The culinary world has evolved in many ways over the course of my lifetime. We have moved from using lard to using butter and then abandoning butter for margarine (which they told us was “better for us than butter” for a while), only to return to butter. During World War II we were sending our butter to France and someone somewhere in the bowels of some governmental building in Washington initiated a campaign in favor of margarine over butter. It was propaganda.
Butter gets a bad rap every decade or so, but thankfully margarine and “whipped spread” are no longer considered legit. Butter is awesome, and fine in moderation, and I have even seen a couple of recent studies that tout the positive qualities of lard.
Trends in the food business come and go, but a large part of why we are eating better these days is the availability of quality ingredients.
Even the most basic grocery stores carry fresh herbs and some exotic produce these days. That wasn’t always the case. When we opened our first restaurant in 1987, we had to special order a lot of the foods we were preparing (and to be truthful, we weren’t really doing anything that was too cutting edge). I remember receiving a call from a customer who was cooking out of a new cookbook someone had gifted her. “Robert, can you answer a question?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I’ve got this new cookbook and I’m making a recipe that calls for a mushroom I’ve never heard of. Maybe you have.”
“OK, what’s the name of the mushroom?” I asked.
I have to tread lightly here because this is a family newspaper, but she said, “It’s called a shiitake mushroom. What is that?” Though she didn’t pronounce “shiitake” as everyone now pronounces shiitake (shuh-TAH-kee). She pronounced shiitake in the 1988-South-Mississippi-I-have-no-idea-wjat-this-foreign-food-item-is manner, putting emphasis on the first syllable, and pronouncing the second syllable as “take.” You can figure it out from here.
We have learned. We have progressed. And we have moved forward.
In 1960s Hattiesburg, Mississippi the most exotic dish I ate as a child was shrimp curry. My mother and both grandmothers made curry for “company.” I loved it. They each made a slightly different version — never with chicken, always with shrimp — but I liked them all. Curry in any form made me happy. Today, whenever I eat curry I think of my mother and my two grandmothers. No other dish in the culinary lexicon makes me think of those three all at once. To me, curry is love.
Things were pretty meat-and-potatoes back then. Along with leg of lamb, curry was probably the most exotic entrée my family served. The most exotic hors d’oeuvre was probably a steamed artichoke. That sounds pretty basic and simple today, but a steamed artichoke served on my mother’s coffee table alongside a ramekin of drawn butter for dipping the leaves in, was something strange and wonderful in 1968. It always meant, “There must be company coming over.”
Avocados are a staple of my family’s every day existence these days. But they were scarce back then. I’m sure they were available in limited quantities in a few grocery stores, but my family never purchased them. I really knew nothing about avocados until we opened our first restaurant in 1987. We’ve purchased tens of thousands of pounds for dozens of our restaurant concepts since then.
Two blocks down the street from my childhood home on a road named Longwood Court lived the Bowen family. The father, Dr. Bowen, was a professor of geology at the university. His wife, a nurse and a native of Australia added a bit of much-needed diversity to the neighborhood. They had two daughters and one son. That son, Chris Bowen, has been one of my absolute best friends since I moved into that neighborhood in the second grade. Everyone in the family was highly intelligent, well read, and redheaded.
University-based families who had at least one parent who served in a faculty position at the university were a major component that made my hometown a little more progressive than similar-sized southern cities back in the 1960s and 1970s. Different people came from different places, and brought with them different ideas, traditions, and ways of thinking. Good stuff, that.
The Bowen family did things differently than most of the cookie-cutter neighbors that made up the Hillendale neighborhood— nothing freaky or too out-of-the-ordinary, just different strokes type stuff. They always backed their vehicles down the driveway so that they were facing forward in the carport (Chris still does it). The Bowen house was the one home where we had to take our shoes off upon entering. That seemed strange at the time, but I wasn’t having to mop anyone’s floors and so I got it. My friends were a little bothered by the no-shoes rule at the Bowens. However, I figured that if it was good enough for Japanese culture, it must be good enough for Hattiesburg. Actually, it just added to the exotic nature of the family. “It’s probably an ‘Australian thing’” I told my friends.
The Bowens also ate avocados. For breakfast. The rest of us were eating canned biscuits, Frosted Flakes, and Pop-Tarts, and the Bowens were eating mashed avocado with milk, sugar, and a squeeze of lemon.
Today I eat avocado for breakfast, often. Avocado toast is a go-to breakfast at my house, and we’ve developed a great version at the new restaurant.
Some of the best avocado toast I have ever eaten is served at— appropriately enough— a restaurant called Toast in New Orleans. Toast is one of my top two breakfast joints in a city loaded with excellent breakfast joints. Toast uses thick-sliced house-baked bread and tops it with sliced avocados and a fried egg. Pure. Simple. Delicious.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to avocado toast— sliced avocados or mashed avocados? At home I prefer to mash the avocado, add a little salt and pepper, and a dash of hot sauce. I spread it onto toast and serve a fried egg on top. I also like to sprinkle a little roasted corn and diced tomato with a little feta or Oaxacan cheese on top.
I am sure someone somewhere was eating avocado toast for breakfast back in the 1960s. But the only people I knew who were eating avocados in the morning — albeit as porridge on toast — were the Bowens.
A few years ago, the Bowens invited my wife and me for dinner on Longwood Court. It was great to be in that house again. The conversation was lively and covered several interesting topics. There was never a lull in the dialogue. The Bowens didn’t serve avocados that night. They kept it exotic though. They served curry. Perfect!
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.