This is my first entry in Project Food Blog, Foodbuzz's contest to find the next food blogging star. This challenge: Define myself as a food blogger and prove I've got what it takes to win. Details on voting to come...
I didn't learn to cook at my mother's feet. My mother is a serviceable but disinterested cook who got dinner on the table but never enjoyed a minute of it. My grandmother had a small but tasty repertoire: stuffed cabbage, chicken fricassee with tiny meatballs, and matzoh ball soup, though I found out in my twenties that the broth was Lipton's. I don't specifically remember being excluded from the kitchen, but I wasn't specifically invited in, either.
The first meal I remember making was for 15 people during my senior year of college. I belonged to a "secret society" that met for Sunday dinner. George Bush's society had a stone building with no windows where, legend had it, butlers served dinner on fine china to young men wielding antique silver flatware. My society had a run-down house at the edge of campus where we took turns cooking in the grimy, ill-equipped kitchen and ate off plastic plates.
When it was my Sunday, I got my mother's recipe for sesame chicken. It was just her speed: You roll the pieces in melted butter, coat them with seasoned breadcrumbs and sesame seeds, and bake. For dessert I made a vat of applesauce, heavy on the cinnamon, with apples I'd picked at a nearby orchard that morning; I served it over vanilla ice cream. As the other members walked in the door, I saw their noses lift; the house had never smelled that good. I didn't fit in with the group - meetings involved lots of beer, and even then I wasn't much of a drinker - but that night they liked me quite a bit.
After that I was hooked. Spend time cooking and people will shower you with compliments and want more of you the next day? Yes, please. I spent my twenties in New York shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket, along the sidewalks of Chinatown, and in the ethnic markets (mostly gone now) along lower Ninth Avenue. I brought home goat meat, rye flour, Chinese vegetables whose names I never learned. In my tiny kitchen I learned to bake bread, cooked Thanksgiving dinner the year my parents abandoned me for a Caribbean cruise, made an all-pink menu (tuna salad with beets, anyone?) for my future sister-in-law's bridal shower.
Now I live in southern California with my husband and sons. My kitchen is bigger and busier. I feed my family, friends, acquaintances, sometimes strangers. We host dinner on the first night of Rosh Hashanah for 25, Passover seders for 35, school parties for 50, 13-course truffle dinners for 75. I love a crowd gathered in my dining room, snatching canapes as fast as I can set them out. I love watching kids who never eat vegetables eat vegetables at my table. I love that my kids stand with me at the counter, chop the figs, peel the cucumbers, pit the plums, stir the soup.
In Erika's Kitchen in 2008, after getting sick of my mother asking, "When are you writing a cookbook already?" I'm writing about my life in my kitchen, my family's life in our kitchen, to create a record of the flavors of my kids' youth, so they can recreate them for their own families someday. I have lucky food blogger friends who inherited hundreds of precious family recipes from generations past. I don't have that, but my kids will.
I've also found that writing about food is better than therapy. As a working mom, I spend my life multitasking and juggling. When I'm writing, I'm focusing on one thing. Working on a post about banana chocolate chip bread pudding, I concentrate on the story: It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end that leads neatly into the recipe, all in three or four paragraphs. And the recipe: How many eggs did I use? Was the oven at 350 or 375? Fifty minutes or an hour? I'm careful with recipes; readers tell me they're clear and they work, which makes me happy. When I'm done and hit "publish" I feel as renewed as if I'd had a nap.
decorated cakes with Kelly Ripa and the Cake Boss, interviewed Alice Waters, and watched Curtis Stone show my star-struck son around his kitchen. I've talked pie on National Public Radio's "Good Food," contributed to a best-selling cookbook, made guacamole with the Too Hot Tamales, rubbed elbows with movie stars at hot restaurant openings, and gotten up the nerve to audition for The Next Food Network Star.
Another amazing thing: new friends. A conversation on an airplane leads to lunching on Trinidadian stew chicken with flight attendants on layover. Food Bloggers Los Angeles (FBLA), the networking group I co-founded in 2009, meets for monthly potlucks. Without my food blogger friends, I could not have pulled off this year's Trufflepalooza; they came hours early to prep, assemble, stir and serve.
But most amazing: watching my boys catch the bug. Emery, my 11-year-old, has written original recipes (one of which was featured on Steamy Kitchen), and has guest posted on my blog. Weston, at eight, emailed everyone in his address book his guacamole recipe. The boys and I will be cooking together for a long time.
Between my blog and my LA Cooking Examiner column I've written more than 500 posts and 300 recipes in 20 months. Factor in my full-time job, my family, and our open-door dinner policy, and even I'm not sure how I've done it. Do I have enough for that cookbook my mother keeps mentioning? I'm working on it. Meantime, I'm doing something I love, meeting wonderful people, and keeping my family and friends well fed. Life is good.