Food, Family, and Memory
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.
In the chill air at 7:30 in the morning, I would head out. Heavy books that I never opened were piled high in my arms. They weighed me down, but I was used to it. These were pre-backpack years. Teachers required you to cover books then, and mine wore clumsy jackets of recycled brown Safeway grocery store bags. The covers barely hung on, despite the many pieces of Scotch tape randomly applied in all directions.
I was twelve. My bare, skinny legs descended from short, orange and yellow culottes as I crisscrossed the sidewalk, crunching hard on those fall leaves. Never stepping on cracks for two blocks -- from Roxbury to pick up my best friend Susie on Peck Drive. She was freckled like me, but taller and more mature. Now I could be distracted, not having to concentrate on my steps. Instead, we’d talk about our plan for the weekend. Compromising and strategizing. Your best friend in school is really your first important relationship, almost a rehearsal for a someday marriage.
The weekend plan was to sleep at Susie’s. To wake up at five in the morning, walk in the dark to meet Mr. Shaver by six, and go to the stables for horseback riding. Which, to be frank, wasn’t even a passion of mine. But horses were Susie and Bettsie’s hobby and they were my friends. Happily, I went along. Ben Shaver, the 8th grade history teacher, offered this weekend field trip, opened to all grades. This was before everyone was so litigious. With no thought of legal or insurance problems, he piled a bunch of us in his van, no one wearing seat belts and drove to Newhall for a long morning horseback ride.
Growing up in an Italian family in Canada, meant doing everything food-related at home. Long before words like “casareccia” (home-made) gave it respectability, we were merely those kids with giant vegetable patches for back yards, whose hundreds of relatives were always coming over to can tomatoes, roast peppers, peel beans, boil fruit, bake biscuits, make cheese, cure salami, press grapes and yes, strangle chickens. Some of those activities have diminished over the past 30 years. Indeed, if any of my generation continue the practice of strangling chickens, they’ll only be doing so as a catharsis. That said, my family continues to produce homemade Italian specialities to this day. I hope that never stops.
One thing we never got into was curing olives. I mean, we love olives. There are stories about every member of my family almost choking on an olive repeatedly in infancy. It didn’t matter which: the waterlogged run-of-the-mill canned ones, the meaty, slightly bitter, crunchy ones a relative smuggled back from Italy in his luggage, the prune-sized black ones that were so oily I’d call the dog over to wipe my hands on....
So given that my family loved olives and was so adept at curing and preserving food, why did we never do olives? A quick poll of the family one night over dinner gave me a unanimous answer to the question: I dunno.
You’ve heard it, opposites attract. My parents were just about the most opposite you could find. And, I never even thought about that until just now, while sitting down to write about their relationship. Your parents are the only parents you have, so you don’t stop to think, “What did they see in each other?”
My mother was quiet, elegant and intelligent. My father was loud, lovable and crass. Taste was not exactly his strong suit except, of course, his great taste in women.
They met at a party. He saw this stunning, very young, exotic looking woman modern-dancing. Alone. Seductively. Twenty years older, he was intrigued.
Cliff Notes to get you up to speed: They dated. He knocked her up. He said he didn’t want kids. She was set to have an abortion. Her family strong-armed him or he had a change of heart. Or both. She had their first child, my brother Alan but first they had a quickie wedding. In Vegas, where else? First meal in their home together, my mother cooked. My father complained about the way she made the eggs. She threw the whole pan of eggs at him. Two years after the first child, she was pregnant with me.
I have been piecing together my fantasy business in my mind for decades. Ever since I received a pint-size, hand-cranked ice cream maker for my birthday at age five, I have been obsessed with making ice cream. I’ve always imagined myself as soda jerk pulling my carbonator draft arm tenderly behind the counter of a polished chrome soda fountain. I had decided all the intricate details of what type of equipment I would need, period glassware, and the décor by the time I was 10 years old. I even concocted all the recipes for the gooey toppings by 16.
My obsession started years ago on my first visit to Scottsdale, Arizona. My parents treated me to my first period perfect ice cream parlor visit and I fell hopelessly in love. My first impression of the Sugar Bowl has never left me. I have an odd habit of spinning when I am overwhelmed by something beautiful. I spin to remember the whole picture - all 360 degrees of it. I spun that day taking in the whole Sugar Bowl ice cream parlor. It must have been someone’s dream because every detail was so perfect, and then it became my dream.
