Dan Curd: the making of a food snob
From a young age, I’ve learned the difference between eating and dining.
I have always adored food, and after a 70-plus-year romance, I like to think I have a discriminating palate, one that has evolved and matured over time. I’m no Anthony Bourdain, but I will try most things at least once. I’ve only ever drawn the line at eating snakes, insects or endangered species. Growing up, my father was my mentor and taught me the difference between eating and dining. His mother was an exceptional cook in the best Southern tradition of ethereal biscuits, crispy fried chicken and flaky pies.
I also inherited more than a few prejudices from my father. Going to visit my teetotaler aunt every summer was not something he looked forward to. When she presented her specialty — a canned pear stuffed with a maraschino cherry then entombed in a garish green square of Jell-O, finished off with a dollop of Miracle Whip and a sprinkle of grated American cheese — his eye roll said it all. I knew dessert for him would be a martini at a nearby bar. He abhorred overcooked meat, something my mother ritualistically prepared. When I was 10, Dad gave me a meat thermometer and a dollar every Sunday to make sure the roast was perfectly medium rare.
My father shared with me his love for oysters, swordfish, barbecue and collard greens, and these remain passions of mine to this day. He would take me to restaurants where I had to sit on a phone book to see over the table — places where I was possibly the only child to have ever graced the premises. While my friends collected baseball cards and dolls, I curated menus. My favorite TV show was Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” She, James Beard and Craig Claiborne became my idols.
Travel also had a major influence on my palate. Road trips when I was a kid introduced me to the likes of lobster rolls, key lime pie, gumbo and guacamole. My junior year abroad in Europe helped broaden my dietary experience. Certainly, the classic cuisine of France and Italy was glorious, but I got a taste of India in London, Vietnam in Paris and Indonesia in Amsterdam. However, learning to cook radicalized my likes and dislikes. In my opinion, it’s impossible to truly appreciate anything without understanding the skill required to make it or the nature of what goes into it. Quality food is never mass-produced, riddled with artificial additives or made more palatable by serving it on fine china.
First-rate cuisine owes nothing to pretention. While ingredients are important to be sure, what is critical to cooking’s success is the cook. As my grandmother always said, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” (though I’ve read it’s delicious when grilled). Talent helps, but most of all, cooks must be devoted to their labor.
For me, nothing assures contentment more than an exceptional meal. If that makes me a food snob, so be it. As the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.