1. Casey, you’ve been living in Bulgaria now for how many years?
5 years, 6 next November.
2. What brought you here? (I know this but the readers will want to know!)
I have been living in Bulgaria since November 2006. My husband and I wanted to provide a different life for ourselves and our children that was not available to us in the US.
3. When did your interest in food begin?
My interest in food is a strange one; I grew up with a stunted understanding of food, where it came from and why it is important. My culinary palette was limited, to say the least. If you were to imagine a horrific American/ “westernized” diet then you know exactly what I consumed till I was in my 20’s. When I met my husband, he was astounded by my inability to try new things… Frankly, it annoyed him that I always ordered the same thing at restaurants and cooked the same things at home. He pestered and pushed me to be more adventurous and I think now he is regretting the monster he has created. I think from time to time he misses the boring meat and potatoes girl I used to be.
4. When did you decide you wanted to be in culinary school and learn to become a chef?
My thoughts about going to culinary school had existed for a few years and it was directly related to my living in Bulgaria. I didn’t become passionate about food overnight, it was a slow process of incorporating new foods and culinary ideas into my diet; it is a process that is still occurring. Upon arriving in Bulgaria, I was overcome not with the different foods, but with seasonality. It was a hard concept to grasp initially coming from the US, where regardless of the weather you can have pineapples and strawberries. Completely frustrated, not only by product availability, but convenience food as well. There were no shortcuts here, especially with international cuisine ingredients. So, not only did I prepare everything from scratch, but I was determined to find my green thumb and grow what I couldn’t find. I am getting to the culinary school, I promise. After a few years of learning how to cook more complicated dishes and grow my own food, I became fixated on the science behind why and how foods cook, as well as the impact that has on ingredient selection. All through my learning process, I was blogging my successes and failures, but at one point I felt I could simply remain an amateur who entertains her friends with my culinary skills or become serious and learn how to cook for real and professionally. It was a difficult decision to move to the US for 9 months without my family, but it helped me find my true passion.
5. I see from your FB page that some of your favorite books are Omnivore’s Dilemma & Fast Food Nation. Have these books informed your food choices and your cooking at all?
Michael Pollan has some really fascinating ideas about food and the relationship that people should have with it, but what I really appreciated was the understanding about the politics of food in the US. I am really partial to Dan Barber, although all the ideas he presents are not his alone, but his pursuit of flavor is part of my own mantra, which directly correlates with the passion for agriculture. I also love Alice Water and the Slow Food movement, which I am a part of here in Bulgaria and in the US.
6. For those who have children, what would you suggest about presenting healthy food choices to children?
I am going to sound really preachy with this answer, but I hate parents who cater to their kids food requests. Really… your kid can only eat French fries and chicken nuggets… They don’t like vegetables… please. My pediatrician gave me great advice when the girls were young, which was that it takes 12 times for a child to form a positive or negative opinion about a particular food. Parents usually lack the patience to sit at a table with a child whining about dinner, but sooner or later they come around. My kids were not crazy about beets, but I made a bit of a game with the beets. Basically, whoever ate the most beets and had the reddest tongue wins… they didn’t actually win, but to this day, the beets are the first things to go; although, we need to work on the sticking your red tongue out at the table! There are some things that my girls don’t particularly like (mushrooms, for example), but only when they are in large chunks. If they are minced or in small pieces, it is not a problem. I attribute this to the spongy texture rather than the flavor, but they eat them nonetheless. Another idea that I have instilled in the heads of my children is to eat a rainbow. At first, their minds literally thought…how do you eat a rainbow, but we went through the rainbow spectrum then took turns naming different fruits and veggies of every color. Now dinner is a bit of an art project… they like to make suggestions about colors we could use on the plate. Finally, the best way to get your kids to eat healthy is to explain it to them and lead by example. Let them know what they are eating, why it is good for them and how it will help their bodies develop. My daughters know that water is the best drink because it keeps them hydrated. I like the fact that they use the term hydrated, it is quite cute.
7. You grow your own food. This is a luxury in our day and age! Do you have suggestions for people who don’t have the room to grow food but still want to have the health benefits of organic food?
Anyone can have an herb garden and that is nothing to scoff at. I don’t have the land or resources to grow all that I want, but I am working on adding to what I can produce, slowly but surely. My next adventure is bees. I hope to have 2 hives this spring. While in the US, I studied about organic/biodynamic bee keeping and attended some workshops and got some hands-on experience.
