The dawn broke not long after I woke at The Hampton Inn just north of Mundelein, Illinois, our hometown. I looked out over the cloudy vista of dampened fields outside the hotel window. We showered and headed out. The day had come for the re-dedication of Mundelein High. It was 50 years ago that the first classes were held here. The School’s Administration had invited all classes to come and make the occasion. We arrived at our alma mater just before noon. Janet had attended here as well…up to the point she and I ran off to Key West. (Another story). I was pretty shocked to see the huge picture of my ‘bio’ photo in the hallway outside the auditorium the reunion organizers had place there for the cookbook signing I was here in part for. A bit surreal. I remember being in this hall looking at the trophies of the ‘star athletes’ back 40 years ago like it was only yesterday. None of us would have ever guessed a ‘chef’ would one day make such an impression. The proceeds of my book were going to the newly created “Alumni Fund”.
When I walked inside the semi-dark auditorium I was flooded with memories of the plays that I saw with my future, (now once) brother-in-law Chipp Jaroch starring in. I also remembered my older and beautiful sister Jane in plays where she shone too. I will never forget her speaking to the audience with great stoicism on November 23, 1963 of how they were going to do their scheduled performance that history altering week and dedicate it to our just assassinated President. I also remembered playing the part of ‘Wally Webb’ from Thornton Wilder’s classic drama, “Our Town”. Now it was a real version of the play yet in more ‘gray tones’ than four decades before.
There were solemn moments of reflection. After the presenting of the American Flag a graduate and career Air Force Brigadier General named Jim Swanson, (Class of ’67) did an homage presentation to the MHS students who ‘paid the ultimate price’ by dying for our country. I remember one neighbor boy well. His death personalized the tragedy of Vietnam when I was 19. I realized when the whispered news of his death arrived to our small corner of the community that I would not be going to follow my now distrusted ‘leaders’ vision when Roger Letto was killed. Not of my own free will that was. When “Taps” followed on bugle and violin there were tears in the eyes of many.
There were the requisite speeches of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’. None of them were misplaced or over showy. This is a town with its heart in the right spot. I felt a bit out of place knowing soon I’d be sharing my story of being a well-known chef. But then again…now that I’m teaching at a culinary school I realize more than ever that it is possible I could be helping a young person formalize their quixotic yearnings into concrete goals if I provide a role model for them. After all…. I clearly came from the broad cloth of America and not some refined European tapestry with decades of chefs before me. In short, if I could do..it why not them?
Fortunately Mundelein High School’s first foreign exchange student presented just before me. She arrived to this town of 20,000 from the Central American country of Costa Rica also in 1963. Her name is Yami Gutierrez. She is a small woman with flashing, pretty brown eyes and almost white hair. Despite years of trying to change it, her accent was still clearly not of Mundelein. She was perfect as is. She spoke of her process of coming to know America through her time at MHS. Her story was an immigrant story much different than the majority of ones I’ve learned of from those of South Florida. She was not escaping when she arrived here. Her family and the American government worked in unison to promote a cultural exchange. I wish we would of picked up more from her country’s ideas and ways, like being ecologically more conscientious and of the rich tableau of Central American cooking. From us she learned about ‘Mc Donald’s’ and what it did to her teenage waistline! But she had fun too and she, her American family, and we students were enlarged philosophically as well.
Her presentation allowed me to segue from her coming to Illinois and learning of American flavors while my life in cuisine has centered around learning and sharing Latin Caribbean ones. I recounted my midwestern love of food and how our high school cafeteria serving “macaroni wiggle” and “mystery meat” without embarrassment, but hearty humor. These things didn’t directly impel me to seek gourmandism. Far from it. I loved the rustic, farm stand driven flavors of my families’ cooking. It all provided a foundation from which I would build. I happened to build with gusto and drama so it distinguished me. My classmates both older and younger could see tangible evidence of my fortunate journey in the short slide show that featured my friends and colleagues with whom I was honored to share kitchens and times with. Photos of Emeril, Julia Child, Charlie Trotter and others shown on the large screen. So did pictures of a few of our distinguished guests of over the years; Jacques Pepin, “Mr Cub”, Ernie Banks, Robert De Niro and two of The Rolling Stones (who mugged for the camera alongside their wives…me in the center. Ron Wood and Charlie Watts each held up my cookbooks. I felt a bit shy in that auditorium and hoped I wasn’t coming across as cocky. We don’t allow that much in the Midwest and I am glad we don’t. I wanted to be sure so I ended with a quote I like very much in hopes of staving off such notions. Before I did I saw one my oldest and dearest friends slip in the side door to lend me support. It gave me a perfect mental frame to offer up this gem.
“Fame is the scentless sunflower, with gaudy crown of gold;
But friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold”.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
I then said,
“I will start another quote and I bet you can finish it.”
“We are the Mustangs, the” —– (I stopped)…
and with zero hesitation they filled in the missing in unison,
chanting and smiling from the seats out in front of me.
“Mighty Mighty Mustangs!”