A Kitchen Story - Central City; Country Turfs
words Angela Chase
The secret nightlife, of a two year old in the mid-80’s in Durant, Oklahoma, consisted of slowly eating hoarded candy hidden from under my bed, especially that old Halloween kind, light up every glow worm in my room, watch my parents and my aunt out the window doing whatever, and then go rummage through ashtrays, and eat cigarette butts in the living room. But, once the sun crept in, and adults awakened, I moved on to things that no one stopped me from eating from the fridge: pimento stuffed olives, baby gherkins, raw carrots from the drawer; practically anything within reaching distance. Breakfast snacks.
After those toddler years, my true early morning to afternoon diet was the same as my grandparents, from both sides: cream of wheat, grits, oatmeal, potato cakes, pumpernickel, homemade apple butter, honey, bread and butter pickles, fruit from the backyard and more vegetables. Luckily I spent a lot of my early years with these people, or my palate would have mostly been in the spectrum of every form of white sugar to corn syrup. My parents were equally great and terrible at lots of things: they were wonderful cooks and bakers, although the pair were half made out of soda, chips, candy, sugar cereal, classic heavy breakfast food, and Benson & Hedges.
Bitter, tannic, and sour flavors were easily digestible for me, but, one common food was one I couldn’t swallow: American Cheese slices. My childhood stood in the shadow of lunch in trauma. Resembling the taste of burning plastic from a VCR, meat and cheese sandwiches caused me to vomit...every...single...slice. This led my unknowing tastebuds to carve out plenty of space for: sharp cheddars, blue cheese, and alpines.
My parents were also both computer techs, once we moved to the metro area, and didn’t get home until hours after we were let out of school. So, by 2nd grade I had started cooking for me and my younger brother, Eddie. This was survival, and microwaving eggs into an omelet was my first undertaking. That is, besides the fruit, nuts and crackers we occasionally packed for “running away” for a whole day to see how long we live around the neighborhoods without returning home. Conveniently we didn’t even have a curfew like other children.
Food class was available in 8th grade and became my sanctuary to see food as a science, a craft, and to use kitchen appliances that weren’t available at home, like a brand new KitchenAid with several of it’s front attachments. I realized that I could juice fruit and salad vegetables. Pretty sure my classmates were like “why?”, no one in the 90’s wanted that shit. We tested muffins in teams, each group leaving out an ingredient to see the affects on the product. Baking soda: spread, baking powder: rise. Never forget. (This is when Oklahoma had a better education system. Sorry kids.)
High school peaked in eating and drinking the worst things to have ever happened to my body, AKA Mountain Dew mixed with Hot Pockets, and followed by a rebellion against doctors after exhaustingly being sick all the time. My first job at 16 years old, Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy, made my body out of every, single, limeade, banana split, sundae toppings eaten by themselves, and burger dipped in a mountain of ketchup from a condiment pump, for one year. I had been eating real real food my entire life, and made the motion to let that part of my inherit diet take over my conscience lifestyle. But, I don’t think hard about it anymore, “eating healthy”, or eating Pringles fully aware that they are not a meal, or real snack. All those things we had over-consumed was novelty food.
Starting at the age of 17, and long into my first adult career as an Architectural Designer, my family thought my relationship with food really equated to being a “crazy bitch” - maybe I’m being harsh on them or was back then. I had also become a home cook just like my parents. But my interests lured further into global ethnic foods, and everything naturally edible on the face of earth. Of course I’m nowhere near the end of a lifetime study, and it’s a constant evolution; as we recapture what allowed humans to survive over and over again, and how bountiful and flavorful the world can be without imitation or lab tested food-products.
The housing bust of 2008, was a perfect storm: as an inflated market crashed, and food conscious people funneled their money towards ethical choices, a little cafe in Norman Oklahoma was still doing just fine without sprawling new housing, without the new loans, without the banks that failed their patrons: it was an insulated bubble called The Earth. The economy left me with a few days of work a month, allowing me to pay my extremely low bills, but there was zero extra money after that. Naturally, I had cooked for my friends and roommates, and once again, especially my dear friend Margaret, they pleaded with me to get a job at the cafe as a vegetarian and vegan cook.
My roommates shared my ethics, and three of them already worked for this small mom and pop business. And it fit like glove made of my own skin. You would have thought I already worked in restaurants prior, but maybe it was just an upbringing in home kitchens streaming four generations deep, and Braums. The discipline, creativity and physical activity made my endorphins, and all those other chemicals simmer in a joy that I was unaware you could truly feel at a job.
By the end of 2010, that feeling caused me to finally leave my design career, and The Earth, to further pursue my path in food culture. Even with the resistance I put up here in the city, to skirt around the sidelines, the industry has pulled me in and changed me for better and almost for worse. At 34, I have married, divorced, and remarried my work, but I carry around the energy of The Earth and know that there is always still more to be done. Not only do you work with food, but you work with people, and that facet is equally as important in the total success and harmony.
Arriving in the industry with my first experience as an ethical inscription hidden under my belt, it allowed me to search for joy throughout my career: Cheesemonger, vegan/vegetarian cook, line cook, short order, deli sandwich and soup maker, prep cook, catering, pastry chef, go into work at 2:45am everyday to do a solo dance with food before you see another human later that morning, work an extremely intense 13 hour shift on New Year’s Eve - walking away right after midnight in unwarranted tears breaking the seal of accomplishment, spend 16 hours cranking out as many sweets as possible while feeling it would never be enough, until my body machined autopilot and my words stuttered.
Currently, I squirrel my time away at Esca Vitae and Savings & Loan. The last ten consecutive years on my feet, were paralleled with over six years of planning in a food future, in my own time. This is the year, FLORA and FAUNA begins its launch; a project that’s been chipped away at and shuffled like falling Tetris pieces. Under this umbrella, FLORA Cafe & Bodega will thrive as a neighborhood worker cooperative, embodying the energy and ethics of all past endeavors and of our community gardens in the Central Park neighborhood.