First of all, don’t believe the hype about “organics”, be smarter than that as a consumer… what does it matter if your tomatoes are organic, if they were grown in Chile, harvested immaturely, ripened with ethylene gas and flown thousands of miles (producing carbon emissions) and passed through many hands to arrive at your supermarket… You are better off building a relationship with a local farmer and if you are living in Bulgaria there is no excuse! Buy locally grown produce from the people in the bazaars or markets. The situation in Bulgaria is that these people usually can’t afford the chemicals and pesticides used on large scale operations, plus the seeds are most often heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation and the result is the freshest and best tasting products. I am rather cynical these days about foodies and the out of control food culture. Food has turned into a status symbol and has been commercialized and labeled. It has moved away from being simply food to being some sort of educated class one-upsmanship. If people want to make good choices, don’t by packaged food. Read the labels on the things you do buy… if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. For me, food and healthy clean living shouldn’t be about trends… quinoa is becoming “hot” in Bulgaria and that is stupid, in myopinion. I am glad people are learning about the benefits of this super grain, but are people eating it because it is trendy or do they actually enjoy it? I’m not so sure…
8. Singers, musicians and anyone who has to travel frequently have the same complaints that they can’t eat the food they would normally eat while they are at home. Very often, their choices go south and they end up eating poorly. Do you have suggestions for smart and healthy food choices for people who have to travel?
Know before you go. With the amount of information available on the internet become familiar with your choices, through regional blogs and websites about the local cuisine and the alternative selections that are more akin to your home diet. If you are traveling and staying at an international hotel chain then you get some continuity across the board, but with traveling you need to let go a bit and step away from what you eat at home and embrace the opportunity to explore your new culture. When I first traveled to Bulgaria in the summer of 2001, I was in awe of the freshness and overall deliciousness of the food. With Bulgarian cuisine, the food is simple, rustic and tasty. I never ate more tomatoes in my life, but if you aren’t willing to embrace the new, stay home.
9. Since we both live in Bulgaria, we’ve had the opportunity to try out some of the ‘health’ food restaurants here. Both of us came with the same conclusion that the food was uniformly bland. I’ve had the same reaction to food that I’ve eaten from health food stores and restaurants in the United States. Why is this, do you think? And, is it possible to make this food that is supposed to be healthy for you also delicious?
The term health food is really ambiguous when you think about it. What is “healthy”? If you are following some stringent puritanical view on food that you should have no seasonings, salt, oil, meat, meat products etc… or is healthy because the diversity in vitamins, mineral and other components that contribute to a persons over all well being. I have eaten at all the places in Sofia, with the exception of anything new that has opened while I was in the US. The food is rather pretentious, but also notably bland and improperly cooked (i.e vegetables (usually frozen) that have been boiled to oblivion in unsalted water). Nothing is seasoned, but I find that is an issue not just with “health” food, but also with restaurant food in general in Bulgaria. Unless you are too tired to cook, don’t bother going out and wasting your money.
10. And, you’re pregnant. Congratulations!! Do you find that you cook differently while you’re pregnant?
I tend to cook to my whims, but I have taken it up a notch and I am really focusing on super foods. I have the time and the knowledge to give my baby the best start through my diet. I indulge on the occasional snack or junk food, but nothing too horrible like Twinkies. Personally, I have been really into SE Asian flavors and vegetarian cuisine. The heavy European food is not appealing to me at present, although I love braised red cabbage!!! This might also be a backlash from the heavy French food we ate at school. Even though I am pregnant, I did lose 3 kg just leaving culinary school.
I just want to add one more thing about my kids and healthy eating, I don’t deprive them of treats or chips, even the occasional trip to McDonald’s. I am not a food dictator, but I like to encourage good habits. I have known people that are food fundamentalists and I don’t want to do that to my kids, because they will end up resenting me and reverting to Ho-Ho’s, Ding Dongs and other HFCS/ Trans Fat nightmares… I had a friend in college who was vegan and was raising her daughter vegan. She was about 3 and I was eating a piece of candy or lollipop and she wanted one, but her mother was dead against it, which I respected, but does a 3 year old really understand the choices that her mother made?