About Devon Dams-O’Connor
I’m a Buffalo-born girl, seasoned by six years in Vermont, who grew up in households were food was grown, valued, and cooked with care regularly. I learned how to tend a garden and read the seasons as a kid, to pickle as a new college graduate, to vote with my dollars to influence food systems as a 20-something, and to share what I know about good food as a journalist, blogger, and teacher of old food ways in my 30s.
First off, I find food to be an endless source of intrigue, challenge, and pure joy. When I first started thinking about the convenient practicality of this passion, it made perfect sense. Plus, I was accidentally raised to focus on what’s for dinner because it was usually pretty damn good.
My dad is Irish, my mom is German. So that makes me 50/50. This pedigree manifests itself the areas of alcohol tolerance, hard-headedness, eyes that well up easily at beauty and tragedy, a propensity for rigid organization, and of course, the recipes in my kitchen.
I didn’t know my O’Connor grandparents; Grandpa Ned died before my parents were married, and Grandma Marge died when I was four. I remember her in a mint-green, ’60s-style polyester pants/jacket combo, trying to find the toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and being too short to reach it. That’s about it. But my dad tells me Marge was very adept at cooking for a crowd, which essentially described the permanent state of my father’s house growing up. I may have inherited that skill from her.
My Dams grandparents, however, lived 15 minutes away from us, near Buffalo, NY. I went to their house at least twice a week for most of my life – Thursdays for lunch, Sundays for dinner. My grandpa, a retired engineer, helped out at the Clinton-Bailey produce market on weekends for almost 60 years. He’d fill in for the farmers when they had to run to the john, answer peoples’ questions about what’s fresh, and bring home newspaper-lined, cardboard boxes and wooden bushel baskets of melons, tomatoes, apples, squash, potatoes, peaches, cucumbers, and more. My mom did her produce shopping largely in Grandpa’s cellar and breezeway.
My grandma would turn the apples into the best pie in the universe or pink-tinged applesauce that she served with her garlic-studded pork roast. She’d make the potatoes into gratin, the peaches into bright half-globes canned in light syrup, and the cucumbers into her legendary, not-too-sweet bread & butter pickles. When she announced that she was too old for canning, I took over. Meals at my grandparents were purposeful, conversation-filled events where my grandmother rarely sat down and never let you get away with just one serving.
While Grandma excelled at rich, slow-cooked feasts, my mom is the master of simple, healthy meals prepped in 30 minutes or less. Gingery stir-fry, brined pork chops with fresh asparagus, grilled steak and corn. As a master gardener, my mom would send my sister or I (usually I) out to the garden to pick green beans, tomatoes, or peppers for dinner. The rule in our house was that we had to try something twice before we could decide it was gross. She kept track, too, and I’m glad she did. Avacadoes, one of my favorite foods, were an “ew” the first time, and an “mmm” the second.
Heavy and slow, fast and light, my passed-down cooking skills and produce familiarity helped me get a job as a banquet prep cook in college. It was a fancy country club with a kitchen led by a talented young chef who willingly answered the thousands of questions I shot at him. He showed me how to take beautiful food and multiply it to serve the masses – gorgonzola-walnut stuffed chicken breasts with roasted potatoes carved to look like mushrooms for a 200-guest wedding, or perfectly done eggs Benedict for a brunch crowd of 50.
9/11 hit my senior year of college, which meant I graduated into a job market that was eerily short on entry-level positions. I finally managed to land a job – part-time, non-profit (your assumptions about the salary are correct) – after months of looking for work. As a broker-than-broke 22-year-old with an apartment and student loans, going out to eat with friends was out of the question. So I cooked. And I practiced, and I got really good at it. That meant people would come over to my house for dinner or appetizers, and I got to save the embarrassment of not being able to afford in a restaurant some of the very same fancy things I was cooking at home.
When I got a job as an account coordinator at an advertising agency a year later, things changed. I made a living wage. I wrote a lot for work, then started writing for local magazines on the side. The published work got the attention of our creative director, who encouraged me to apply for the recently vacated copywriter position at the agency. I did, I got it, then moved to Vermont just for the hell of it. I stayed six years, during which I worked as a writer, taught canning and preserving classes at the local food co-op, and developed my passion for farms and farmers, the importance of buying locally and sustainably, old foodways, cooking with friends, foraging for wild edibles, and the politics of our food system.
Now I’m back in downtown Buffalo, NY with steady work as a self-employed copywriter, a house (i.e. kitchen and garden) of my own, and friends and family who willingly try everything I cook. My repertoire still involves more-elaborate-than-necessary food at times, just to see if I can do them. I relish food challenges. Backpacking for six days with no refrigeration and pack weight considerations? A writers’ retreat with a budget of $3 per person per meal? Seventy pounds of tomatoes and two days to process them? Fun, fun, and fun. But I also rely on recipes from my mom and grandma. Despite all my experimentation, I’ve discovered there’s no better potato salad than my grandma’s, and no better green salad than my mom’s.