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HERE I AM!Chef Kimberly's answer to the question "Where are the Female and Minority Chefs?"
By Kimberly Brock Brown
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Kimberly Brock Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEquipping the Cooking Space
A recipe may only be as good as its ingredients, but a Chef is defined by how innovative they are in using the raw materials around them to create dishes that are more appealing to both the eyes and the palette than the average person can imagine. This means that a Chef has to be able to look at the materials that are made available to them and use their past experiences and learned techniques to combine ingredients to make them better than they were on their own. When you think about it, life works the same way. It doesn't really matter how perfect things were for you growing up, or even how much you liked it. It's all about what you choose to do with it.
Who knew that a little girl who grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago would become a Chef? My parents were middle class working people. My father mostly worked two factory/manufacturing jobs and Mom worked a 9 to 5 office job. With a house to maintain and four kids to feed, I am sure the budget was tight, especially after they divorced while I was in elementary school. But when I think back, I don't remember ever thinking about us as a struggling family. Well, I remember some struggles, but they were not financial, most of my struggles dealt with being a middle child making her own way in the world.
We lived about 15 miles west of downtown Chicago in a suburb called Maywood. I loved hearing the different dialects and the different languages people spoke. I could go on this block and get this kind of cuisine from this country and go just two doors down and get a different kind of cuisine from another country. It really is a melting pot, or a mixed salad, in that everybody is different but working together for the good of the community. For the most part, you get along and it's just a nice large scale blended community, and there's always something to do.
My family and I lived in this big old two story house with big bay windows that sat on a corner lot. I remember it well because one of the bay windows was attached to the bedroom I shared with my sister Judy. I loved the three-window view! We had this big backyard, a big side yard, and a good sized front yard. Cheryl is seven years older than me and always had her own room. Paul is two years younger than me and always had his own room because he was the only boy. So that left Judy, who is two years older than me, to share a room while we were growing up.
Naturally, all of our relationships are a little different with each other. Judy and I have always shared pretty much everything. Not only did we share a room with bunk beds, we shared dreams. She slept on the top bunk because I preferred the bottom bunk. I had too much fun kicking the mattress up in and air while she was trying to sleep. Why would I give up the bottom bunk? I remember that she and I would always have little games that we played. Like the last one in bed would always have to cut the light off. We would try to trip each other up so that we could make it into bed first! We have always been close too, but we did have our differences. Our room looked like it belonged to Felix and Oscar from the Odd Couple. You knew what belonged to Felix and you knew what was Oscar's. Judy's side was always cleaned up and mine was a little more, well, let's just say, "disheveled." That's why I know to check under my kid's beds when I tell them to clean their room. They are just like their mother so I know exactly what they're doing!
My oldest sister Cheryl, was always into something totally different from what Judy and I usually got into. When she was getting into boys and wanting to go to the little parties at the local rec' center and go roller skating and be more social, my sister Judy was more of a bookworm, and still is, and would rather be in the house studying, reading a book, or at the library. As a matter of fact, Judy ended up getting a part-time job at the library. Often people tried to compare me to her because we are close in age, asking me why I don't read a lot like she does and why I'm not valedictorian like her. My answer was that she had that covered for the whole family and there was no need for me to go that route too! I always floated between the two of them. And when my brother, Paul, came along two years after me, you could just sit him in front of a TV and he would be good to go. Sometimes I would sit there and veg out on some cartoons with him too. Sometimes we'd play with the little matchbox cars; I liked to take my Barbie dolls for a joy ride. We got along well too. He did pretty well to survive in a household full of women.
Let me say right off that we, the children of Clifton and Ellen, were always grateful that our mother got the family cooking gene. Between her two sisters, our mom was hands down the better cook! My mom had us in the kitchen daily. We were always chopping, stirring, grinding, basting, and washing pots and pans and dishes. Mom was known for making a fabulous caramel cake and cat head rolls. There were always requests for her caramel cake during the Holiday season. It brought sheer delight upon arrival. It was the centerpiece of the dessert table and the first item to run out. The cat heads were flakey, soft, yeast rolls of goodness that made the whole house smell like the Bernie Brothers Bakery. There is something to be said for the smell of fresh bread baking in your kitchen. Mom had to really watch those rolls or there would be none for the meal!
