  1. I did the culinary thing after one disastrous semester at a fancy college. I was only 18 and found the physical aspect of it and the rigorous discipline much more what I needed at that age. It was wonderful. While my friends in college still were eating ramen, I was soaking auvergne bleu in armagnac and mastering my citrus beurre blanc, but I always felt stupid for not being in "real school". Then, when I was older and more settled, I went back and got that English degree after all. I feel very satisfied and balanced since I did both and now I feel even more validated. I wish more people would realize that being successful in the culinary industry does take a great deal of intelligence and creativity. Ok, but now you made me want tomatoes and olive oil on ciabatta. And brie and apples. And a cup of coffee.

  2. All coffee shouldn't taste burnt to you, seeing as there are huge variation between different beans and blends and roasts. Like every other food, a coffee palate is a developed thing. And much like tea, all coffees don't taste the same. So if you haven't tried it since, start trying it again.

  3. Ahhh…the fat ladies. I'm totally freaked out by them. Gimme the Naked Chef.

    I really want to 'know' food. I'm jealous that you're next-stop: guru.

    I have to have silence to get anything done. My mind wanders otherwise.

  4. The softer, humbler, people thing is called growing. Not necessarily growing up, since that sometimes has a negative connotation, but simply growing. And the fun part, if you have the self-awareness to realize it, is that this truly is a journey, not a destination, since we never stop growing. Every time that I ever thought I was 'there', I wasn't. And every year finds me modestly more wise, and modestly happier for it.

    And, FWIW, you can always take some culinary courses in your spare time, as the previous poster implied. Maybe you'll own a restaurant, or maybe you'll simply entertain, or maybe just for your enjoyment.

  5. Ina Garten. Nigella Lawson. How I love those ladies.

    Ear buds are my best friends when trying to wrtie. I need *controlled* noise. That's a tough lesson to learn though…

  6. i am completely in love with dave lieberman. could he BE any more adorable?

    thanks for this warm, fuzzy post. it reminded me i have this weekend's episodes of barefoot contessa to watch when i get home from work!

  7. I, too, need distractions to get anything done. I think my roommate hated me for awhile because I would do my homework with the TV on and she needed silence. I always maintained she could go to the library to work but we only had (our) TV in the room. Even at work now, I have to have music on. And snacks help, yes:)

  8. Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver…They're so wonderful…This was a such a good post, hun. Have you ever considered doing culinary school or perhaps opening a restaurant?

  9. I have always found I need background noise to get anything accomplished.

    I find the one place where I want to write the most is a dark, noisy bar.

    I never would've been such a successful geek in school if it weren't for the television. I can't believe my parents let me do my work that way, but I guess, like you, they decided if it works, don't change it.

    My daughter also can't go to sleep unless music is playing.

  10. My third book will definitely involve food. Photos. Recipes. Stories. Lots of good food porn.

  11. Agreed. As an English major, I too ALWAYS write with lots of noise. Writing my senior thesis this past spring, I played Ocean's Twelve, the fifth season of Dawson's Creek, and the first season of Desperate Housewives, all day everyday. It was the best environment ever…and well with coffee and yummy food. Right on, SK! =)

  12. Game changing strategy for coffee: try Cremora, its a non-dairy creamer. It's all about chemistry, really, it adds creaminess to the coffee without further dilute it with liquid the way milk or half & half would.

    It's probably best that my eating disorder–OA recovering self doesn't read this post. It's like a recovering alcoholic reading a sommolier's site. crap.

  13. You write food well. I'd say on the "you are what you eat" philosophy, it makes sense that you wouldn't be a ramen noodle. Too simple, too generic. And on the writing note, I can never write alone in silence. I lose my rhythm. Love the posts. Hope all is still afloat in Austin.

  14. Me, Harold, herbed beef tartare, lobster terrine, risotto rice pudding, and everything else Geoffrey Zakarian does so amazingly well. Sigh, what had previously been a daydream was Friday night's reality. Yay!

    P.S. He WAS short. But not as short as I had been led to believe. I'd say 5' 8''.

  15. How about baked brie with almonds, spread on toasted pita wedges? And speaking of toast, I have been drizzling my toasted whole wheat muffins every morning with honey ever since your honey post. Far superior to jam.

  16. I kinda feel sorry for Ina Garten, not real sure how to say her name, sort of strange. But Everyday Italian is one of my fav's, Giada is gorgeous and she makes the food look so easy to make! Good Eats with Alton Brown is good also, his recipes are easy to make. I LOVE how explains things! Don't we all wish we lived near a Whole Foods market. Incidentally, since I live near the home of Walmart, Walmart is starting a new chain similar to Whole Foods, we shall see how it does!

  17. I have always studied with TV or radio on. I need it like air that I breath. I need to hear people chatting or laughing, it gives me energy and ideas. Silence is not for me. Even when I go to sleep I need to have radio or TV on with a talkshow.

  18. Some of the food blogs out there are really great – Nordljus, Chez Pim, Orangette, Chocolate and Zucchini, the list goes on and on. Until I started my own recently I didn't know how many were out there! I have links to my favorites on my blog (as well as a link here.)

