If there was a revelation among the five food professionals who spoke during Family Weekend, it was this: none of them 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.”
The other panelists had similar memories: cookbook author and blogger Jenny Rosenstrach '93 remembered the chicken cutlets her mother served for dinner, while food writer and stylist Joy Howard recalled the macaroni and cheese and collard greens 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.”
Food writer Ted Lee '93, author, with his brother, Matt, of the 2007 James Beard-award winning The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, agreed. “I learned all this stuff about food in the South,” he said. “My 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, remained a subject with which they had only brief associations.
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 in Amherst’s Valentine Dinning Hall 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 like the other panelists, found her way into publishing through a circuitous route that involved working in finance and, later, magazines before starting her own blog. “I found my way, but it’s nice to see so many more people in the food world.”
“I’m a cooking teacher; I don’t think there’s any aspect of my career I love more than that,” agreed Rosbottom. “It is a real joy to share with others what you love.”