Voices for our Future: Erin Brady

Voices for our Future: An EFF Interview Series

I’m tired of “experts”. I want to hear real people talk.

I started writing about food and health because I wanted to share my struggle, and my successes, with the world. But I wouldn’t have had those successes without being inspired by the lives of others. No one reaches their goals in a vacuum.

Sharing stories is a powerful way to communicate. It connects us with a basic feature of the human mind: the narrative. It also helps us to see the world through another’s eyes. My new series, Voices for our Future, will share the stories of people who are struggling and succeeding with, thinking about, cooking, eating, and learning about food. Different voices, different goals, different approaches…all working hard to understand food and their relationship with it, and to help others do the same. I hope you’ll enjoy the interviews and find relatable stories, and if you have a story to share, please let me know so your voice can be heard!

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Erin

(I interviewed Erin at a lovely restaurant/coffee shop in Roseville. Erin is a wife and mother, as well as a nursing student. Growing up with a working single mother and addict father, her home life was often troubled, but she now uses cooking and meal time to strengthen her own family’s bond. Erin also uses her love of cooking to strike a balance in her life between the times when she has been really unhealthy, and times where she’s been overly focused on health or weight. I first met Erin five years ago through her sister-in-law, who I grew up with. We connected on our shared struggles with food and weight. She now shares recipes and cooking inspiration at her blog BradyMunch.)

In your childhood, what was your relationship like with food?

When I was a child, both of my grandmothers were amazing cooks. My grandma baked with me, but she didn’t really cook with me. My mom was a teacher, and didn’t really have a lot of time to cook…you know there’s that old idea that you have to cook for hours to make this amazing meal, and my mom had that old idea. So we ate good, but she wasn’t that big on showing us how to do things. One good thing we did have is that both my parents are complete foodies, so we tried a lot of things. At four-years-old my sister was ordering eggs Benedict with crab, instead of the $1.99 Mickey Mouse pancake, so we were explorative in that way. But I didn’t really know how to cook. I never learned. But now I do it a lot. I think the best way to learn is to find stuff you really WANT to eat, and do it. If it brings you pleasure, you will do it. Now cooking has become like a meditative state for me. I think about how I can be creative, have fun, explore things, try different flavors. So instead of looking at it as, “The day is almost over! I have to cook for my family and feed a picky three-year-old and a giant who eats for three!”, I look at it as something I will enjoy, and I put on my music, and I do it. It doesn’t have to be a big elaborate thing. In fact if I pay attention to the quality of my ingredients, simpler is usually more flavorful.

You mentioned quality ingredients, so do you think one of the key pieces to your cooking approach is good shopping?

I buy a lot in season. I don’t want to give the impression that you have to shop at Whole Foods, or a super-expensive grocery store all the time. Whole Foods is my porn. (Laughter) But I go all over. We were using a produce delivery service for a while. I’ll go to Costco, I’ll go to Trader Joe’s…wherever my cravings take me. Money isn’t too big of a worry right now with our grocery shopping, but I don’t want to waste money. I go all over to find specific ingredients.

So it sounds like you’re trying a lot of different recipes all the time. Do you ever have a standard set, like you’re good at making these six things and then you rotate them through?

It changes with the season. And I’ll get kind of obsessed with something for a while, and then finally when I think I can’t have it anymore I’ll just move on. I do have some staples, certain recipes that I always keep in, mostly because my daughter or husband really like them. But instead of looking at it as a chore, I think of food as an expression of love! You’re doing this, ultimately, even if you’re resentful about it, you’re doing this because you love your family, or because you love yourself. If you keep that in mind as you’re cooking, I think that energy translates to your food. I really believe that. If you come at it with the energy of believing that it’s going to be delicious and that you’re going to have a nice meal together and sit as a family and eat, that comes out in the cooking. But as far as ingredients, I remember Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten saying, “If your ingredients are sub-par, then your food will turn out that way.” So it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be expensive, but I wouldn’t buy things that are obviously lower quality. There’s always the political reasons or health reasons for organic, but I just buy it because it tastes better.

