Publisher’s note: After 11 years in business, it’s time our readers got better acquainted with the people behind the names you see in our publications. Here. learn more about Restaurant New columnist Kathy Passage.
My love affair with food and cooking began at an early age. I adored tapioca pudding, made from scratch; my mother did not adore making this dessert. One day, tired of me begging for my favorite dish, she turned over the back of the box and said, “Read the directions and make it yourself.” And I did.
The Midwest offered many culinary opportunities for budding cooks — including 4-H, which began with batches of cookies, sweet bread loaves and cakes, and culminated with intricate pastry creations. My grandparents’ farm and truck garden fed our family until we moved to a bigger city when I was in sixth grade. Taste memories: tomato fresh from the garden, savory golden yolks of fresh eggs, chickens raised — and slaughtered too — in their barnyard.
I remember refusing to eat poultry purchased from the grocery- “It doesn’t taste right,” my 12-year-old self complained. Years later, locally raised poultry, heirloom tomatoes, and other products emerged on the food scene to reunite my taste buds with my childhood memories.
My family moved from Indiana to Arizona in the late ’60s, which expanded cuisine and cooking experiences: red hot chilies, cactus pods, I embraced it all.
Marriage meant the freedom to set up my own kitchen, during what I call the Granola and Birkenstock era. I ground hard winter wheat, baked loaves of bread for the family, bought my butter and milk from local dairy farmers, and fed my family from produce grown on our property, carrying forward the experiences of my childhood to a new generation.
During back to nature time I started my family. Pregnant with my first son, Michael, I read about natural childbirth, breast-feeding, and nutrition for growing healthy children. La Leche League’s (LLL) group library offered books on these subjects. I read the entire inventory. I attended local meetings, and became certified as a “Leader” to support and educate other women who desire to be successful breast-feeding their babies.
My work expanded from local group support of mothers, to the state organization. As area conference supervisor, I organized conferences of medical professionals to help educate both the mothers from the area and nursing students who wanted to learn more about breast-feeding support.
Four years later, I birthed a second son, Nick. Our tiny baby didn’t track movement with his eyes, and after a series of heart-wrenching exams, we learned he was totally blind. Later, Nick’s behaviors, much different from his blind infant peers, were labeled “Asperger’s syndrome.” Support from my LLL colleagues saw me through these challenges.
Ultimately my experiences garnered me a speaking engagement at the LLL International conference in Chicago. While a friend entertained 3-year-old Nick with elevator rides, I spoke on a panel about parenting my blind and autistic child.
Skills I honed — support for breast-feeding mothers — came full circle as a confident advocate for Nick. Forty years ago, a child both blind and additionally handicapped was slated for an institutional state school. I became involved with early childhood intervention, to ensure his placement in public schools. He went on to college and launched his professional career in music.
Nicolas Baker supplied the talent, I supplied the marketing expertise. I’m proud to say he has produced music CDs, containing many of his original songs, and we co-authored two books that share his experiences as an autistic and blind child, and performer. www.nickbakermusic.com
Being a mom didn’t hold me back from pursuing professional interests. A college degree in business marketing, augmented by real-life education as a restaurant owner and caterer, culminated in the production of a line of “healthy desserts.” I gave birth to my third son, Daniel, and started a gift basket business. Children’s school schedules and coordinated corporate clients’ requests for multiple baskets were juggled… and some days I felt as though spinning plates were about to topple off the poles.
Tempted by one of the sales people who called on me with the specialty food items that filled my gift baskets, I sold my gift company to a competitor, and plunged full-time into sales and marketing of specialty food.
Fast forward to Seattle in the mid 1990s: Work as a specialty food broker provided the privilege of meeting food producers, pioneers in new trends like “Asian- fusion” and “locavore cuisine.”
Local star and Chef Tom Douglas had three Rubs, and a few restaurants when I first met him through our brokerage. Our firm launched Rick Bayless’ first four bottled salsa products in the Seattle area. The Republic of Tea selected our team to grow their market share. Consumers were schooled on the importance of full leaf teas, learned how to season and grill fresh salmon, tasted Mexican spice, and green chili that set their tongues on fire. Shoppers who’d never tasted extra virgin olive oil or balsamic vinegars left the stores with baskets full of new and interesting ingredients to prepare for dinner.
