The question at the heart of the Family Weekend talk: How did each panelist end up in the professional food world? From left to right: Moderator Betty Rosbottom, Caitlin Leffel ’02, Ted Lee ’93, Jenny Rosenstrach ’93 and Joy Howard.

If there was a revelation among the five food professionals who spoke during Family Weekend, it was this: none had come from an exalted culinary background.

“My mother prepared fried okra and crowder peas,” said cookbook author Betty Rosbottom, who moderated the Saturday morning panel. “She also prepared Velveeta cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s soup out of the can.”

Cookbook author and blogger Jenny Rosenstrach ’93 remembered her mother’s chicken cutlets, while food writer and stylist Joy Howard recalled the collard greens and macaroni and cheese of her Southern childhood.

“You don’t have to have a really rich, varied food experience growing up to have an interest in it,” cookbook editor Caitlin Leffel ’02 told the audience of Amherst parents and students. “Food was important to my childhood insofar as I ate it to grow.”

Ted Lee ’93—author, with his brother, Matt, of the 2007 James Beard Award– winningLee Bros. Southern Cookbook—said his favorite foods growing up were collard greens “and those things that my friend’s parents cooked, like the barbecue.”

From these inauspicious culinary beginnings, each panelist went on to major in equally unlikely subjects in college: French and English (Lee), communications (Howard), English (Rosenstrach), French (Rosbottom) and French and European studies (Leffel).

As they moved through their college years, food, for all the panelists, was a subject in which they had only sporadic interest.

Lee said he was so taken with the balsamic vinaigrette occasionally served in the vegetarian dining room at Amherst that he petitioned for it to be on the menu every day.

“All of us who led that petition drive, two weeks later we were like, ‘We’re bored of this thing,’” he said, to laughter. “‘What else can we get?’”

Rosenstrach remembered trying scrambled eggs for the first time at Valentine and asking kitchen staff what made them so delicious. “Parmesan and chives” was the answer. “To this day, that’s how I make my eggs,” she said.

Rosbottom posed the question that was at the heart of the “In and Out of the Kitchen: Rewarding Careers in the Food World” panel: How did all five end up in the professional food world?

“The idea you could make a career out of food—I knew no one doing it,” said Rosenstrach, who found her way into cookbook writing through a circuitous route that involved working in finance and, later, magazines, before starting her own blog.

“I’m a cooking teacher,” Rosbottom said. “I don’t think there’s any aspect of my career I love more than that.”