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Chef's Log

Where have all the Grandmas gone?

Will Cunneen

As the holiday season comes to an end, I have had time to reflect on the ideas of tradition, where they come from and why we pursue them.  From all walks of life, from every corner of this world, people and cultures have traditions and holidays they hold onto, traditions that have been carried on for centuries.  From my own experiences, I can say that most holidays seem to be centered around the family meal.  Of course, when you talk about food in the home, you almost always have to include Grandma (or Bunica as she's called in Romanian).  This matriarchal system in the household has been past down from mother to daughter for generations.  Perhaps not Your grandma at every occasion, but chances are there would be an older lady that fits this description, busy in the kitchen.  Now, I understand that this is not true for all families, but I am willing to bet 90% of holiday gatherings include a grandma or two in the equation.  I know when I was growing up during the holidays we always looked forward to Grandma's pumpkin pie, stuffing and apple slices!  But it was more than just the food that shined through.  It was the presence in the home of grandma and mother (future grandma):  directing traffic, ordering family around, swatting hands that were reaching for dishes that weren't "ready", and all the while telling people not to touch things while simultaneously asking why no one was helping!  As hectic as all that sounds, there was a certain comfort level that came with it.  Everyone knowing their role and with Grandma at the helm.  A constant that we could look forward to, and escape our day to day lives, if only for a few hours.  

But now, as I have grown up, I am starting to see a shift in this next generation.  Where the roles of family members begin to blur.  In the building in which I live now, the men in the households do the majority of the cooking (mine included, but of course choosing to be a chef as a profession, I knew what I was getting in to!).  I've met women who almost proudly confess that they do not, nor care to learn, how to cook.  It's as if this role of housewife or whatever you choose to call it is being viewed as sub-servant and somehow less important than earning income in today's modern, materialistic world.  With more and more women in the work force, and equality between genders, who will take up the mantle of "Grandma" in future generations?  Will that role exist?   Not saying there won't be grandmas in the future (obviously), but is this the beginning of the end of an era that started eons ago with the male hunter going out to provide and the female tending all the needs of the home.  I know this train of thought may sound a tad sexist, but lets face it, history is draped in sexism and this was the way it was for many centuries.  I am also not saying that change is a bad thing.  I am just curious to see what the future holds.  Do the roles reverse?  In a hundred years, will it be Grandpa yelling at all the kids to quiet down and set the table?  Will there become a generally agreed upon, division of duties?  Will community in the form of restaurants, catering and the like begin to fill that void, and the way of the self-taught, past down from generation to generation tradition be replaced with the food network trained, internet Pinterest recipe driven you-tuber that is more interested in showing there hobby to strangers, than nourishing their family?  I guess only time will tell.  

Perhaps I over dramatized a bit.  Maybe the change I foresee isn't all that different than the constant change that's been happening throughout human history.  I do know that if things change, it won't be over night.  There are still many out there that hold on to these values and perhaps the change will be so gradual, we won't recognize it as such.  My sister for one (and I hope she won't mind me saying so) will be a great person to fill the "Grandma" role in the future.  I view my wife and I as splitting the role, her part to remember and enforce the traditions, mine being to carry them out!  Others may choose a different path.  From a personal level, I do hope that these traditions carry on into the future.  I've always been a traveller.  I love to learn about new places, culture and people.  I moved from Chicago to a small surburb when I was young, and when I was growing up, I couldn't wait to get back to the city.  To go where the "action" was.  I couldn't understand the "Townie" mentality of not wanting to leave a place for something "better".  Now, as I grow older I've realized that without those people who stay in a place, carrying on the traditions of there parents, that there would be no new cultures for me to visit and experience.  Ironically, what makes a certain people unique, is by doing the same thing that their ancestors did for hundreds of years!  And as for all the grandmas out there and future grandmas/grandpas to be, remember.  Never forget where you came from, but be sure to tell the next generation where you've been.

