Food, Family, and Memory
What do you get for the man who has everything, wants nothing, but gets anything he does want for himself? No, it’s not a trick math question; it’s my real life, eternal conundrum.
My husband has worked since his early 20s. He has taken care of his children, his parents, bought homes, cars, and all that he has ever needed. Now it’s his Big Birthday. All that I have to give him is love.
But shouldn’t we do something to mark the occasion? What? Where? A party?
I will give him a name for the sake of this story. Michael. Michael will tell you he has no friends, so no on a party, since there will be no one to invite. He exaggerates. He has some friends. Most of them live in New York. That is where he’s from and where he would like to live. But we live in L.A. He goes to New York whenever he gets the chance. He is a much happier man there. I rarely see him as happy as he is during those few days before leaving to go home to Manhattan. He often tells me he only came to Los Angeles on a business trip. It turned into a very long business trip. One, in which he married, had two kids, divorced, and remarried – me. But, how can I make him happy by moving with him back to New York when all our kids live here in Los Angeles? This is our home.
Months before the Big Day, I began coming up with ideas. “I think I know where we should celebrate your birthday. This is perfect. You want to visit your aunt so – Miami?!?” I didn’t get a big yes on that. I only got an “I’ll think about it.” Moving on, I came up with, “Let’s go to Santa Barbara for a night -- but with all the kids and everyone can have a room in the groovy hotel?” I got another, “I’ll think about it.”
Now that awards season is over I have a big one to give out.
Let me say at the start, I go to too many restaurants. I was basically raised eating in fancy restaurants. Long before other parents took their kids out to dinner, mine were trendsetters. We were taken everywhere. We were seen and heard. But, we ate our gourmet meals and behaved. Then it was straight home to a proper bedtime.
A friend’s mother, whom I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, recently told me that the first time she met my family, she had been eating with her husband at Villa Capri and spotted us, kids and all, dining at this almost exclusively grown-up place. What she noticed was how well behaved we were.
My parents rarely adhered to the unspoken rules of the 1950’s. They didn’t believe in babysitters. Aside from Villa Capri, we ate at Chasen’s, Scandia, Brown Derby, Moulin Rouge, and every Sunday night at Matteo’s. We even lived for a brief period at the Garden of Allah Hotel, though it was long after guests like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and F. Scott Fitzgerald had checked out. Anyway, that’s a little of the backstory.
Would today’s Hollywood even exist without its bistros? Nobu, Palm, Mozza, Craft. The oil that lubes the wheels in this town is extra virgin olive oil, preferably for dipping the great bread into at Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica Canyon. And no great restaurant would survive here or anywhere without those unsung heroes of fine dining – the bussing staff. Technically bussers. But usually referred to as “busboy,” an antiquated term it may be time to lose. Setting tables, clearing tables, cleaning tables, bringing food, you name it, quietly and efficiently. If the service is good, much of the credit goes to them. And that includes “busgirls.” In England the job is often referred to as a waiter’s assistant, a more dignified job description, if you ask me.
My mother always had soup on the stove or in the refrigerator waiting for us when we got home from school. Her beef shank based soup was the one that I loved the most. When I make it, it’s like a little visit with her, crowned by eating the marrow from the shank as she watched and smiled lovingly.
Beef and Macaroni Soup
1-two-inch thick beef shank with bone
6 cups of water, enough to cover the beef by an inch
1 - 14.5 ounce can of whole tomatoes, broken up with your hand into large pieces
1 large onion, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup peeled and chopped carrots, 1/2 inch pieces
Salt, pepper and a large bay leaf
3/4 cup elbow macaroni
Simmer the shank, water, tomatoes, carrots, onion, celery, salt, pepper and bay leaf for an hour and a half with a cover on. Remove the beef shanks and let cool until you can cut it into ½ pieces. Add ¾ cup of elbow macaroni and stir so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Cook until the macaroni is tender. Add the cut beef back in and simmer for a few more minutes to allow the flavors to marry. The one you love gets the bone marrow.