The upper walls were papered with a 2-inch wide stripes; shell pink and creamy white above the cream-colored bead board wainscoting. The floor was covered with tiny white mosaic tiles with a checkerboard shell pink decorative edge. Antique matching ice cream parlor chair and tables made from curvaceous wire filled the room. Lazy turning fans hung down from the high pressed metal ceiling. What stole my heart was the soda fountain.
Some days are just harder than others.
Today I’m listening to my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. I had the Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town album’s in the 70’s and I would play them over and over in my dad’s apartment. I would watch his foot, the one that was attached to his brace start to move to the beat of the music. One day, he said “Who is this guy, he’s very talented”. “Bruce Springsteen Dad, isn’t he great?”
I miss sharing the love of music. I miss sharing the love of food. I miss sharing the love of people. I miss my dad!
My dad played the harmonica. So did the Boss.
The last night I went out with my dad was when we met at the House of Blues. His friends, the Gittlesohns invited him. They told him there would be this harmonica player performing. Everyone was saying this guy was great. The guy hadn’t gone on stage and it was going on midnight. I bailed. My father, at age 85 stayed out until he saw the guy perform. Ever the hard core music supporter and enthusiast, he wasn’t home until nearly 2 AM. That night at the House of Blues, I wore this tight gold dress. My father said he loved my dress.
Instead of turkey, mashed potatoes, etc., stuffed grape leaves (along with shish-kabob and pilaf) is the traditional centerpiece of our Christmas dinner.
Disclaimer: Every script I’ve ever written is overly descriptive and too long, so no doubt this recipe will be, too. Apologies in advance.
I have an image of my father wearing a blue and white canvas pin-stripe apron over his clothes that my mother gave him (with good reason), standing over the barbecue in our backyard alternately spraying charcoal fluid (with big effect) on the briquettes and a few moments later spraying, using his thumb as a spray cap, a large bottle of Canada Dry Soda Water filled (and refilled) with water from the hose onto the resulting flames from the barbecue that were threatening to ruin his perfect barbecued ribs. They were perfect which is sort of surprising since my father couldn’t really cook at all. Scrambled eggs and burnt bacon is about all I remember from his repertoire except for the night he exploded a can of baked beans since he’d decided it was okay to heat them in the can (unopened) which he’d placed in a large pot of boiling water and, I think, forgotten about them. Tip: don’t try that at home.
But his barbecued pork ribs were perfect. The secret was the sauce. The secret was that he marinated them religiously overnight (turning them constantly). The secret was that he cooked them perfectly albeit with a strange method that involved alternately kicking the fire up to high temperatures and then knocking it down. It was a method that I still remember and it was before we knew that charcoal fluid is truly bad for you so don’t try that at home either.
When I was 4 years old I was on Kids Say The Darndest Things with Art
Linkletter. My folks told me the teacher in our Nursery School
recommended me. When I think about the fact that I once called her
‘fatso’ just to try out the word, nothing personal, and she got so mad
she locked me in a broom closet, I’m ever convinced of the altruism of
I told some outstanding whoppers to Art Linkletter and my lies are preserved in perpetuity on a 78 recording that was issued to each family along with a Tiny Tears doll for the girls. This thrilled me no end.
Pilgrimages to the mountains this fall by my grandparents have yielded this Farmer with apples aplenty. Pies, cakes, and tarts have abounded this season and finally, after much persistence i.e. nagging and begging on my part, Mimi has made her Apple Butter.
This delicacy has a longstanding place in my memory of warmth and delight, for Mema, Mimi’s mother, would make this and the smell and taste bring back memories of her. She would fill dough with this apple concoction and bake apple turnovers or fry apple fritters. Mimi has perfected the recipe and we use it on breads, biscuits, poundcake, or simply as dessert itself. I take only a spoonful at a time, yet, still, the jar keeps diminishing in volume. I suppose it is the spoonfuls throughout the day that cause the diminishment.
This sauce is that good – you’ll find yourself sampling right off the stove and right out of the fridge… hot or cold, warm or cool, Mimi’s Apple Butter will surely become a favorite. With the holidays fast approaching, jar some apple butter to give to your neighbors, friends, and loved ones, that is, if you can bear to share!