"I grew up on TV dinners," Steven Raichlen said with a smile. His late mother, Frances, was a ballerina with the Baltimore Ballet and devoted most of her artistic energy to dancing, not cooking, he said.
Nonetheless Raichlen, now the author of award-winning cookbooks, said he has fond memories of his youthful eating adventures in Baltimore.
Big family meals, he said, were regularly held at the homes of his two grandmothers, who live a few blocks apart in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood.
"Those were the 1960s, the days of the extended family," Raichlen told me during a recent Baltimore visit. "For dinner on Tuesday nights we would eat at Grammie Sarah's, Sarah Goldman, for salmon croquettes. "And on Fridays, we would eat at Grammie Ethel's [Ethel Raichlen], for chicken soup."
He began trying his hand at cooking when he was a teen-ager. He told of one Saturday morning, in the family's Pikesville home, when he attempted scrambled eggs. His father, Isadore "Sonny" Raichlen, was working at Read's pharmacy. His mother was also out of the house, Raichlen recalled. So the fledging chef, then a student at Sudbrook Junior High, began experimenting with scrambled eggs, sprinkling them with virtually every spice he found in the spice rack.
L "Some were pretty good," he recalled. "Some were less good."
Since the days of the spiced scrambled-egg experiment, Raichlen's cooking work has gained considerable notice. He has written two nationally acclaimed cookbooks and he runs a one-week cooking school on Caribbean food on the French island of Saint Barthelemy. He stopped in Baltimore as part of a national tour promoting his latest book, "Steven Raichlen's High-Flavor Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking" (Viking, $25).
He first capitalized on his interest in food when he was an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Ore., majoring in French literature. He found out about a fellowship that financed a year of study in Europe. When the application forms asked what he intended to study in Europe, "a light went off" in his head, Raichlen recalled, and he wrote down "medieval cooking" and detailed a plan of study.
He got the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and began visiting Europe's musty libraries, castle kitchens, ancient restaurants and venerable wineries, sampling the fare along the way. He finished off the year by taking cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris. The director of the fellowship program told him, Raichlen said, that while other people dream of eating and drinking their way through Europe, he had managed to pull it off.
When Raichlen returned to the United States he headed to Boston. "That is where a girlfriend lived," he explained. He began writing free-lance food articles and restaurant reviews. He compiled the reviews in a book, "Boston's Best Restaurants," and wrote two other food books, "A Celebration of Seasons" and "A Cook's Almanac." Those early books were not big sellers. "They were well-kept secrets in the publishing world," he said.
His later cookbooks fared much better. In 1993, his "Low-Fat High-Flavor Cooking" won an award from the James Beard Society for the year's best healthy-cooking work. The following year, his book about Florida cuisine, "Miami Spice," won a regional cookbook award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Along the way, Raichlen formed Big Flavor Foods, a company that has a line of low-fat foods, including a selection of rubs. The rubs, dry mixtures of peppers and spices, are good ways to put flavor in food, without adding fat, he said.
Bearded, with flecks of gray in his dark hair, Raichlen, 42, describes himself as "an aging [baby] boomer." He is married to publicist Barbara Seldin. They and their two children, Jake, 23, and Betsy, 22, live in Coconut Grove, Fla.
One reason he wrote a book about vegetarian cooking, he said, was that his family's eating habits have changed from the days when meat dominated their table. His daughter is a vegetarian and the other members of the family eat vegetarian meals several times a week.
Interest in vegetarian cooking is growing throughout America, he said, and he ticked off several reasons why. One is that members of the baby-boom generation are getting older and are eating vegetables in the hope of preserving their aging bodies. Another is that the quality and variety of vegetables sold in grocery stores and market has improved dramatically over the years.
When he was in college, Raichlen said, vegetarian food "was brown, bland" and a "form of penance." Now, the ingredients that go into vegetarian dishes are much better. He got visibly excited as he talked about a new low-fat sour cream made by Land O' Lakes that "thickens when you boil it."
At the end of our interview, the touring author got in his rented car and drove up to Mount Washington, to visit a grandmother.