My culinary acumen grew by leaps and bounds — education from famous chefs, local farmers, slow foods aficionados, coffee roasters and tea growers expanded my knowledge of “what is good food?”
A dream job, it sent me to Europe to meet the producers of products we marketed. European dark chocolates, French oils made from pressed nuts, a tour of the facility in Italy where pasta, grown from ancient varieties of wheat was manufactured… I’d later share these experiences with consumers.
A tall potted tea plant became a teaching tool. I lugged my “green leafed friend” into stores like Larry’s Markets and Whole Foods and educated the shoppers who attended my demonstrations on the distinctions and nuances in varieties of tea. I held sessions for eager customers with titles like “How to Taste Chocolate” and “What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?”
A favorite experience involved educating a customer who boasted he’d spent over a $100 on a bottle of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. Met by blank stares, when I asked how they used that product in their home cooking, I shared a travel story.
Our group had gone to Modena, Italy to visit the producer of Leonardi Balsamic vinegars. I met Giovanni Leonardi, of Acetaia Leonardi.
His family has been making vinegar since 1871 and is one of the last in Modena to grow the same grapes that they use to make their vinegar. We’d been given the tour of the facility; cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns joined our group to explain the process: “Complete opposite of wine making, not in the cellar, but up in the attic.”
Balsamic vinegar is set up in a battery of barrels, in the hot attics of the facilities. Grape juice is cooked down, and placed in barrels taller than I was. Over many years, as the liquid evaporates, the batch is transferred to the next smaller barrel, eventually down to the smallest barrel, which held the 100-year-old liquor. The owner showed us with great pride the tiny wooden cast that held his century-old balsamic vinegar. It flowed like molasses, on a cold day. We tasted it directly from the barrel, droplets placed on the back of our hand, warmed by the heat of our skin, and savored slowly. The wood of each barrel imparts its unique flavor; imagine all the nuances that this batch acquired in its travels through the process. Awestruck, I realized this vinegar was older than our producer. Wow!
We dined at a local restaurant that evening, guests of our producer. Dessert course arrived and our host’s grandson produced a bottle of the 100-year-old product, from his jacket pocket. He began to apply the precious dark amber syrup liberally to our desserts. My reaction was shock.
“Does your grandfather know you have this bottle?”
He proceeded to change my point of view. “Balsamico is meant to be enjoyed. It’s not good to keep the bottle closed; you must open it and pour,” he said. He served up the Panna Cotta, chuckled and added, “It’s even good on vanilla ice cream.”
To the attendee of my vinegar class, I stated: “It’s not about bragging rights, not meant to be kept in the bottle and shown to friends. It’s called ‘Condimento’ – balsamic vinegar is a condiment, meant to be used, every day. A bottle of balsamic vinegar, alongside a tin of extra virgin olive oil, graces most tables, just as we have catsup or hot sauce on the tables of our restaurants.”
Application of what I’ve learned brings me full circle to the last and most enjoyable chapter of my career. It’s not enough to know about good food, one has to immerse oneself in cuisine. I always loved that marketing meant educating consumers, rather than just selling a product.
Skills as a writer grew, via contributions to La Leche League International newsletters and editing newsletters for an organization called Arizona Women in Food and Wine.
My family and my pets provided fodder for my pen, and filled entries about my life experiences on a personal blog. I called it “laughing at life.” Humor became my tool, to look at situations that might otherwise be troubling or concerning. Some blog entries turned into essays that were published in Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Membership in our local writing group in Edmonds continued to polish my writing skills.
One day someone asked me if I’d like to merge my writing skills and my experiences with specialty food, and write restaurant reviews for a local online paper, called My Edmonds News.
My work as a restaurant writer for My Edmonds News (and sister publications Lynnwood Today and MLTnews) allows me to continue my process. To discover delicious cuisine, produced in our local eateries, and get to know the folks in the kitchen who create the wonderful recipes, truly is a dream job.
To share the experiences with our readers is the icing on the cake, and you can bet it’s a dark chocolate cake, iced with butter cream.
— By Kathy Passage