My love affair with food is a fact.
It started when I was 5-years-young, watching my mom and grandmas cook all their meals from scratch. They poured love and soul into every bite. They passed skills to me; and my mother was incredible about letting me learn on my own. Her only rule was to clean up the mess you made. She bit her tongue at my messes and mishaps. But in those experiences, my knowledge and talents grew.
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, so I lived a good portion of my life in the Red River Valley, which bordered Minnesota. I had relatives in Northern Minnesota, don’t ya know, and also in Montana. The variety in cooking between those demographics wasn’t too drastic, but still a variety existed.
On my mom’s side, it was majority Norwegian cuisine as my great-grandpa came over from Norway. So learning to make lefse, a Norwegian tortilla made with potatoes, was an honor and rite of passage.
I grew up in a meat and potatoes kind of home. Casseroles, a North Dakota and Minnesota staple, were not allowed as my parents ate way too many of them growing up and were determined to give us different options. That is until my siblings and I hit that age where we begged for goulash and tater tot casserole that our aunts and uncles had served us.
There were nights my sisters and I would make our versions of the casseroles for the kids while my parents ate their own meal. Everyone was happy.
My senior year of high school, the family moved to Seattle. On a house-hunting trip, we tried a few restaurants, but it was overwhelming due to the traffic and all the different cuisines we’d never heard of. One of our first family meals was in the restaurant at the top of the Seattle Space Needle.
The restaurant slowly turns so you can get a full view of Seattle and the Puget Sound. We kids were speechless trying to take it all in. My sister and I were intimidated by words on the menu we’d never heard of. We were fearful that there was nothing there that we’d like.
My parents picked up on our fears and asked the waiter questions to help us learn. He graciously answered and helped us order. That meal lit a food fire in our souls! We were now on a mission to try all of the foods.
You have to explore a new city to find the places for shopping and entertainment. In one of our explorations, we found a mall a few miles away. Our senses were instantly simulated. We’d found a jackpot for a big family; cozy tables scattered all over where families and friends were sharing love over a yummy meal. Kids played on the various quarter rides or with the giant chessboard. A stage provided live music and a spot for couples to dance.
Your nose smelled so many smells. The first smell I remember was the homemade waffle cones juxtaposed to fresh dark brewed coffee. As we walked further in, we inhaled the burgers at the retro diner counter, the smell of yeasty bread in the wood fire grill, the smoky fragrant stir-fries and noodles cooked in woks over open flames. The smell of fresh pierogi and stuffed buns, very similar to Runzas, next to the smell of grilled fajitas, was enchanting. Every restaurant in that food court was locally owned, not a chain. Chefs and families made their traditional foods to share with others. Dad would give us a cash budget and send us off. We older kids took the younger kids under our wings, all on a mission to figure out what we wanted to eat or try next.
Between the cultural differences in my grandparents, my parents trying new things, and then moving to the West Coast, my palette broadened; and I was on a mission to try all the foods anywhere and everywhere.
In this series of columns over the next few months, I will share recipes from a food journey encompassing all my culinary experiences from Washington to California, from Italy to Minnesota, and finally, my favorite, Nebraska.
There is amazing food all around the world, and sometimes the first step to trying something new is learning about it! I hope I can entice your senses and inspire your journey.
We need food for survival; and sometimes we have to eat for nourishment over enjoyment. But the most enjoyable food memories come when you have humans you love next to you; the food was made with love, and there are memories made around the table.
Next time you hear from me, I will be writing about all my favorites at the Cuming County Fair! My taste buds are so excited that my mouth already waters with the thought.
I will give a spoiler alert… My favorite food so far at the fair is the lumpia at Beemer Café’s stand. They are Filipino rolls that are similar to an egg roll. The wrapper is thin and creates crunchy layers when deep fried, the filling is ground meat and minced vegetables. They are so crunchy, savory, and decadent! You can eat them plain, or dip them in a sweet and sour chili sauce! I can’t wait!
See Y’all at the fair! Buon appetito!
- Jana Leigh, also known as the Whirlwind of Wisner, is a food lover, hard worker, mother of many and dedicated editorial assistant, occasional reporter and always helpful member of the staff at both The West Point News and The Wisner News-Chronicle.