When I tell people that I am a food writer, they always ask me what I like to cook. I want to ask them if they would ask a film critic to tell them about the movie they are shooting at the moment, but instead I just smile and say, “Scrambled eggs.” That is only part of the truth, but I don’t usually tell them that I started writing about food before I started cooking, creating standards that I could never meet. I do not tell them that fear of failure often means that I eat pre-made guacamole or cheese and crackers for dinner. I worry that this will take away my credibility, even though I know that not everyone who writes about food claims to be good at preparing it.
I grew up in a house divided. My mother could go an entire day consuming only a cup of tea, while my father had usually fixed two or three meals by the time my brother and I were up in the morning. My mother would cook dinner, and 30 minutes later my father would make himself a sandwich.
We moved away from the state of California and all of our extended family when I was 7. We were the only family I knew in the Pacific Northwest who made tacos without using preformed shells. Here, guacamole was a luxury, rather than a staple.
There were a lot of reasons for the move, most of them known only to my parents, but the reason that seems to overshadow them all in weight is the death of my grandfather, my mother’s father. I called him Poppa. He called me Cupcake.
Poppa’s grandfather, Christian Huber, was a highly regarded chef in the 1930s. He was Chef de Cuisine at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado, before moving to The Beverly Hills Hotel to assume the same position.
During the Depression, when Poppa was young, his grandfather lived with their family. He would bring home butter from the hotel, an unheard-of luxury in those days. With that butter, he taught Poppa’s father to cook. My great-grandfather, Henry, was a Los Angeles fire chief for most of his life, but he did all the cooking for the station. Planning the menus and cooking for a crowd was his delight.
When Poppa was young, Christian would often say: “You meet me in the kitchen at 4 o’clock and we’ll learn how to cook something.” Between his grandfather and his father, he learned to love food, and to prepare it well.
Christian was the 5th president of the Chefs de Cuisine Association of California. Every year he would take Poppa to their annual gala, until he died when Poppa was 31. I would have given anything to tag along to one of those meals. I would have given anything for just a few moments in the kitchen with my great-great-grandfather, or my great-grandfather, or my Poppa.
Poppa’s father always took charge over the holiday meals. He’d be at their house before the sun was up to begin the preparations. Poppa would get up early and help him, chopping the onions and celery for stuffing (never to be crammed inside the bird, always cooked separately).
It would be easy to think that I became a food writer because of these three men who cooked for money and love. The flaw in that explanation is that I had been a food writer for nearly four years before I unearthed this part of family lore.
It started when I remembered that my mother had told me once that Poppa and I shared a favorite meal, artichokes and steak (preferably a filet mignon). I asked for that combination every year for my birthday, even as a young girl. The difference, she told me, was that Poppa preferred to dip his artichoke leaves in mayonnaise and I always chose a dish of melted butter. After that, the stories began to flow.
I used to think that I was an anomaly, the sort of person who was thinking about lunch as we were finishing with breakfast, and dinner as the lunch plates emptied. Just a few weeks ago, my mother told me that great-grandpa Henry took lunch orders after breakfast every day.
After learning about Christian Huber, I sent an e-mail to the Chefs de Cuisine Association of California, hoping to find more information. Almost immediately I received a reply, thanking me for being a descendent of such a wonderful chef. It reminded me of a story I’d heard from Poppa’s wife, my grandma. She and Poppa were having dinner at Ben Brown’s in Laguna Beach with friends. Poppa asked the waiter to mention Christian Huber’s name to the chef. Within moments, the chef himself was at the table, expressing his delight to be entertaining Christian Huber’s grandson. “Christian Huber is why I’m here,” he said. “He was the master of all chefs.” All night long, unexpected plates kept appearing at their table, unbidden.
I cried when I read that e-mail, partly with pride at the legacy of my great-great-grandfather, of whom my Poppa was so proud, but also for the wealth that I had been born into, and had lost.
Almost daily, I wonder what would be different if that heart attack had not come for Poppa at 56. I wonder if he would have asked me to meet him in the kitchen at 4 o’clock so that we might learn to cook something. I wonder if I would be less afraid of cooking meat, or of going off recipe. Maybe, I would feel less like a renegade and more like a product of my heritage. It is impossible to know.
I like to think that had Poppa lived longer, he would have written a fascinating food memoir. His is a classic story, growing up with a grandfather who taught him to love food and to cook well, and a father who fed his family with joy. He was proud of his grandfather, and his father. They were why he loved to cook. I always worried that my own story wasn’t good enough.
I am no longer alone in my kitchen. It’s not as easy to reach for Trader Joe’s hummus and tortilla chips with Christian Huber looking over my shoulder, encouraging me to google “how to deglaze a pan” and try it, even if I am not sure of success.
I can hear great-grandpa Henry telling me that it doesn’t have to be fancy, just well-made. He guides my hands as I pan fry a steak, and quiets my fears about Mad Cow Disease. I can smell his homemade apple fritters as I work.
But it’s Poppa who suggests that I buy the artichokes and try to prepare them. He clucks his tongue disapprovingly at the knife I bent trying to open a coconut, telling me that a chef is only as good as his tools. He reminds me that love for food runs through our family like wine. I am not an imposter. My tongue has always known what to do, even if my hands still shake.
Cara Strickland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. She writes about food, faith, relationships, and singleness for a variety of publications in print and online. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.