About me

Growing up in postwar Germany, I was surrounded by the joy of food. My grandmother’s delight in a slice of fresh, crusty bread slathered with butter and honey, my father’s excitement over the fragrance of our foraged chanterelles, my mother’s face as she tasted her perfect duck gravy, my grandfather’s pride in his gooseberries, my aunt’s smoked eel… Food was an experience. It had a story. It was beautiful, immediate, and it had heft.

When I moved out from under my mother’s control and my grandmother’s unquestioned authority in the kitchen, I let loose, cooking for friends, roommates, any stranger who might drop by. I didn’t care much for cookbooks and I never, ever baked – too many rules for my unfettered life. My concoctions were as wild and as unorthodox as the times, mixing the rich flavors of my childhood with the exotic tastes of my student travels. Rice pudding hinted of cardamom, lamb stew suffused with cinnamon and cloves, flan blushed with saffron, and yogurt peppered with garlic and mint. Germany, please meet Afghanistan. At my table everyone’s a friend.

Then I moved to Boston. I will never forget July 1980, the first time I stood in a supermarket, staring at shrink-wrapped iceberg lettuce and pale pink tomatoes, neon-green apples with an unnatural sheen. Wonder Bread. I felt bereft. The next spring I hacked open the asphalt parking lot in front of my rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge and planted a garden. The landlord was aghast, but that summer we enjoyed our tomatoes, thick, juicy slices sprinkled with raw onions and fresh dill.

I adapted. Bought a house, raised a child, ran a business, worked long days and longer nights, learnt to feed my family canned raviolis, frozen waffles and marshmallow fluff. The new vegetable garden I planted soon became crowded out by tulips and a fake pond. Short-cuts were key, fast food crept in, and restaurants reigned, yet, after a decade of eating out, no matter how exotic the venue or how much money we spent, vague malaise set in.

Yes, there was plenty to choose from, yes it was visually appealing, but it all started to taste the same. I still cooked a real meal on occasion, tried to summon the old creative spirit, even called my mother for transatlantic advice, but beneath the infrequent satisfaction of serving my family simmered a sad, yet undeniable truth – somewhere between balance sheets and bottom lines I had lost my childhood joy.

I hit middle age in the nineties, just as vegetables emerged from the dingy obscurity of the corner co-op into the well-lit aisles at Whole Foods. Kale sparkled, beets glowed, white fennel mounded next to purple kohlrabi. The variety was mindboggling. Once, I even spotted the black, earthy spears of creamy salsify. Inspired by beauty, I began cooking again. On the weekend, when I had time, finally putting my flashy chef’s kitchen to use. Gradually, my taste buds came out of hiding. During the week, we were Costco-shoppers – economical, processed, bulk all the way, supplemented by nutrition from a bottle. But on the weekend my old joy of eating resurfaced, though there still was no time for stories to behold.

Worn out by corporate America and in search of a simpler, more creative life, I moved to Maine last winter. My plan was to revivify a dormant Bed and Breakfast. But Le Vatout’s kitchen has no fancy fixtures, no polished granite, and no guest lounge with DVD’s, board games, and overstuffed chairs. The small grocery down the street provides strictly necessities, toilet paper, frozen food, beer. Costco and Whole Foods are a universe away. What would inspire me? I knew I wasn’t cut out to bake muffins. How could I help my guests feel at home?

Once I saw our dining room table sprawl out in the south corner of the kitchen, I relaxed. Fringed with red geraniums and flooded with sunshine, it invited. And once the snow melted and I stuck my hands into the soil, I knew inspiration was all around me, inside and out. The founder of Le Vatout had filled in what had once been a swimming pool on a little knoll behind the barn. There, surrounded by cement slabs and remnants of asphalt, sit twelve raised beds, rich chocolate earth, ready to serve. I could grow my own salsify!

And then, by and by, like the landscape of my new home, Maine revealed itself. I discovered fresh, local food. Fresh eggs from free-ranging chickens, creamy milk from local cows, coffee beans roasted that morning and delivered warm to our doorstep, seafood, sparkling seafood, lobsters and scallops and oysters and shrimp, all caught the same day we eat them; wild blueberries, wild leeks, wild morels and artisanal goat cheese, of course; smoked rabbit, fresh turkey, local lamb… Maine potatoes.

Each encounter is a revelation; each floods me with childhood memories, even if oysters and lobsters were not my childhood fare. The palette may be somewhat limited – fresh food here does not include papaya – but the colors are strong. Over the past year of living and cooking in Maine I have realized that even without a perfect kitchen or an abundance of ingredients, inspiration will come from the land, from my memories and from the people I feed, from my guests. Like a story, a good home-cooked meal starts with a spark: a thumb of fresh ginger, a look in your eyes, a bout of cold weather, an urge to be five. All I need to do is surrender my preconceived notions and then add a helping of that elusive ingredient, time. Time to contemplate the creation. Time to heed my inner palate. Time to feel the joy. I still avoid rules and prefer to follow my senses, but this winter, here in Maine, I have finally, selectively, begun to bake.

Home cooking is deeply personal. When we feed ourselves and others we cultivate life, one heaping, steaming spoonful at a time. What we eat and how we live is rooted in our childhoods and influenced by many factors, both personal and environmental. Yet, the closer we connect with what we eat and who we eat it with, the better the meal and the richer the life. For far too long I lost that connection; my food had become processed and carted and consumed, elevated as nutrition and bedeviled as a threat to my health. When I came to Le Vatout I was searching for a more creative life. Sometimes, here in Maine, in my middle age, if the stars are right, the ingredients fresh, the guests open-minded, if we all pay attention, that connection can be transformative. Food once again has become an experience. It has a story. It is beautiful, immediate, and it has heft.

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mary Conley`  |  January 3, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Hello Dominika & Linda: I’ve seldom read anything I’ve enjoyed more. I surely hope you turn this into a cookbook, the stories and comments are an integral part. I’ll be your first customer. Mary Sue

    Reply
    • 2. Dominika Spetsmann  |  January 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

      Mary, you’ve made my day! Yes, I’m thinking of turning these into a collection, but there’s still a lot of writing and cooking and thinking and eating to be done before I’ll have enough for a banquet in print. 🙂

      Reply
  • 3. Jane Herbert  |  January 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Dear Dominika: You’ve assembled, mixed, kneaded and let the relaxing appreciation of time shape your words. I can almost smell the coffee rolls you haven’t written of.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


%d bloggers like this: