Food, Family, and Memory
I am in Cape Cod today, on vacation with my husband’s extended family. Yesterday it was my turn to make dinner, and I envisioned a gorgeous piece of broiled bluefish. I made the fatal mistake of sharing this vision with my in-laws.
“Bluefish? Really?” said my brother-in-law Scott, as if I’d announced I was braising a hedgehog. He begged for an alternative. My sister-in-law Julie chimed in: “But please, no salmon. Too fishy. Or tilapia. It tastes like dust.”
When I suggested shrimp or scallops, my niece Katy made a barfing sound. Cousin Noah let it be known that hates halibut and Suzie is sick of sole. Bette said flounder was too boring, and octopus was a non-starter since Uncle Johnny won’t eat things with more than four legs. Aunt Sue won’t eat squid, having been traumatized by “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” as a child.
I tried to appeal on the basis of geography. “What about cod?” I said. “In honor of our current location?” I was greeted with blank stares. “Okay, well, catfish?”
“Ew. Bottom-feeders,” said my daughter Nora.
My dad clumsily peeled the skins off a few garlic cloves and then looked up at me with an expression I didn’t recognize. He looked like a little boy.
“I’m nervous cooking for you,” he said.
I smiled at the slight power shift from the man whose passion in the kitchen inspired my career– and intimidated the hell out of me.
“Naw, Pop, you’re just using cloves closest to the center of the bulb. The skins are thinner, especially if they’ve been around a week or two. I had the same problem the other day in my kitchen.”
He steadied his hands, deftly chopped the garlic and tossed it into the pan of onions and chili flakes sauteing on the stove. He pulled the can opener from a drawer and opened some DOP San Marzano tomatoes. He was preparing a simple arrabiatta sauce.
I fished the garlic that I was blanching out of a small pot of boiling water and washed some basil for the pesto.
A sizeable t-bone steak rested in butcher paper on the marble counter, seasoned and coming to temperature before getting tossed on the grill outside.
I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex and rich food. He was healthy right up until the day he killed himself. ~Johnny Carson
I finally tuned into “Mad Men.” At least, the first show of this last season. I’m a little late to the craze. I had heard for years about the sets and the wardrobe, but what hit me most was the food. They nailed the food. And it’s what I miss most about that era.
Truth is, I still eat like that -- but I’m alone. All the restaurants that serve “old school” food are dying. Everyone’s dropping gluten, dairy and sugar. We are bombarded with studies about how bad they are for you. Gluten triggers stomach problems and brain disorders. Sugar generates cancer. All three cause inflammation that will kill me. Well, kill me now, because all I really want is bread, butter, sugar and a big cold glass of milk. And I don’t want so many choices of milk that I have to read the carton. I want to live again in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Around the same time I saw my first “Mad Men” show this season, I noticed the dismantling of Chart House on Pacific Coast Highway. Immediately, I was lost in memories of my first grown up dates there. My boyfriend would take me to Chart House and regret it around 30 minutes into the long wait for a table, as my mood dropped with my blood sugar. They were WAY ahead of their time on the no-reservations policy I still loathe. I get cranky when I can’t sit right down and be served some bread & butter.
It was a cool, rainy fall day at our store in Maine many years ago. My sister was running errands and I was alone at our store. A well-waxed black truck pulled into the driveway and parked way too close to our building. I admit I was a bit nervous as I watched for the person or persons to get out from behind the blacked-out windows. The door opened slowly and a huge single foot appeared from under the door and slowly another emerged. The single occupant was the tallest and biggest person I had every seen in my life and he was headed for our front door. Tom was 6 feet, 8 inches and weighed around 600 pounds, seriously huge.
I no longer feared being robbed. Now I was worried that our floor couldn't hold that much weight. My brain went into overdrive trying quickly to calculate how much 3/4 inch plywood could hold for weight per square foot. Instant answer was - he was over gross. Three steps in and he was drooling over our lobster tank filled to the brim with a fine selection of jumbo lobsters. Then it happened, the crackling sound of a dozen laminate layers of plywood giving way as his foot slowly disappeared and all I could think was how I was going to explain this gapping hole in the middle of floor to my sister when she returned.
I helped him get his foot unstuck from the layers of plywood as he pointed at 3 jumbo lobsters that he wanted to buy. He never missed a beat. If it is possible for someone that large to spin in ecstasy, he spun around our store taking in everything and shaking with true glee. I cashed him out, carried his bags of lobsters out and apologized repeatedly for my floor. He slowly lifted himself back into the truck as the vehicle listed under his weight on the driver’s side. He promised to return the following day. Yikes, I had a floor to repair and story to tell....
All dressed to the nines in my jaw dropping, turquoise evening gown with my hair in a bun, bright red lipstick mostly on my lips and flat shoes hidden under all that flowing satin. No high heels on when I crossed a major street- my mother’s rule, too dangerous. Did she not notice everyone always stopped to let me cross? I would have been fine with high heels. Yes, of course my evening gown had a plunging neckline and it did need a few extra safety pins to look proportionally correct on my six-year-old frame.
I would cross the busy avenue solo, while all my second mothers watched from the many windows to make sure I arrived safely at my favorite place, Jay’s Diner. I ate at the diner 2 or 3 times a week for my mid-afternoon snack. We ate late because my parents worked late, so mid-afternoon snacking was very encouraged at our house.
