Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fascinating Foodie--My First Feature at Army Journalism School

Today is the second day of the government shutdown.  Among those on furlough is my primary writing instructor, Peter Robertson.  My first feature was about him as a foodie.  I hope you like the story.  He is an interesting guy in many ways, long career as a Navy public affairs NCO, an avid comic book collector, and a stand-up comic among other things.
Now he is one of the hundreds of thousands of government employees deemed non-essential.  I hope this ends soon.  Our writing class wants him back! 


            Peter Robertson, a journalism instructor at the Defense Information School here, is living proof that a “foodie” is made, not born.  As a child he wanted macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and chicken fingers.  He and his younger brother protested when their mom made falafel and other foods outside their narrow, mostly fried, favorites.

            Now Robertson loves to cook and eat international cuisine.  He sees food as a door to culture and a way to preserve and share memories.  Two experiences turned him from narrow path of the typical American diet to making the cooking and eating of a wide array of food a life-long adventure.

            The first big change happened when Robertson took a home economics class in the in seventh grade.  He took shop, art and music classes that year, which he described as OK, but home economics “I kind of enjoyed that,” he said. 

            “I mastered the incredible, edible egg,” Robertson said.  “I learned how to make pasta dishes, lasagnas, from there I learned how to make stuffed shells,” he said.  “By the time I left home to go to college I felt I had cooking skills other people didn’t have.” 

            After college, in the Navy, he continued to cook for himself and increase his skills. On his first cruise in the Navy, Robertson had an experience that turned him from competent cook into a foodie with a flair for international cuisine.

            His first deployment was a cruise of the Mediterranean Sea in 1997 with port calls in Greece and Italy that began in Haifa, Israel.  His shore visit should have been short but extended to several days because of rough seas that kept ferry from taking him back to the ship. 

            The first place he ate was McDonalds which he said was a bad decision, though not without culinary adventure.  He had a goose breast sandwich at the Israeli Golden Arches.  “Every McDonalds caters to locals tastes,” he said.

On the first or second morning on shore he and some friends went to a hotel that had a giant spread for breakfast, he said.  On the serving tables he saw, “Nothing that makes you think breakfast.” 

“There was fish, there was flatbread, there was olives, there were more olives, there were tomatoes,” Robertson said.  He started eating, combing flavors.  He was eating foods that were familiar, but in a totally different way, he said.  For the rest of his stay he ate “mystery” meat from street vendors and other foods he couldn’t identify—and he liked all of it.

As the cruise continued Robertson ate local in Greece and Italy reveling in local cuisine while most fellow sailors opted for American-style fast food and bars.  Some sailors joined him when he wandered port cities looking for good local food.  His friends then and now tend to be those who share his sense of adventure in eating. 

“If you are someone who has an open mind about food, you probably have an open mind about life in general,” he said. “And that’s the kind of person I like to surround myself with.”

Among his recent foodie friends is Erin Smith, also a journalism instructor at DINFOS.  Smith and her husband go on couple dates to restaurants in the Baltimore area with Robertson and his wife. 

“He’s good because he’s adventurous,” Smith said.  “I can’t think of a food and food group he doesn’t like and I’m the same way.  We can go out to kind of a funky, hole-in-the-wall joint and find a good meal. He knows all the good places in Baltimore.” 

Robertson cooks for family meals, for parties at his home, and sometimes brings his creations to work.  Smith remembers a tea-rubbed smoked salmon he brought to DINFOS. “It was absolutely to die for,” she said.  “The tea and the smoke and juiciness of the salmon we’re incredible, cooked to perfection, still a little bit raw, a little rare.”

Robertson’s favorite restaurant in Baltimore is Woodberry Kitchen, near Druid Park, north of the city center.  It serves local, seasonal dishes, a cuisine Robertson dismissed earlier in his life in favor of getting what he wanted wherever he was and at any time of the year.  Now he sees local, seasonal food as the way to get great flavor.

Though Mediterranean cuisine is his first love, Robertson’s current passion is for Korean food.  “Korean food always amazes me,” Robertson said.  “Last weekend I had Korean food at a place called the Honey Pig in suburban Baltimore—they have this burner in the middle of the table, kind of like a wok, kind of like an iron skillet.” 

The food is cooked at the table beginning with sprouts and adding “things I can’t identify—sour and sweet—all the different kinds of meat, Korean barbecue spices, pork bellies—more bacony than bacon—everything was delicious.” 

For Robertson, life in Baltimore combines a job he loves with a city of great restaurants, both with local and international fare, access to a wide array of local ingredients from the land and the sea, and good friends to share it all with.  The little boy who wanted only chicken fingers and burgers has grown into a man who both knows and cooks good food from around the world, including some of recipes his mother made for her not-so-adventurous sons more than 30 years ago.


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