Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Friday, March 25, 2005

I Began Cooking in Iowa City

In 1997, I began studying for my MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Iowa City. Actually, I quite liked Iowa City. It's quaint, walkable, and has the charm of a progressive college town. It's also supposed to be one of the most highly educated towns in America, boasting an average of a masters' degree per citizen (last I heard). In short, there's a whole lotta brainy folks in Iowa City.

Unfortunately, loads of smart people do not necessarily mean good food, but there were some diamonds in the rough. New Pioneer Coop is a great place to shop for organic veggies and hard-to-finds like Tofutti ice cream sandwiches and Israeli couscous. It's also got an abundant deli with lots of mouthwatering prepared food. There's also the Sanctuary, the best pizza pub around town. The pies are simple and delicious, and the beer is good. It was the first place I ate in Iowa City, and still remains at the top of my list. There used to be (though I don't think it's around anymore) a stellar Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall, Han's, at the corner of College and Burlington. Often, I wish I could carry this place around in my back pocket and conjure their Lemongrass Tofu at a moment's notice.

There were a couple of upper-end restaurants like the Linn Street Cafe, probably still around. The food, as I remember it, was very mediocre, especially if you compared a similarly-priced menu in the SF Bay Area to its prices. You know, there have got to be a few places to take visiting notables, so . . .. I realize it's unfair to compare the eateries of the SF Bay Area (especially San Francisco, Berkeley & Oakland) to Iowa City. It's ludicrous, actually, but the whole reason why I paint a picture of Iowa City's restaurants is to illustrate the dearth of taste adventures available. In the midst of this barrenness, I realized quickly, as I made friends with several of my classmates who also hailed from mostly metropolitan areas (or at least areas of the country which prioritize food innovation), that the best meals you could experience were in people's homes. Food, the best foods I had ever eaten, were in Iowa City. They were just underground.

This--realizing how people were making food & realizing that there was no alterative if I wanted to eat well--were the impetus for my learning to cook. I bought myself the first few cookbooks (Almost Vegetarian and the Greens Cookbook) and dove right in. Fortunately, I wasn't a "don't know how to boil water" type. I was already skilled enough to know how to put things together (and I had been very good at Chemistry Lab), and it just a matter of time before I was teaching myself how to make quiches and pizzas from scratch.

And if writing poetry didn't pay my bills (ha!), then at least I was learning another skill.


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