The heads of the five hard working ladies of the diner would spin as I walked in the door, every time, perhaps because I was always a bit overdressed for the venue. As I’d pull my floor length satin dress and me up onto the tall pedestal seat the grill cook always said, “the usual?” Yes, 2 hamburgers, loaded, medium rare, a large order of french fries and please, save me a dish of grapenut pudding. “Lots of the whipped cream, thank you.” I was a regular diner patron.
I got sick last week. Sick like “Oh my god, I’m never going to walk again.” Sick like, “Should I go to hospital now?” Sick like stomach virus. out sick Liquid Alison. It was the worst, though luckily it moved through me quickly, so to speak. After hours of sleeping cocoon-style on the couch, I realized I would have to put something into my body. I stood in my kitchen, staring at my shelves, wrapped in a blanket, moaning slightly as my dogs rolled their eyes. It had to be simple to make and easy to eat. My eyes scanned the shelves: quinoa, polenta, whole wheat penne, vermicelli, and then focused on a box of small shells, half of which I had cooked for a child’s mac and cheese a long time ago. That I could do. Pasta is easy.
As a personal chef, I’ve spent years trying to get kids to expand their culinary comfort zones to include something beyond buttered noodles. But then I sat there on my couch last week and ate buttered shells with a bit of parmesan and I had a true aha moment. It was insane it was so delicious. Maybe I’ve been fighting a losing battle. Sure, sure; appreciation for broccoli is an important skill to acquire, but I had been thinking that the kids had limited palates because they didn’t know much. Actually, they have limited palates because they found no reason to look further. Buttered noodles are at the apex of simple esculent pleasures. It is my testimony that buttered pasta saved my life last week.
I blame my mom. Growing up eating her hearty Italian pasta dinners has made nearly all other grains seem insubstantial. Rice is good, but you have to eat more of it to get full. Wheatberries are filling, but they take too long to cook. Couscous is, well, wimpy. That's right, couscous is wimpy. How can anyone get full on a dinner of delicate, fluffy couscous? I can't. That's why I have relegated it to breakfast.
For breakfast, couscous works. It's a welcome change from oatmeal and is just as versatile. It can be made with water or milk and tastes great with add-ins like nuts, dried fruits, or fresh berries. Of course, a drizzle of melted butter, maple syrup, or honey only makes it better.
This Warm and Nutty Breakfast Couscous is packed with belly-filling good carbs and lean protein. It's crunchy, chewy, sweet, and filling. It's definitely not wimpy.
After graduating from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (a.k.a. Auburn) and marrying my grandmother, my grandfather joined the Air Force. Starting their married lives in Ashiya, Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu, Mimi and Granddaddy were much akin to many newlyweds.
They were setting up house, planning a family, learning to cook, so on and so forth, yet, being in post World War II Japan influenced these Southern newlyweds more than they would ever realize. One of those influences was in the kitchen, where Mimi began her culinary prowess in the land of bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and soy sauce. This was the 1950’s and upon return to the South, those Japanese and other Asian sways may still be found in her cooking today.
“Where we were in Japan, Southern Japan, we were on the same latitude lines as home, so the seasons, produce, and flora were much of the same as home… azaleas, camellias, etc. all grew and bloomed there.” Mimi said. Besides that, many Southerners eat many things over rice i.e. Creole, red beans, gumbo, and stews, so that part of the cuisine was a tête-à-tête between the two cultures for sure.
As with so many foods in our lives, dishes served when we are young put strong imprints on our adult palates. Most nights when my father came home from work, he would settle into his leather recliner and watch wrestling on TV. While my sister and I set the table, my mother would serve him an appetizer plate and his cocktail of choice, a 7&7 (Seagrams & 7-Up).
His favorite appetizers reflected his Russian Jewish background. There would be plates of pickled herring with sour cream, chopped chicken liver, pickled beets and onions, anchovy fillets and pumpernickel bread that he ordered from a mail-order outlet in New York.
Wanting a father-son moment with my father, who was decidedly old school and not much into father-son moments, I would sit next to him and share the appetizers (and steal a sip of his 7&7 when he wasn't looking). I definitely developed a taste for the anchovies and chicken livers but not for the pickled herring with sour cream!
One day, with very little in the refrigerator, I wanted a lunch with a lot of flavor that wouldn't take much effort to create. With a box of pasta, a couple of chicken livers, a tin of anchovies, an assortment of aromatics and a few other ingredients, I put two and two together and made a dish that was light and delicious. I wonder if my dad would have liked it?
Every Friday after school, my mom and I delivered groceries to my grandmother in her little apartment. (More about her here). We arrived at her front door, arms heavy with Stop n' Shop bags, and would ring the bell with a free elbow.
Invariably, I would complain about how long it was taking her. (I swear, it took her 5 minutes to walk the 10 feet from her recliner to the front door). And invariably, we would hear her voice from within, “Aspette! Aspette!” (Wait! Wait!).
With my arms completely numb by this point, she would finally let us in and exclaim: “Oooohh, I’m so glad you came! I just made a nice fri—taaa—taa. You’ll have some.” She said it every time as if she didn’t expect us.
Though we ate frittata often at home, I associate it most with Spring and with Nan; Fridays during Lent we would abstain from meat, so she always made a simple vegetable frittata, which was waiting for us when we arrived.
by David Latt