Smile Politely

Putting the cheese in the local food

“Americans put cheese on everything.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Growing up, when referring to “American” food, my mom would always insist that said food would always include some sort of cheese. Which seems valid. Of course, this would be in relation to all those fast food commercials my mom would see if we happened to be sitting on the couch together watching television. A rare occurrence, but she was known to sit down every now and again.

What was she doing when she wasn’t sitting down, you ask? She was in the kitchen, always cooking. My mom’s life, as long as I have been alive to see it, revolves around cooking or being in the kitchen. Her typical day when my (five) siblings and I were at home included fixing us breakfast and making us lunch and dinner… all before she would leave at around four o’clock to go to work, where she was a chef at a Vietnamese restaurant.

So, it’s safe to say that I grew up around some real good homecookin’. And that has translated into a fascination with cooking and food in general. Especially locally grown food. Since coming to Champaign-Urbana for school, I’ve become to call this place home, mostly because I do feel that there is a sense of community here. This is undoubtedly apparent in the realm of food here. Having smaller grocery stores that cater to different cuisines indicate the variety of food that is consumed in this area.

But the farmer’s market that starts up in May is where it’s at. Seriously.


Since coming to the Market at the Square three years ago to now, I’ve seen it grown with the addition of new vendors every year. There’s nothing better than arriving at the market when it opens and browsing through all the produce and figuring out what I want to cook later that day. Now I know how my mother felt (well, sort of) when she had to shop for ingredients to cook for ten people every night. And I got my first taste (haha, I know…I couldn’t resist) of working in a restaurant kitchen last night when I volunteered at the Farmer’s Table dinner.

The Farmer’s Table dinner is a dinner held every Saturday evening at the Red Herring. It is a fairly new endeavor, starting only a few weeks ago. It is a dinner that pushes locally grown food and supports the local farmers and community. The slow food concept is relevant here, and I firmly believe in using local ingredients to feed and support the community.

I arrived at four o’clock to help prep and prepare the ingredients that Chef Steve had purchased earlier that morning at the market. I chopped and roasted beets, minced garlic, prepared pasta, and set up my station. Yes, I had a station. When service started, I served the soup and plated it. As entries were called, Steve prepared each pasta serving to order. And we ended the meal with three kinds of pie from the market, which I also prepared and plated. Service went smoothly, and we were all pleased when the night ended. The best part: getting to eat the leftovers.

After getting to work in the kitchen last night, I’m beginning to understand how my mother felt when she prepared food for people, in addition to shopping for it. There is a gratification in making people happy through food. There is also the feeling of care that goes in to each dish that consumes and the art of cooking itself. Maybe someday I’ll reach the point that my mother has reached. Although I doubt my food will taste as amazing.

As for the menu that was served? Pea soup served with crostini topped with goat cheese. The entrée was fettuccine with beets, arugula, and a white wine sauce with sheep’s milk cheese.

Mom was right.

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