So again you’re motivated by the enjoyment or the pleasure of it?

Yeah, exactly.

Could you talk a little bit about your home life now and how cooking so much now is different from the situation you had when you were a kid?

When I was a kid, my mom had to work, single mom, you know. And then she was getting her Master’s, so there were a couple of nights each week where she was gone until late. By then we were old enough to cook, but it was like a can of Campbell’s soup or something. We all had our own routines. We rarely sat and ate together, which I wish we had been more in the habit of doing. The weekdays were so crazy between her and me and my sister, and just life. Now I make sure we sit at the table at least once a day in my house. It doesn’t have to always be dinner. And if I’m not hungry it doesn’t mean I don’t still sit at the table. My daughter and I always eat breakfast sitting together and my husband kind of wanders around us. I haven’t been able to get him to eat breakfast regularly, I let that one go, but he loves food. I don’t think I could be married to somebody who wasn’t as into food as I am. It’s our adventure. He thinks it’s hilarious when I dance in the grocery store when I see Meyer lemons or some obscure vegetable I’ve never seen before. One of my favorite things to do with my daughter is to cook with her. And she’ll eat more if she helps make it. So food is a huge thing in our house, and because I’m the primary cook and shopper, I control the ingredients.

Is your sister as into cooking as you are?

She is. She’s got a little bit of a different style than me, she’ll venture more into Mexican food and Southwestern. One of my best friends cooks Mexican food all the time, so I’ll just go to her house for that. I do mostly Mediterranean, Italian, French…a lot of European influence. Another best friend of mine is Spanish, so I’ve been stealing a lot of her recipes. But I don’t really go off a set recipe anymore…if there is an actual dish that I’m craving, I’ll look up the recipe just to get the basic flavors and then I’ll ask myself what I can do with that. Obviously if I’m making soufflé or something, which I love to do in the summertime with a big astringent salad, I’ll look up the basic recipe of a soufflé and then choose the flavorings that I want. I used to follow recipes exactly, I kind of have an OCD rule-following thing, but now I’m avoiding too much structure. That’s why I don’t bake.

At what age did you start cooking regularly?

I think I really started cooking every night around nineteen or twenty. I was out on my own at eighteen, but I don’t know what I did then. I think around nineteen or twenty is when I thought I should try to learn how to do this or that…We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, but when I got my apartment I had Food Network, and I used to watch it all the time. So I thought that maybe I should do something with all that knowledge. I just started to try things that looked good. It took me way longer than it does now to make things, but I just kept trying. I just had to practice, and pay attention to the tricks. Like if someone was showing how to slice an onion correctly, or how to do this or that with an ingredient, that doesn’t mean you have to save that skill just for that recipe. I paid attention to those basic skills. I’ve actually gotten a lot of tips on how to treat certain ingredients from Rachael Ray, but I really can’t stand her cooking. (Laughter)

So you were sort of gleaning some of the basic skill teaching out of the cooking shows, rather than going just with their recipe?

Yeah, and then as I got more confident, things got better. But I ruined recipes all the time! I tried not to let that deter me, because if you do you’ll never get there. I always had a back-up frozen pizza or something. But I was really bad with cooking chicken at first. Chicken breasts are so huge, and I remember making them for my boyfriend and he’d cut it open and it would be totally raw inside…I was really bad at that. But I just kept practicing and if I ruined it I would go to the back-up and try again another day. You have to accept that it’s gonna happen. Things will go terribly wrong. If you flip out on it being perfect, you won’t have any fun. I think that’s the hardest thing, if you have old ideas or have a picture in your head of how it’s supposed to look…it doesn’t have to look that way. And it doesn’t have to look like it came from a four star restaurant to taste like it. I loved being able to throw out my old ideas. It has become really empowering. Now those times when we do go out to eat, I can find inspiration for my home cooking. There’s a restaurant that my husband and I like to go to and they have this really amazing risotto, and just by paying attention to the flavors, I actually can make it at home now. My husband hardly ever comments on or compliments my cooking, he just eats it. But one of the biggest compliments he’s given me was when we were in a restaurant eating something and he said, “This is really good. Can you taste it and make it for me at home?” (Laughter)

He believes in your abilities. That’s great.

