The Colors of Life
This preface, my philosophy of cooking, was originally included in the first edition; however, it is just as true today as it was when I originally wrote it.
When I made my first cake as a young teenager, it was a bit of daring do that resulted in quite a mess. Over time, first as a struggling single adult male trying to make quality meals for myself in my apartment, and then later as the cook at Massas, Of Course, I came to understand the importance of cooking’s and the power it has over how we view our world and ourselves.
Cooking is at its simplest, chemistry. At its most complex, it is a metaphysical high dive into the waters of perception, illusion, and ultimately, reality. Its power binds our past to our present and future. The taste, aromas, and textures - along with cooking's traditions and routines - surround us and define us; they allow us to explore our existence and examine the impact we have on the lives of all those who dine at our table. With this in mind, I lean forward toward my plate, pull in the smells of roasted turkey and my mother’s savory dressing, and I give thanks to God. And so it begins...
I remember these smells as if they were yesterday: Onions sautéing in butter while the turkey slowly cooks away in its own blended juices of celery, sage, and moist bread. I still hear the sizzle of bacon frying, the chopping of dull knives powerfully separating the day’s food, punctuated by the hopeful creaking sound of the oven opening and closing as each wonderful and aromatic dish is checked and rechecked. But more than anything, I clearly see the flavors of the prepared table in vibrant and translucent colors. The dull green of sage, the clear transparent white and yellow of onions sautéed in butter, and the vivid orange of carrots juxtaposed against the living green of its leaves; it all drapes before my eyes no different than the velvet curtains of the theater right before the performance of a play. The opaque white marble of cooking salt dances strongly on my tongue; it reminds me of my first taste of the ocean in 1978 when I was still miles away from the beach. Likewise, the brown oaky flavors of my mother’s dressing rises up from the stove - no less real then the white grey smoke made from a morning campfire crackling deep within Missouri’s forests in autumn.
I cannot help but feel sorry for those who do not taste or see their foods in their natural colors. It is perhaps the best part of the chef’s palate: It is the final ingredient that unchains our minds and sets our souls free to travel beyond their earthly and digestive bounds. With the addition of color - given to us from our prepared table, we learn to soar freely into the celestial plain of Heaven’s past and our own future.
Family’s exist and even survive for the most part on their remembered and often forgotten collective memories. The good, the bad, and the regrettable exist together, tangled in an ever-complicated knot of confusion and misdirection. Cutting through these knots can be tiresome, aggravating, and emotionally draining. However, through the memories of our senses - especially those that pertain directly to the dinner table - memories of meals shared seem to have a linear vigor of their own, an ability to remain true to their own course; they allow our minds to journey directly from point A to point B undistracted or detoured. And journey, we certainly do.
Each of our collective memories and all of our interactions, from birth to death, occur within a span of less then 1000 months. Like a speeding freight train, we go from our mother’s womb to our final last moments. Because of the illusion of time - that it drags on and on - most people experience their last moments never really untying the knots that comprise the distant memories of their parents, siblings, and even their own children. But for those lucky few who have learned to smell, hear, see the colors of life, the flavors of past suppers and meals shared together can suddenly and decisively undo even the most reticent of life’s knots.
This, then, is my reason for compiling the recipes for this cookbook. It is spiritual as well as personal. Isn’t it interesting that even our understanding of scripture is illustrated through the preparation and sharing of food. From the first bite of the forbidden fruit till after the final judgment when “the leaves of the [Tree of Life] [will be] for the healing of the nations” food remains a central memory of life and of people living together. And what a powerful memory it is. Jacob tricked his father into blessing him instead of his brother, Esau, by preparing a meal of venison stew, Esau’s special dish for his father. Without the familiar smells and flavors of the stew, Jacob probably would not have been able to deceive his blind father. Recall the meal created when the Israelites left Egypt? This quick unleavened bread, thrown together to prepare for their liberation is still celebrated today to honor that memory. It is the Passover Supper. Psalms 23, versus 5 continues to provide hope for those who live in fear. It states, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” In the New Testament, Jesus’ life is recalled with a series of celebrations and meals made for thousands, culminating with the Last Supper. In Mark 7; 18-19, Jesus declares to his disciples that all foods are clean by telling them, “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it [food] doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body” (NIV). Breaking bread is indeed the stuff of life.
The sensory memories of these recipes constitute the very real memories of times shared and taken together. Many of the recipes in this cookbook have a strong Mid-western sensibility about them. They are hearty, full of flavors, and heavy on the calories. They are mostly the recipes of working people; easy to prepare, quick to make, and proportioned to last for days and days. Their rich colors paint a timeless mural of hearty Hungarian reds, striped celery veins of green and white, tanned browns of yellow onions, and the deep purples and oranges of the backyard vegetable garden. These recipes are a rainbow of memories.
This cookbook is also a snapshot of my birth city, St. Louis. A natural crossroads, St. Louis is a true melting pot of various cultures and traditions and of course, cuisines. Just as it wasn’t a coincidence that St. Louis was settled at the confluence of two rivers, it is likewise not a coincidence that so many unique and different cuisines as well as various family members are represented on the pages in this book.
Still, it can be appropriately argued that some influences are more predominately felt than others. This is just as one would expect: Cheryl’s family, as well as my own family, were and are a mix of English and German. As for the Italian and the Southwestern; well, if one is raised in St. Louis, these fine cooking traditions are simply to be found throughout the metropolitan area and are a part of every day dining experiences. Consequently, they are an important part of every St. Louis’ residents’ lives. Just as the Gateway to the West was not a finish line, but rather a starting point, the proximity of these foods to one another means that they continue to develop a uniqueness not found in other places. They interact with each other. They influence one another in both techniques and ingredients used. In short, it can be best stated for both family and foods that,
“Where the rivers meet, the waters meld.”
In my other life, I am a chef and underground caterer. If I have a talent when it comes to cooking, it is that I see recipes in the colors of their ingredients.