By Robert St. John
Yesterday I entered my 62nd year on the planet. The thing about turning 61-years old is that I thought I would feel differently at this point in my life. I imagine— 40 years ago— when I looked at the prospect of hanging around for six decades, I probably thought I would feel like an adult by now. That’s not the case. On the inside, and emotionally, I still feel like a 22-year-old. Sure, am I move just a little slower, and have slightly less energy than I did four decades ago, but to be honest with you there was a time back then when I didn’t even think I would reach 30.
I spent my birthday doing exactly what I wanted to do. I slept late (6:30 AM) and spend a little time listening to music in my bed before taking a shower. I had breakfast, enjoyed a birthday pancake, dropped some food off on the doorstep of a friend who has Covid, and worked brunch at the new restaurant. Someone asked why I was working on my birthday. I told them, “I’m not working, I’m having fun.”
The restaurants are never work to me. My mother asks me all the time, “When are you going to retire?”
I tell her, “Why would I retire? I’m doing what I love to do. This is my fun.” I don’t hunt. I don’t fish. I don’t play golf. I’m a simple man. I love my family, my friends, restaurants, movies, music, and football.
My wife wanted to know what I wanted for my birthday. I said, “As always, I would just like to have dinner with a small group of our friends and our daughter (my son is away at culinary school).” So that’s what I did, spent the evening surrounded by family and friends at the lake house.
One of the first things I do on most days is check my Facebook memories and look at what I was doing on that exact day for each of the past 11 years. In 2009, I was at my mother’s house for a birthday lunch.
A question I often ask people when we have just met— and are talking about food and cooking— is “If it is your birthday and your parent or spouse asks you what you would like them to cook for the occasion, what is the dish you request?” Sometimes I ask, “What did your mother cook for you on your birthday as a child?” That is always a telling response, because most people request their favorite food that their mother, spouse, or significant other prepares/prepared for them. Mine was stuffed peppers. Nothing fancy, but something that was in my mom’s supper repertoire that, other than her gumbo, was my favorite dish.
I probably ate stuffed peppers 90% of the birthdays in the first half-century of my life. Stuffed peppers, mashed potatoes, and English peas. That photo memory in my Facebook feed took me back to my childhood, and even into adulthood, and meals in my mother’s dining room. Almost all my fondest childhood memories are set around meals in my home or the homes of one of my grandparents. I never gave them much thought back then, but a shared meal is something that I cherish, and never take for granted these days.
Sharing a meal with family or friends is how I connect. There’s something magical and mystical about sharing a meal. It’s very biblical— loaves and fishes, last suppers, and the like— and it is how many of the most unforgettable memories are made. I am aware of that today, and when giving speeches I often ask the audience to think back to their fondest memories, most of the time food, and/or sharing a meal, was associated with those memories is some way.
That lunch, 13 years ago, ended up being the last time my mother cooked stuffed peppers for my birthday. She moved into an independent living facility the next year, and into an assisted living facility two years ago. She hasn’t cooked anything in a long time. But I have the memories, and they are some of my best reminiscences.
Never underestimate the impact you are making when spending time with family and friends. I am a 61-year-old man, sitting at a laptop, still writing about meals I ate 50 years ago. They matter.
So, as I move on from the 32nd anniversary of my 29th birthday, I am keenly aware that the older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of family and friends. I love all who are in that number.
My grandfather used to say, “you can judge a man’s wealth not by the size of his pocketbook, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” He also used to say “A rich man has his first dollar, but a truly wealthy man has his first friend. “I am blessed beyond belief, and feel so “wealthy,” not because I have a lot of money in the bank (I don’t), but because I have such great friends and a wonderful family. I love, respect, and value them all.
Today I am feeling grateful to all the people who have made a difference to me. There are tons of them, and most probably don’t even know the ways they have impacted my life. I value all those friendships and hope all my friends and family know how much I love and appreciate them for being such an integral part of my life.
Again, there was a dark time in my late teens and early twenties when I didn’t expect to make it to 30. I have more than doubled that. I’m living in the bonus. I am a blessed man, not because of material things or circumstances, but because I have a great family and a wonderful group of friends.
My Version of My Mom’s Stuffed Peppers
1 Tbl bacon fat
1 cup yellow onion, small dice
2 tsp steak seasoning
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbl sugar
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
2 tsp fresh garlic, minced fine
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry oregano
1/8 tsp dry thyme
2 Tbl tomato paste
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained very well
6 bell peppers, tops and seeds removed
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
In a small sauté pan, heat the bacon fat over medium heat. Add onions, steak seasoning, salt, sugar, and pepper and cook 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic, basil, oregano and thyme, and cook one more minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove mixture from the heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Allow to cool completely.
Once the mixture has cooled, mix in the egg, ground beef and drained tomatoes. Do not overmix. Fill each pepper with the ground beef mixture.
Place peppers in a casserole dish and bake for 20-25 minutes (cook times will vary depending on the size of the peppers). Baste with juices from the bottom of the casserole twice during the cooking process. Check the center for doneness. Remove and serve,
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author from Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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