Karen Eve Johnson is a freelance writer, theatre director and producer. She now lives in Amsterdam, where she grows vegetables and herbs on her roof garden while enjoying the view of the city’s Golden Age church spires and towers.
For FoodWiseWomen, she has written White Gold, on the white asparagus of Amsterdam.
The Georgian Bay, Canada, aged 8: Blueberry muffins, made from scratch by my Grandmother. The blueberries in question grew wild on the rocky land around her cottage and my brother and I would be sent out to pick them. Also, marshmallows. Sickly sweet and deadly dull when eaten raw, but transformed when toasted over a wood fire into gooey charcoaled deliciousness. We would melt one layer, eat it off and return the marshmallow to the fire to melt the next layer. All too often, the heart of the marshmallow would slip off the toasting fork to be devoured by the fire. A culinary sacrifice to improvement.
Chicago, aged 13: The inevitable serving of Coke and Dr Pepper at teenage get-togethers. Also plates of outsize sugar cookies and other things I ate then, but wouldn’t touch now. Hostess Twinkies, for example. Fake cream in a fake cake with enough preservatives so that a package put into a time capsule and buried for 100 years would probably be just as edible now as then. The edibility now being, in any case, questionable.
University of Chicago Hospital, aged 14: Six weeks in hospital, six weeks of absolutely inedible food. The food grey and tasteless. My mother bringing me in a plate of roast chicken breast and green asparagus she had cooked. Tasting that first mouthful of buttery asparagus. Bliss.
India on a train from Delhi to Tiruchirappalli, aged 20: At every train station (and there were many) you could purchase a small clay cup of chai — strong and incredibly sweet and bracing. Another vender would sell you an omelette, made on the spot to demand, and another a fresh chapati. As the train pulled out, I was set with a fresh, hot breakfast to enjoy with the passing countryside.
Lithuania, directing Twelfth Night: The densely textured black rye bread from what had been the communist bakery. Full of bite and flavour. Particularly welcome (though rarely available) because post-communist Lithuania was short on food and what there was was often adulterated and dangerous.
Italy: The first time I was served that perfect combination of bresaola, rucola, parmesan shavings and olive oil. A freshly made plate of spinach and ricotta ravioli served in my favourite restaurant in Sorano — simple perfection. Every time I taste it, I realise what a shabby version most supermarkets sell. The ricotta I eat when I stay in my friend’s farmhouse in the Maremma. There is no ricotta to equal it, and I take it with a fresh apricot or with toast and barely sweetened preserves for breakfast, sitting on the terrace, which of course looks out over the olive groves, while feeling the sun beginning to heat the day. Yes – the surroundings are a Tuscan cliché, but none the less pleasurable for being so. And they compliment the chalky subtle taste of the ricotta.
Hampshire: Roast beef, roast potatoes and parsnips, quantities of fresh leeks from the garden and a boiled pudding to follow. The gathering of friends for a traditional Sunday lunch with all the trimmings, stretching over hours and culminating untraditionally with Irish coffees. It was there that I learned the secret of making British roast ‘tatties’. They were never part of my Canadian mother’s cooking vocabulary.
Amsterdam: An omelette made of organic eggs, sheeps cheese and the courgette flowers I have just picked from the courgettes I grow in pots on my roof terrace. The flowers give a delicacy to the omelette, and marry well with the fresh sheep cheese I buy from my sheep lady in the market. She sells everything from her sheep: sheepskins, meat, pecorino and a variety of soft cheeses, including a ricotta that is almost as good as the one I eat in the Maremma.
Among the small trees and shrubs on my roof terrace, I grow beans and courgettes, salads, tomatoes and baby aubergine. And, of course, all kinds of herbs. As I water and care for them, I see the church spires of Amsterdam in the distance, looking exactly as depicted in the backgrounds of 17th century Lowlands paintings. The old watch tower on the Oudeschans canal is the closest. The clock on the tower paradoxically gives me a sense of timelessness.
Karen Eve Johnson