    I also just started culinary school and it definitely requires brains, creativity and discipline. I am lucky – my local community college has a good program tuition free – I am taking one class at a time at night because of my day job! I am also exactly the same way about studying – during law school I had to study in a cafe, because I couldn't handle the silence in the library. Maybe it's something on the foodie gene!

  19. I've taken many cooking classes, though I must admit I didn't learn anything. Maybe they give people confidence. I enjoy looking at what the students will learn to cook in a series of classes, then I’ll drum up some recipes that match the descriptions and try it on my own. That’s the best way to learn how to cook. What you can’t learn is how to lust after food. To imagine combinations, to stray from recipes and create your own. Tonight I’m making banana dumplings with toasted sesame seeds and drizzled honey. I can’t help myself.

    I did take a host of cooking classes at THE INSTITUTE in Manhattan. Knife skills, spa cuisine (where we cooked with fructose and apple sauce), basic cooking where you learn about acidity and making proper emulsions. I learned a lot during my pairing wines with food class, though. Honestly, though, I learned most of what I know by watching my mother pull things together, seemingly effortlessly. I don't know how to make my own sausage or cheese (I also have no desire), but I do own all the right equipment from the mandolin to the mini blowtorch. And perhaps the hours upon hours of Food TV seeped into my pores. How to compose a roux, that you can use full stems of thyme when it's young and soft, that a wedge of apple keeps your brown sugar soft… you learn that by watching, trying, and listening.

  20. It sounds like you learned a lot! I feel like I am good at putting flavors together, but need more technical skills to make sure it will all come out ok. It's also kind of fun to go to school for a change from the routine. I am sure you are a fantastic cook – you certainly sound like you know what you are talking about and I can tell you love food.

    I know you and some of your readers were at Top Chef fans. In case anyone's interested, the always entertaining Pim from Chez Pim is now writing from the "Food and Wine Classic" in Aspen where Harold is supposed to showcase his talents – maybe he will make an appearance!

  21. See now, you say this post is all over the place because you wrote it in silence, but I find this one of the most focused of your posts. On point and really a pleasure to read.

  22. Being in a long-distance relationship (she in San Fran, me in NYC) means food out of a post-doorbell/buzzer bag. NYC kitchens are small enough for small people to get claustrophobic, so the only time I get to Cook (with a capital C) is when I'm visiting my parents, and thus I began, with hockey playoffs and the arrival of The Godfather/Mafia for the PC, to subconsciously shy away from watching the Food Network.

    But as the playoffs wound down, the Rangers got quickly bounced, and I became The Godfather and joined the Mafia (games for the PC), I found myself drawn back to the Food Network and realized its attraction for me; in my little kitchen in my studio, I nuke-reheat and rarely bother with fresh crushed cloves of real garlic, but on TV, everything is real, everything is good — even stuff with goat cheese — and everything looks awesome. And the best part — no one ever burns or cuts him/herself and there's no stinky leftovers.

    And no need to clean up when you can just bag up the plastic food containers and drop them down a chute down the hall.

    One day we'll have a six-burner Viking with an attached grill, a Sub-Zero and a double convection oven. 'Til then, it's Samsung and Luigi's and New Sunny East to the rescue.

  23. Wow, I'm quite the opposite normally. I need silence to focus on writing. I don't know if I'm brilliant per se and I don't know if I necessarily succeeded as a chef, but I think I was humble, personable, and a good people person. Our customers were very happy. Success. A financial windfall? Not so much.

  24. I can’t write in silence, I can’t pray in silence, I can’t drive in silence … in fact, I can’t think of anything I can do in silence, especially not cooking!
    I remember when I learned that vegetable came *fresh* not just canned. Who needs drugs then?
    When I learned to make Bruschetta when all of my friends were feasting on Domino’s, I was drinking eSpresso before they discovered eXpresso … when I introduced hummus they all thought I was insane, why would anyone eat chick peas? A KitchenAid at 19, are you nuts? Now they call me for advice … ah, life is good, eh?
    Thanks for making me feel good about myself today!

  25. Boogie: "On TV…everything is good — even stuff with goat cheese." Even stuff with goat cheese!?!? This comment pains me deeply. Goat cheese is one of the most wonderful ingredients available in the world! Next time you visit your girlfriend in SF, have her pick up some Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove farms (usually available at Whole Foods on California). If you try it and don't feel like you just tasted heaven, I'll be surprised. Please, give the goats a chance. California goats are happy; happy goats, like happy cows, make good cheese.

  26. I'm a tea drinker – every morning – i have a cup of Wild Sweet Orange tea by Tazo. My sister tried to get me to drink coffee when i was younger. "It's social" she would tell me – pushing the coffee cup toward me. I would take a sip and my nose would crinkle from the bitterness. "Here", she would say, handing me packets, "Try it with more sugar". I would pour 2 more packets of sugar, stir, and try again. The crinkle never went away.

  27. You have no idea how hungry I am after reading this. And I agree, noise is important to a proper creative atmosphere.

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