It started with a Tomato

Will Cunneen

It's been almost 4 years now since I first visited Romania.  A beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful food... Well, perhaps beautiful isn't the best word to describe the food.  It certainly can be beautiful, but if you're looking for the cosmetically enhanced, but nutritionally anemic apples of the states, or the perfectly shaped and insect free produce you see in every Kruger, Albertsons, Jewel, Mejiers, Shop-rite, or Piggly Wiggly across America then you will probably be a little disappointed.  But have you ever stopped to wonder, if a bug won't eat it, why is it ok for me?  The produce that I've seen here in Romania is, for lack of a better word, real.  When you go to the market here and see the little lady in her stall showcasing her goods, she (or he) is showing you themselves.  In a lot of cases the people selling ARE the ones who picked it.  From their garden.  The onions have dirt on them.  Want to know why?  Because onions grow in the dirt.  Dirt is not a bad thing that needs to be sterilized and washed away.  The earth is where life begins.  The same goes for meat.  People should know and be reminded of the fact that the chicken sandwich they are eating, use to be alive.  You walk into a supermarket and see all the pretty packaging, and fabricated cuts of various dead animals wrapped up tight in plastic and displayed pleasingly in a display case and all of a sudden that once living breathing thing merely resembles the ingredient you need for that recipe you saw on Pinterest!  Having said this, I eat my fair share of meat, and all kinds, but I also respect it for what it is and do not try to delude myself into thinking that that rosy red ribeye didn't come from the side of a very alive cow (steer most likely).   Now before anyone goes off on a tangent, I would like to say that these are broad generalizations and there are exceptions in both cases.  The U.S. had made great strides with it's organic and local foods movement, and there are some really great farmers trying their best to get that message out there and change the way people view food.  I have some friends in the restaurant industry that are also trying to steer people toward locally grown and organic.  The other side of the coin is that there are some big commercial chains in western Europe that are doing a lot of the same things, as well as some European restaurants that would prefer to use frozen or imported ingredients over local ones.  But I digress...  This story is about why I decided to pick up, with my wife and not quite two year old son, and move from Chicago, IL to Cluj-Napoca Romania.  Well,  as you probably have guessed, it started with a tomato.  

It was at my wife's cousin's and member of the Chef off the Grid team - Gabi Bartos' house, in September 2012.  We had just arrived for an extended vacation/overdue honeymoon to Cluj.  This house is located in a small village where my wife had grown up, so it had some sentimental value for her, but for me, it was just a quaint little European village, with chickens in the road and the occasional stray dog.  But as I looked closer, I began to notice something.  This place was teeming with life!  Every house had some kind of garden and at least a few animals.  Not the flowers in the front yard, grass in the back with one dog and a white picket fence which is the picturesque suburban American home, no.  These little houses (very small by American standards) had huge gardens with corn and fruit trees and onions and beets and beans and of course, tomatoes and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile there is a full chicken coop with a couple turkeys and a cow and a pig or two and some rabbits and a few dogs to keep all the other animals in line.  I'm not saying this isn't in the states, but it certainly isn't at every house in a suburb 10 minutes outside a major city.  The American farm that I've seen is just that, a farm.  Not a home with vegetables and farm animals, its one or two things that it can produce in vast quantities and sell to wholesalers.  Even the farms that do grow all their own vegetables, they're out on the land by themselves, there's no community based around the growing of things.  Selling, sure, America has green city markets all over the country, but when the terroir is as close as next door, one must truly hone their craft to plant a better carrot or grow a better tomato. 

We had just sat down for lunch, which was comprised of pretty standard fare.  Some telemea (mild, feta-like cheese), some sunca (ham), tomatoes, and bread (Romanians sure do love their Bread!) or Paine as it's called. All of it was wholesome and tasty, but the tomatoes, there was something special in those tomatoes!  They were redder than I normally see in a tomato.  Not just on the outside, but on the inside was just as red, not fading to dull pink like I am used to.  Also, the shape was not uniform and did not have to usual four chambers of seeds that I am used to seeing.  It was as if these tomatoes didn't adhere to the same rule book as other tomatoes.  And the taste!  Well, let me say that I am a professional chef.  Tasting food is part of my livelihood, and I can honestly say that I had never tasted a tomato like that!  And this includes some heirloom varieties I've gotten from the farmer's market in the states.  It had the freshness of a tomato that was just picked off the vine (because it was), but the depth of flavor of having reduced a case of tomatoes into a cup!  This changed something in me.  Growing up until this point in America, I had become to believe that you could get any ingredient you could want, year round.  Someone is growing it somewhere, right?  And with the transit and communication systems we have now-a-days, you can ship anything from anywhere, and to a point, that is true.  As a global society, we are exposed to more diversity and exotic ingredients than our grandparents could ever have dreamed!  But.  Just because you can get something, doesn't mean you should.  Just because peaches are in season in Chile, doesn't mean that you should eat them in Chicago in February.  The reason?  because what a country ships is not it's best.  I'm not saying people do it deliberately, but you try picking perfectly ripe fruit/or vegetables, cleaning it, boxing it, shipping it thousands of miles, having it wait in customs to be ok'd, then put on a truck and shipped to a supermarket to be stored and eventually be sold to someone who happens to pick it, even though it has a small blemish on it!  NO!  It's not meant to work like that.  People have eaten what was available in the area and in that season for millennia and many of our greatest recipes stem from that history.  That's what makes a place or local cuisine special.  That's why I'm here.  That's why my wife and I decided to move to this place.  Not to try and change it, but to showcase it!  Using fantastic Romanian ingredients and presenting them in a new light.  Giving a tomato like I had in that small village a platform to be seen, smelled, and tasted.  And to show Romania itself, how much it has to offer!

Pofta Buna!