I grew up in a family that made it natural for me to fall in love with food. We harvested vegetables and fruits from our huge garden, dug for razor clams at my grandparents’ weekend home on the Oregon coast, and gathered wild mushrooms in the foothills of Mount Hood each fall. My grandmother, of German descent, made pickles and sauerkraut that held a place of honor in the basement as they cured. She also made stuffed cabbage, goulash, and great soups that remain in my recipe collection. My mother was a great baker, so we always had homemade breads. I can still smell the aroma of her cinnamon rolls; she managed to time things just right so that they came from the oven the moment we got home from school.
We didn’t eat out very often, a family with five children and not a lot of money. Instead, we created good food at home. When it was someone’s birthday or a special occasion to celebrate, my family threw their energy into cooking a great meal to be shared at our dinner table. I would stand in the kitchen and practice my ballet steps, helping stir, chop, and clean up while asking my mother or grandmother questions about what they were doing.
On school holidays or Saturday mornings, I often took the bus into Portland with my grandmother. We would do a little shopping , have lunch at the Meier & Frank tea room or Manning’s lunch counter downtown, then head to the farmers’ market to see what was fresh. I’d use my babysitting money to buy a perfect eggplant, maybe some chipped beef at the German meat counter, an artichoke or two if they were in season. These were the things we didn’t see in our neighborhood grocery store, a treat to share with my family.
As you can tell, good food and cooking were an important part of my life from an early age. Every family meal and food-related excursion left a deep and lasting impression on me.
When I moved out on my own, gathering friends together to share a meal was a highlight of my week. As our lives got busier, families grew, and jobs became more demanding, it was harder to keep up with everyone. Sunday became something of a standing date for many of us, a relaxed day to get together, often with children joining us at the table. I had the day to cook, set a great table, and prepare to share precious time with friends and family. It was not only a way to stay connected, but these meals also nourished my passion to cook and gave me the chance to create new dishes or try a recipe I’d seen in a magazine. Those Sunday dinners fed me in many ways.
In my twenties, I worked as a buyer for Nordstrom, a job that took me frequently to New York and Los Angeles. The exposure to new food, new people, and different cultures from around the world motivated me to try new dishes at home and share those experiences with family and friends. Travel opportunities only grew over the years, particularly when our family bought Sur La Table and began building the business, which has taken me literally around the globe.
I’ve had my fair share of amazing experiences in my life, but I believe that the food I’ve eaten and the people I’ve shared meals with have created my fondest memories by far.
For more information, visit by Web site at www.reneebehnke.com.