Food, Family, and Memory
There is nothing special in the world. Nothing magic. Just physics." - Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
"Magic is just science we don't understand yet." - Sharon McCarragher
As I sent him out the door into the arctic darkness of a Michigan morning, I told my son that I was out of things to write about. "Give me something." I implored, "anything that pops into your head."
"Christmas lights" was his offering, as he left, bed-headed and sleep-eyed.
This was not the working of a fertile imagination; in order to leave the house he had to pass the lit Christmas tree, the lit garland in the foyer, and the unlit icicle lights on the front porch. It did, however, ignite the proverbial spark in me to write not only about Christmas lights, but about all of the magic that I still believe in, despite 47 years of exposure to the cynicism, disillusionment, pain and loss that exist in the world. I have seen the little man behind the curtain many, many times, but I still believe in the Great and Powerful Oz. Sue me.
As a child, I believed in all kinds of magic - Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the fountain in the mall into which one threw pennies and made wishes. My birthday was a kind of magical celebration of my wonderfulness, and the discovery of a woolly caterpillar on a tree trunk, a toad in the basement window well or a lady bug on a leaf was a unique and amazing event. I also believed that the animals could speak on Christmas Eve, and used to fall asleep on the floor next to our big Airedale, Katie, waiting for her to say something to me. Later, it gave me incalculable pleasure to recreate Santa et al for my own children, leaving elaborate trails of jelly beans through the house (before we had the dogs), making glitter-pen trails on letters from the Tooth Fairy, and simulating reindeer tracks in the snow.
Okay, I admit that I have read Patricia Wells' Food Lover’s Guide to France so many times that the pages are no longer glued to its spine. My copy smells old because it is old. It isn’t all that accurate anymore but there is still some relevant information, just less. This book is the reason I have had so many treasured memories of France.
The most memorable one in the whole book for me was finding the walnut oil man - Patricia Wells wrote that he had a water wheel that aided in the extraction, used no electricity, the farm was difficult to find and beware of the dogs. All true, but so much more...
I was the navigator, not the driver that day. I was responsible for finding all the tiny little roads on our paper map to the mill. Half the roads weren’t on the map and any signage was obscured by overgrown trees. It was very rural and our afternoon was turning into either a treasure hunt or wild goose chase. I could feel we were near. When my boyfriend asked if I found the road on the map, I nodded. Not true, we were lost.
You can guess what the driver said as we drove threw the same intersection for the fourth time. “How can we be lost if you are reading the map? You know how to read a map?” “Yayyyy”, I replied - you could cut the tension with a butter knife. One more try, then I would agree to give up the goose chase. Suddenly, I saw it - the faded yellow sign covered with ivy and grown up trees like Patricia had described, only more overgrown.
Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.
My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).
How did it happen that the Androuet Restaurant in Paris could quietly disappear without fanfare or protest? How could it become a dilapidated sign over a store front; soulless, diluted and gone? Why have I waited so long to write about it? Secretly, I hoped that somehow it would come back to life.
The original cheese shop, ripening caves and restaurant was located on Rue Amsterdam. Rue Amsterdam was quirky and not so nice an area. The street was long and one-way. We would circle around for half an hour to be able to park close enough to be safe after dark. It was Mecca for a cheese lover - I am a zealot.
The tiny, refrigerated shop on the first floor was filled with every cheese made in every corner of France. Each one was ‘a’ point’-- perfectly aged and ready to eat. The three tiny, older women tended the inventory of cheeses constantly. When you walked in there was no grand greeting, only a quick look up and aloof ‘Bon jour’. I always wondered if they knew how difficult a place it was to find. If they did know how much effort it took maybe they would have been kinder. It doesn’t matter now because the best cheese shop in the world is gone. Maybe their intense concentration is what it took to maintain such high quality.
Cheese is like wine; it opens in your glass-the first long sniff of its’ aroma to the last sip of perfectness. Cheese is like that as well - birth, aging and perfection and it then it gone, too. These three women struggled to keep so many cheeses perfect. Most, barely lasting a day or two. I understood why they never looked up from their arduous work.
First off, I need to explain going bowling in France was never on my wish list, top or bottom.
My sister and I were invited to a friend’s home in a tiny mountainous town in the Southwest of France. We planned to land in Barcelona to have a little road trip and go exploring before our visit. We planned on two days meandering from Barcelona to St Jean, France. We also wanted to stop in Arenys de Mar, a little town in Spain on the ocean. It’s famous for Paella and we had spent an entire summer there eating it many years ago.