I’m not a good cook. My mother was an outstanding culinary creator, my older sister following closely on Mom’s Beef Wellington tracks. Not me. I veered off the path and out of the kitchen to do something--almost anything--else.
When I was married I fed my family, but I have to admit that probably my major cooking achievement was meat loaf. You know, the kind with the goopy raw egg that you squeeze through the meat with your fingers: the loaf that you form and finish off with that strip of bacon on the top.
My family didn’t starve but neither did their eyes widen over my delicate soufflés or my perfectly browned, crispy-skinned, Thanksgiving turkeys. We went out with friends to a local club for our Thanksgiving feast. I confess to never having cooked a turkey in my life.
Then, as the gods would have it, there came a time in my mid-forties when - because my second divorce was pending - I found myself living alone for the first time in 23 years in a rented 200 year-old farm house in a town where I knew no one. So stressed was I that all I could manage to eat was soup and Campbell’s quite quickly lost its appeal.
When I was a young girl, my mother and father packed up the rented mini van and took us four children and usually a few friends for my older brother and sister, my widowed, Aunt Else, on the ferry from England to Norway. We stayed at an idyllic hotel called The Strand Hotel for two weeks every August.
We spent our days fishing for our lunch in a little wooden boat and cooked our catch on a remote island, over a fire, made from collected twigs and dried seaweed.
My parents always said we were too many to feed every meal in a restaurant, and so when supper time came, the prepared hotel feast was always a relief and absolutely delicious after a somewhat usually chilly, but fun day catching fish and swimming in the sea that never dared to go above 65 degrees.
Supper always began with soup. My favorite was the cauliflower... Usually a tasteless soup, but this one was utterly scrumptious. Here is my own, very simple recipe, my comfort food.
A roasted chicken goes a long way in our house. It is one of those easy dishes that requires very little prep. Stuffing the cavity with a whole lemon cut in half, a whole garlic bulb cut in half, some thyme, salt, and pepper creates the simplest of flavors. Smear the body with soft butter, lots of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, toss in the oven for about an hour and a half. Serve it with some roasted carrots and some sort of green and dinner is on the table for just a few bucks.
Rarely does all the chicken meat get consumed. Left overs get shredded, made into enchiladas, soft tacos, or thrown into soups. The carcass gets tossed into a big stock pot along with some chicken necks, lots of roots, vegetables, and herbs. Cover with water, bring to a boil, cover it and let it simmer for 24 hours.
I’ve had two mothers-in-law. Neither were big fans of mine. One was the “I will not reveal my recipes to you” kind, and the other, many years ago, gave me the few recipes I still use. I think I’m kind of likeable, but maybe not if I’m married to your son? Moving on.
Cooking scares me. I’m just not that talented in the kitchen. I can dance. But I can’t follow steps. Cooking is all burners and timing and chopping and it’s something that has always overwhelmed me. So, here is what I am: a great guest. I’ll eat your food. I’ll tell you how great it tastes. I actually clap, applauding you when I’m sated.
I’m in awe of traditions that people have created. I dropped that ball. I’ve been divorced, and with blended families found it’s just not my thing. But I appreciate this quality in other people, and this Chanukah my husband and I were invited to our friends Chuck and Karen’s party.
You walked through the front door into the tantalizing aroma of potato pancakes. Like a bloodhound, I followed the scent till I was at the stove where two of my friends, now married 37 years, were hard at work. A tag team of latke makers, Richard was using a ladle to drop the round balls into burning oil. At his side, JoAnn, with a spatula, turned and removed them from the heat at just the right moment. I watched, mesmerized.
Ever since joining the club, my diet has changed. Health club? Good God no! Book club, country club, beach club? Wrong again! I am now a card carrying member of the worldwide group of “empty nesters.” The club one is automatically granted membership to once their last or only child leaves the house for college or life elsewhere. No dues, no rules, and absolutely no where to go!