Yeah.

You were saying that it’s a priority for you all to have at least one meal where you all sit down together everyday, so what led you to that decision given that that wasn’t necessarily the norm in your family growing up?

Well, with our schedules…I’m in school and I manage a property, my daughter is in school my husband works a TON, his slow weeks are 70 hours. So we have to take our time together when we can. Mealtime is sometimes the only time we can really hang out together. Often it’s a morning routine because my daughter doesn’t go to school until eleven and my husband doesn’t have to be at work until noon. But we get that family time anyway we can.

So the regular meal times are mostly for family connection?

Absolutely. But I’ve also been reading a lot over the past year about fast eating versus long, slow, leisurely meals, and about taking time to stop and really enjoy the pleasure of eating, to be mindful of it. So that’s part of it. Half the time people are eating in the car, or eating in front of the tv, or we are on our phones, doing this, doing that, the laptop is next to the plate…Part of it, physically, if you pay attention, is that you’ll probably be hungry an hour later no matter how much food you eat that way, because you’re not taking the time to connect with the food, so your brain isn’t fully registering that you’re eating. We’re nourishing our bodies, but we can also nourish our spirits by enjoying this experience together.
My daughter is non-stop, she’s not the kind of child who can just sit and get lost in a tv show or something. So other than reading together at night, mealtime is the only time where she’ll sit and I can talk to her. She loves to help me cook. Her favorite thing to do is sit next to me while I’m chopping and scream as though the vegetables were alive. (Laughter) And she loves cracking eggs. I’ll talk to her about the different ingredients, and why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Do most of your friends care about cooking the way you do?

My two best friends definitely do. We all have our own styles.

Why do you think fewer people know how to cook today as compared with previous generations? What do you think sets you and your friends apart?

One of our best friends, Ben, is Korean and his mom is amazing at cooking Korean food, which is my all-time favorite cuisine. I’m always trying to get him to bring us food from his mom. Whenever people tell his mom that her food is amazing and that they wish they could cook the way she does, she always says, “You can!” Ben tells her that it makes her sound arrogant, but what she’s saying is true! People are looking at the end product or tasting the end product and thinking they can’t do it. But they have no idea what went into it or what didn’t go into it, and they’re automatically deciding they can’t do it. Just because you’ve never tasted something you’ve cooked and loved it, doesn’t mean you can’t get there. It’s not predetermined, it just takes practice. It may not happen the first time, it may not happen the second time, but if you keep going you will taste your improvement. Just know that you can keep doing it. I think people talk themselves out of it way too fast. Or they look at the finished product and think it’s way too much work. How do you know it’s too much work? If I can do it, anybody can do it.

What makes you say that?

Because I’m not special, it’s just not that hard. There are gonna be things that are challenging, so go for the things that seem easier first, and then go for challenging stuff later when your confidence is up. Let go of your old ideas. Don’t be disappointed if it’s not the same plate as the one in your head. Just try it. It will get so much easier as you go along. It’s taken me twelve years, but now it’s not time-consuming to make a great meal. I can improvise, I can make things up. As a beginner you may have to go by the book more, practice more, have those fails, but it gets easier and easier. The energy that it takes me now, I’m happy to give it. I like to know what I’m putting in my body.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Try to change your attitude about cooking. Instead of feeling like it’s a chore that you have to cook dinner, or wondering what you’re going to order for take out, try to knock off those negative statements every day and just spend 30 minutes everyday doing something that you can start to enjoy, and develop new skills, and know what’s going into your body and your family’s bodies. Once you release yourself from the bondage of all the pressures in your mind, it’s a lot of fun. And focus on progress, not perfection.

Thank you very much.

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