Our flight arrived early. We rent a car and a GPS and we were off! The GPS assured us we would arrive in time for lunch in Arenys de Mar. The weather was sunny and beautiful as our little car clicked off the kilometers. The signs for Arenys de Mar appeared and we both smiled. 30 kilometers…15…and finally 2. Then the unthinkable happened. We hit a bump-a big bump just as my sister was changing the setting on the GPS. It went into Romanian, I think, and there was no getting it back into English. A melt down ensued - how would we ever find our friend’s house in the mountains, hours from here? Suddenly, we were no longer mellow and carefree or hungry for our paella lunch in a town we had so many precious memories of.
I assured my sister somebody will help us - be patient. As we descended into Arenys de Mar the GPS was chattering in a language all it’s own. I noticed a Renault car dealership so I pulled in on two wheels stopping feet from the mechanic’s knees. Let’s just say, he was surprised to see us.
Whether you like FaceBook or not, it has its' merits. People and relatives are easier to find.
Last week a woman left me a message and a friend request. I hesitated. I had no idea from her picture who this person was and why she was ‘friending’ me. Curious, I opened up her profile. This dark haired, beautiful woman was my second cousin.
After the surprise of finding a new family member, I explored her profile to find out about her, as I hadn’t seen her in 50 years. She still lived in Florida, the last place that I had visited with her and her family but this time she was all grown up.
Brenda is her name, just like mine. Odd that we share the same name and she is older by barely a month. We messaged back and forth that evening and I liked her. Then she announced that she was coming to Maine 3 days later to see the foliage with her husband. I invited them to dinner and to stay at my house. She declined but agreed to visit us at our store. The common thread we shared was my aunt Alice, my mother’s aunt and her grandmother.
I felt compelled to tell her some obscure piece of information so she had no doubt that I was truly the correct Brenda. I don’t know why. I said if she stayed overnight I would make pineapple schnecken, for breakfast just like aunt Alice always made for me. She knew I was ‘the’ Brenda that she was looking for. I knew exactly how to make the schnecken because I had saved the recipe in a special place for 50 years in my heart.
My favorite Sunday night dinner is braised lamb shanks cooked with basmati rice or what we call “lamb and rice” at our house. It’s simple to prepare, truly, not because I have made it hundreds of times and could do it with my eyes closed.
It’s so fragrant and beautiful when finished; a plume of aromatic steam floats above the shank that’s covered with random pieces of tomato and onion, sitting on a mound of tomato red colored long grain rice perfectly separated.
Calliope Athanus, my Greek grandmother made this dish. She taught my French mother, who taught me. There were always lamb shanks in our freezer growing up. The butcher at the A&P saved all of them for my mother-she bought them all. When the two of us grocery shopped she always repeated to me, “ it must be the front shanks”, the fore shank. “Watch out, they always want to sell you the rear shanks” -she would shake her head and say - “they just aren’t the same.” She told me this every single time.
My husband Mike passed away suddenly two years ago. A “catastrophic coronary event,” I remember hearing before the doctor launched into the “We did everything we could” speech. I sat motionless in the Naugahyde chair in that dimly lit room they usher people into to tell them such things.
My husband Mike could put the caption on the cartoon we call life. I can still be felled by a wave of sadness when the world calls out for his wit, but it usually passes as the business of life encroaches and forces the sadness aside. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that grief is not a linear process or a series of predictable steps. It comes and it goes, lingers or dusts by. It can overpower or gently remind. Now you see it; now you don’t.
The second year into loss, the cycles of grief had given way to the flat, dark monotony of depression. Since action is my default response, I checked out inspirational websites for those contemplating putting themselves out of their own misery, and I downloaded into my iPhone Kindle any number of self-help books about depression and the powers of positive thinking, and I answered every “Are you suffering from...” and “On a scale of 1-10...” quiz that the books offered.
It was the early 70’s and my sister and I went to Europe for the summer just like everyone in colleges across America. The only thing different for me was I was in my first year of high school and no one could quite believe that my parents encouraged us to don hiking boots, a sleeping bag and backpacks - not even me. “Take your sister or you can’t go.” With 500 dollars each in American Express travelers’ cheques we could afford to eat very well as long as we stayed in youth hostels and camped some of the time.
Our parents dropped us at Logan airport in Boston giving us the following lecture: always stay together, be careful with your passports and call home every week. “See you in August!” and we were off on our first solo adventure. Young and ignorantly fearless.
We landed in London, took a train to the ferry to cross the English Channel and reveled at how easy this traveling solo was. That was until an older couple tapped my sister on her shoulder and asked to speak with us. “Are you traveling alone, just the two of you?” they asked. Yes, we answered in unison, like we always do. Then we got a lecture about keeping ones travel documents safe. The man reached in his pocket and showed us our passports. How could that have happened? My sister had both passports freshly stamped in her back pocket. She had missed her pocket and they had picked them up. They had a difficult time catching up to us because they both needed a cane to walk. Lesson #1, learned.
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.