My dad knew his way around the kitchen too. He taught me how to prepare one of his favorite breakfasts-two eggs over real easy, toast, bacon, American fried potatoes and coffee. It's not like he sat me down and taught me how to make it all in one day, the lessons were spread out over time. See, my mom was a coffee drinker, so we would make coffee all the time. Whether it was in the morning or while she was sitting in her recliner later that night, it was not unusual to hear, "Will you make me a cup of coffee?" American fried potatoes, or skillet potatoes, or even home fried potatoes, whatever you want to call them, were a staple in our household. On Saturday and Sunday, potatoes were going in that skillet and we were going to get down with potatoes, some eggs, salt pork or country sausage or bacon. We were going to make it happen. Because my father usually worked two jobs he was rarely home in the mornings for breakfast. And even if he was home, he was usually asleep. So if there was a morning when Daddy surprised us to join us for breakfast, we made sure that he got his favorite-two eggs over real easy, toast, bacon, American fried potatoes and coffee.
For me, my brother and my sisters, cooking was what we grew up with. It was our chore. Somebody was always cooking something, every day. At times we went out to eat too, but somebody was always in the kitchen cooking. It was either your turn to wash the dishes or it was your turn to cook or your turn to clean the house. Even if we had to pull up a chair to the sink, we were going to bust some suds. Our chores usually rotated weekly, but if you were on punishment you would get two weeks. Mom made sure that our chores were usually age appropriate. When it was your turn to cook, you could use recipes out of a cookbook that was passed down from the oldest to the youngest child, called "My First Cookbook." I think I still have that book in my well-traveled dorm trunk. It taught you how to measure and how to do all the cooking basics while being age appropriate.
We were all able and capable of cooking and there was always food in the house. My mom even had a green thumb, and would have us out there weeding between the greens, tomatoes, or whatever else she had out there growing at the time. She must have gotten the green thumb from her hometown, because when she sent us down to her mother, our grandmother, in Missouri there was always somebody giving us food from their farm.
I remember this one time Grandma must have brought home a fifty pound bag of cabbage. All of us sat there cleaning and chopping up cabbage. Oh, my God! It just went on forever! She wanted to make some sauerkraut and can the rest so that she would have some year round. Before we were halfway through I was wishing to never see any more cabbage! We were also used to making a weekend trek to Michigan or Indiana during the summer picking time to harvest on the farms and bring it all back to can and freeze them. We did all that stuff growing up. So we always had blueberries all year round because we canned them and froze them, and we'd be making blueberry pancakes, blueberry sauces, blueberry ice cream, blueberry cobbler ... we would do everything. It was not just blueberries either, we would also pick apples to make apple juice and apple butter. I mean, it didn't matter, we were doing it.
I believe it was the look of satisfaction and the joy in which the food was eaten that made me want to cook. What a great feeling of accomplishment to know that for that meal, be it Friday night supper or the family meal on Sunday after church, I gave someone else comfort, satisfaction and good food. The joy of cooking indeed is alive and well in my soul, but as much as I enjoyed cooking and making little cakes and muffins with my Easy-Bake Oven-I liked to eat out too.
Sometimes we would go to a fish market. It used to be a few blocks away from the house. When we went there we would be able to point out a particular victim in the fish tank, "I want that one," and they would catch, kill, clean and fillet it for you right then and there. That would be our catch, or dinner, for the night. I could watch them catching, gutting and filleting for hours. I had no fear about watching that sort of thing because we used to go fishing all the time. I thought I could fillet with the best of them. I did enjoy going to the market and watching them do it for us.
Everyone knows about Chicago's pizza, and I loved those nights that we would have pizza delivered to us. It was always from a local restaurant. There were no Domino's, Papa John's or Pizza Hut in our neighborhood. You had your pick of local Italian joints. It could take an hour to get your pizza, but that was because it was a deep dish pizza and had to cook longer than the thin crust. It was usually something my mom would have gotten before she came to the house or a friend coming by later. I liked almost any kind of pizza that didn't have fish on it! I remember somebody came over and they bought a pizza for us one night, and it had anchovies on it. The pizza tasted salty and my sisters and brother and I couldn't figure it out. When they told us that it had anchovies on it, I decided that I wouldn't do that again to a pizza. I'll eat anchovies in a traditional Caesar salad dressing, or on some other Italian dishes, but never again on a pizza.
