Food is at the heart of our lives. No matter what life you lead, food can shape and mold our perspectives on the world. I sat down with Jennifer Indig, also known as the Brooklyn Balabusta (@brooklynbalabusta) to discuss her journey from her life as a terrorism and intelligence analyst to a cook and baker that inspires others to cook simple food and host dinner parties that gets at the heart of what matters, community.
*This interview was shortened.
Tell me about yourself. Who are you?
I’ve spent the majority of my professional career in the field of national security and specifically counter terrorism. About a year and a half ago, I worked in both the public and the private sector. I worked for the NYPD for a while and then I worked for a security firm and for my whole life, I had a passion for cooking and entertaining. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My parents both worked full-time. They were actually clinical psychologists and they had a private practice together and they worked nights a lot and so we never really grew up having family dinners. We had a really, really close family, but getting together around the dinner table was not a regular occurrence.
And I’d say like around the age 10 or 11 it started to kind of bother me, it was really something that was important to me. So at a certain point, we had a wonderful babysitter who took care of us after school, but she was a terrible cook. So that’s kind of where it started and then it just grew from there, it was just always something, again, I was really passionate about it.
Where did your interest in hosting dinner parties come from?
That’s something my mom did love to do even though she didn’t love cooking, she was a wonderful host. We had very much an open door in our home. She hosted a lot of holidays and I just have such fun memories of those, and she’d put a lot of her heart and soul into hosting these big events. And so as I grew up, even in high school I would host parties. The cooking dinner parties started in college. I remember even in small kitchens I had, would always find a way to do that, and after college it was just something, I got a lot of pleasure out of. And then my career, my professional interests kind of went another direction. I studied international affairs in college and then ended up getting my Master’s also in International Affairs. I had a really great career, it was really interesting, but I felt like there was a disconnect between the professional work I was doing. It was important work and I loved the people that I was working with and I felt proud of it, but I wasn’t necessarily passionate about it in the same way that I was about with cooking and food.
I would kind of find myself at the end of the day starting to think about meal planning and what I was going make my husband and my kids for dinner, and how I was going pick up groceries on the way home and strategically planning my walk to the subway so I could pass the right grocery store. So, it always occupied a lot of space in my mind. It was really just a way to share recipes and hosting tips ’cause I realized, especially living in New York, people are either intimidated to host dinner parties or just felt like they didn’t have the space or time or resources.
What sparked your interest in cooking and how did you learn how to cook? Was it a lot of trial and error? Was it from the recipes that you found?
I think it started as probably just following recipes. I think any good cook has to learn, like learning from the experts, and so I think, from as early as I could read, I was probably reading recipes. I cooked a lot in the kitchen with my grandma too. It’s funny; I just wrote this long article on this recipe box that I inherited from my mom. My mom passed away about eight years ago, but one of my like most prized possessions is her recipe box and it has original recipe cards from both my grandmothers and my mom and friends and family who would give her recipes. It’s like very special, but I look back through it and it’s like my grandma’s recipes cards are like chicken scratch. There’s no quantities. A lot of it’s like a can of this, a can of that of like Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.
But making those dishes kind of just makes me feel an immediate connection to her and to my family and to my mom. But I think just being in her kitchen, she would make the same recipes over and over again and so I just made sure that when she was still alive to soak as much of that in and whenever I would go visit her to make those special dishes with her. But aside from her, and my mom was someone who needed to follow a recipe. She wasn’t a very intuitive cook. She was very good at following directions, but she would get stressed out if she had to do anything on the fly.
I think the more that I’ve gotten comfortable cooking, and just the more experience I’ve gotten as like a home cook, the more comfortable I am just planning meals based on opening the fridge and seeing what we have and seeing what needs to be used up first, and then developing a dinner plan from there. I’d say also with having kids, it’s also been really important to eat together as a family. And I’m lucky, I don’t have picky kids.
When you hear the words food and community what kind of memories does that spark about your family?
The reason why I love cooking is because of the community. I think for me, it has always been a means, in a way, to bring people together and that’s the part that I am most passionate about and love about food is that it’s something meant to be shared. It’s an expression of my creativity, my love, my wanting to give to others. I give through food and cooking. There’s nothing I love more than bringing people together in my home around a shared meal. It’s been that way, I don’t know, forever.
I have this picture at home, I must have been like five, and my little sister was like in her car seat on the kitchen table, and I had set up my dolls around the rest of the table, and I set a whole tea party for them. So cooking is all about building community and whether it’s been college or moving to a new city and making new friends, I feel like it’s the best way to get to know people, to introduce friends to other friends. That’s what it’s all about.