Grandpa Ralph's Salad Dressing: A Reflection on Writing from the Heart—and the Belly
When I was 18, my future grandfather-in-law, a distinguished epidemiologist, gave me the once-over and asked: “Do you have any ambition?”
As I remember it, Grandpa Ralph was eating a grapefruit and wearing a plaid bathrobe, but the words might as well have come from the King of England. I was mortified.
“I want to be a writer,” I muttered.
Grandpa Ralph snorted and went back to his breakfast.
More than two decades later, Grandpa Ralph is long gone, but I am still replaying that cringe-worthy exchange. A writer? Seriously?
Apparently, yes. But the truly funny thing is that I spent almost two decades writing, more or less professionally—publishing scholarly articles, teaching academic writing, and slogging through a dissertation—but I never considered myself a real writer until I started writing about food.
If you've ever taken a writing class, you've likely heard the dictum “write what you know.” Follow that advice and with some basic skills, you will, most likely, be a competent writer. But what I've learned, outside the classroom, is that you also have to write what you love. It's a lesson I was slow to understand.
There was no doubt that from an early age I loved food. Of course, most children love at least some foods, but I'm talking about something bigger than getting excited about chicken fingers. I mean that kind of deep, self identification with the object of one's affection, that connection to the thing that talks back to you and tells you something that feels right and profound about yourself. For me, it began with quiche.
It was a potluck on eastern Long Island when I was about six years old. If you grew up in the 1970s with counter culture parents, you'll know exactly what I mean when I say that this was one of those gloriously laid back summer gatherings that were a high point of childhood in that era: loads of kids running around unsupervised, grownups drinking rosé and smoking weed and talking about art and politics, and all of us helping ourselves to a table of spreads and dips and salads (probably including my mother's tabouli—way ahead of the curve on that one, Mom!), and, most miraculously, a tall cheese and egg pie that my mother informed me was quiche. Quiche! My world shifted in the instant that I tasted its rich custard and savory crust. This, I thought, is something GOOD. And, in that moment, I saw something of myself: I am someone who loves this.
Years later, in college, one of my favorite professors, who happened to be a serious lover of food herself, allowed me to design an independent study on the food of Latin America and the Caribbean. Each week, I devoured the recipes and stories of writers like Diana Kennedy and Jessica B. Harris and studied the social and political history of things like sugar and chocolate and tomatoes. Computers were something relatively new in my life and I wrote longhand in a clothbound journal about what I'd learned and tasted. At the end of the semester, I took great care to prepare a back yard smorgasbord of the region's iconic foods—empanadas, salsa, black beans, rum cake. And I did a cooking demonstration in Spanish. My classmates loved it. I loved it. But I couldn't help but feel like I'd gotten away with something. Telling people that I'd earned academic credit for making beans felt somewhere not far from underwater basket weaving on the hippie liberal arts curriculum continuum.
After graduation, I set out to earn a PhD in anthropology. I studied Nicaraguan political culture, but the truth is that I selected my fieldwork site based on its proximity to cafés and markets as much as its political milieu. I set out for a year in Central America with an apron, a chef’s knife and some of my favorite recipes—Sally Lunn, ginger cake, my husband's pad Thai. I rented a house with a large kitchen, planted herbs and okra, and harvested key limes from the tree on my patio. I invited Nicaraguan friends for dinner, learned how to make chicken soup starting with an old hen, and ate fried cheese and plantains from the corner fritanga to my heart's content. (I also drank a lot of Flor de Caña, one of the best rums in the world, which comes from just up the Pacific coast in Chichigalpa.) It was a good year.
After I defended my PhD, however, I fell into a funk. I didn't love anthropology. I missed Nicaragua. And I was living in the other Central America—Northwest Indiana. No one who knows me would be surprised to hear that I spent an inordinate amount of time at the local farmers market. I cooked for friends and I played with food as if it were a full time job. I dreaded the thought of an academic position.
It took my husband to point out the obvious: “Other people don’t read cookbooks in bed every night. It’s not normal.” He was right. There was a problem in my “love life." I knew I loved food, but I still didn't take it seriously. Which meant I didn't take myself seriously. It was time to reconsider my relationship with the object of my affection. It was time commit.
So I started writing—publicly—about food. My first story was a short piece for Edible Michiana (the magazine I now edit) about a local pupusería. It wasn't a big story, but writing it was one of the happiest writing moments I've experienced. I was writing about food. For a magazine. It was GOOD—almost as pleasurable as that first bite of quiche. This, I thought, is me.
Among my collection of cookbooks is an old, leatherbound notebook that belonged to my husband's grandparents. In spindly cursive on paper splattered with grease stains is a recipe for “Ralph’s Salad Dressing”—my grandfather-in-law’s secret recipe that he refused to share with anyone. It was, I've heard, delicious. But I'm not sure anyone would bother making it if they had the recipe. Ralph's Salad Dressing is the most complicated recipe for salad dressing I've ever encountered: 16 ingredients, including two different herb vinegars, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, plus garlic, onion and celery salts, and six cloves of whole garlic! It also requires an industrial-strength blender. (Ralph used an old-school Vitamix that looked like a stainless steel toaster with a rectangular coffee percolator on top.)
I never knew Grandpa Ralph well, but I knew him well enough to say that his recipe—and his refusal to share it—speak volumes about who he was: complicated, creative, salty and kind of sour, and, most definitely, ambitious.
I like to think that if he were alive today, Grandpa Ralph and I could pick up our conversation where we left off. Twenty years later, I’ve caught up with my own ambition. I’ve embraced my passion—and my self. I think Grandpa Ralph would approve.