Another favorite was a Swedish smorgasbord styled restaurant. We always went there and we always got their Swedish meatballs, or at least I did. I had never had Swedish meatballs before and so that was one of the things I always ordered. It was also one of the first times I experienced a white table cloth restaurant. It was buffet-style and you know that was a treat for us. I also loved going to the pancake house too. I would get pancakes if we were there for breakfast, but if we were going in for a lunch or dinner I would get a club sandwich because I used to love to play with the toothpicks! The original toy with a meal! It really did not take much back in the day to amuse kids while dining. I wanted the toothpicks, and they had better be all four different colors. Don't give me all red or all yellow!
My father took us to this one restaurant in the city called Army & Lou's. It closed a few years ago, but it was the first upscale soul food restaurant I had ever been in. It was a Black owned business on the south side of Chicago. I considered it upscale because they had table-cloths and served good food on a plate at your table instead of in a box to go. I remember the first time I would ever see an onion ring that was between half and the quarter size of the onion. I thought I was an onion ring connoisseur at a young age too because we used to go to White Castle all the time and I would get my onion rings from there as well as making them at home. I know my onion rings now, but these rings were larger than onions you see in the store. And the catfish, instead of just throwing it in the basket and putting it out on a plate, they had a beautiful presentation and great service. We knew it was Black owned and that there were Black servers, so we just assumed that the cooks in the kitchen were Black too. But whoever was in there knew how to present food on a plate! Even at that age, I was appreciating the service of delivering good food presented well.
On Sundays there was this bakery we passed on the way to church called Bernie Brother's Bakery. You know, I've never been to it but it that was a wholesale bakery over on the west side of the city. We passed it every time we went to church because we lived in a western suburb and we had to drive all the way to the far south side to reach church. It probably should have been a 30-45 minute drive, but Mom had a heavy foot and she drove so fast that she got the drive down sometimes to about 25 minutes when she was hoofing it. Usually we were grateful for the quicker commute, but when she got close to that bakery I just wanted to ask her to slow down so that I could enjoy the smell of the bread baking. The smell just permeated that whole area and I don't think we were close to the facility. I don't remember seeing the signs for it but you just knew that it was around because the whole area smelled like bread baking. Every Sunday I would look forward to passing it.
I think the name of the church was Mozart Baptist Church on the city's west side. Mom sang in the choir. She used to drag us out on Sunday nights and Wednesdays nights to go to bible study class and her rehearsals. I really didn't like going to church on Sunday nights because it meant that we would miss Bonanza and whatever else was on television, and there was no such thing as a VCR or DVR to record shows for us at that time. But Sunday night service, or BTU, was not that bad. That was where I really learned more about the Bible because we had competitions that made us memorize the books of the bible and made me more familiar with the details of the Bible. It was more like Sunday school but at night because we were broken down into age groups.
I didn't really become active in church until we joined Christ Universal Temple. When I was in high school, I was a student teacher and my sister Judy was a teacher, she liked the babies. She always liked the babies so she went to the baby/preschool classroom and she'd hold the babies during the service. I didn't have time for that kind of drama. I wanted somebody with a little sense on them. I wanted third grade! At least they knew what I was talking about, and I had fun with them. While I was in grade school, I would go to church for first service, play around during and between services, and be an assistant Sunday school teacher during the second service. But when I was in high school, when I wasn't ogling the organist during Sunday Service, I would be a student teacher and be active in the high school group, Youth Expressing Christ (YEC).
We used to have our meetings during the second service. Judy, Paul and I were very active in that group. And mind you they were all people that we only met in church because we were not going to their schools, we were in the suburbs, and suburban and city kids didn't go to the same schools at all. Oh, my God, no ... and even in that church group, there were kids from the west side, south side, and different high schools. At least at church everyone had to put down their rivalries because we didn't allow any of that drama at the church. We met a whole bunch of people definitely from different walks of life going to church.
The church was affiliated with different sister churches across the nation, and every summer there would be a conference for the YEC group, and that's how I ended up in New York for the first time. We took a chartered bus ride to New York to one of the sister church's locations and we spent a week in Pawlings, New York. I'll never forget it. A commuter train to the camp site where we would stay followed by a police escort. There were about one hundred or more of us Black high school kids walking through the neighborhood which was all white. That's not an experience you forget too soon.
Excerpted from HERE I AM! by Kimberly Brock Brown Copyright © 2012 by Kimberly Brock Brown. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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