When my husband and I dropped the youngest of our two daughters off at college this past September in London no less, (our eldest went east to upstate NY, but not far enough for our baby, she needed another continent!) there were, of course, tears. I did cry myself to sleep the night after we said goodbye. Exhaustion and jet lag could’ve played into it a bit. We should have planned the trip better. A week to shop for a college room in a foreign city, plus a winter wardrobe (her Southern Cal cutoffs and T-shirts wouldn’t do in London come October) and her own kitchen setup as her dorm had no cafeteria just a communal kitchen on every floor that the 8 residents to a hallway shared, was a race I barely won.
Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom, as I learned with the first college drop, sets it up so well. The last few weeks before they leave, the kids are so nervous aka obnoxious, you really can’t wait to kiss them goodbye, put the pedal to the metal and head home. The old gal was on the job this time as well, but London is so far away from Los Angeles and this was my baby! Even though she had me running in and out of every frigging vintage shop in London for the winter coat that didn’t exist, and up and down the escalator at the largest Tesco ever created until I begged for an oxygen tank, (“Excuse me Sir, would you happen to have an inhaler I could borrow?”) I fell to pieces after we left her. So much for the year of living dangerously. Senior year when I didn’t know who to kill, her or me...or my husband, for if I hadn’t married him to begin with...
I adore lamb shanks - even as a child. When I eat them gray clouds depart, the rain stops and on occasion I hear music. I love them that much. In a perfect world they are small, less than a pound but better closer to three quarters of a pound. They ideally come from the front leg and are called fore shanks, not the pseudo/imposter shank cut off the rear leg.
They need to be browned in a small amount of olive oil and braised slowly in stock or water to release their rustic flavor and to make them melt into tenderness. My mother always braised them in garlic, oregano, onions and chopped whole tomatoes. It was the scent of our home growing up. She’d slowly braise them on the stove for at least an hour and then placed the shanks onto raw rice and ladled the remaining liquid on top and baked them covered in the oven. When you could smell the rice, it was done but it still needed to rest for 15 more long minutes.
Our mother used ‘Greek rice.’ Lord only knows what that was. My guess is that it was long grain Basmati rice from India. No one ate much rice in Maine in those days. Our mother and my sister and I went on food shopping trips once a month to Boston. She’d order up a taxi from the doorman at the Parker House Hotel to take us to the less-safe area of Boston and have the taxi wait while we filled our shopping cart with small brown bags of ‘Greek rice’, tins of finely ground Arabic coffee for our father, pounds of feta cut from a wooden barrel, big plastic bags of Kalamata and Alfonzo olives, whole milk yogurt with a creamy top, a few long boxes of phyllo dough, dried oregano and large non-boxed heads of garlic, a tin of Greek olive oil, tiny capers and still warm spinach pies.
There are moments during the holiday season where recipes are true soul food. Instead of feeling sadness about the ones we have lost and are no longer seated at the table sharing the day with us, we can feel happiness by knowing how loved we were by recreating their favorite recipes that they would make for us.
This Russian Caviar Pie is a secret Medavoy recipe that is only made for Easter, Thanksgiving, Birthdays and Christmas. The caviar that tops it can run the range from red salmon caviar to Beluga. Osetra has the best taste but even the black unknown variety for ten bucks has done in a pinch.
My mother, terminal with liposarcoma, feeding tube in her, unable to eat, still made her traditional Russian Easter for us one month before she passed away. The Caviar Pie was the center of it. You slice it, you serve it with a shot of vodka or champagne and life is good. It was her way of saying "I love you" - nothing will change if you keep these traditions up. Remember me. I will be watching over you and your son and husband.
"Everything that matters is under this roof right now" I had just become a mother, my son was two months old, and she was teaching me what was important. God, How i miss her. And when I slice up the pie, I can see her, feel her, and have so much joy that she is still at our table. And as I am sure she knew, it's my son's favorite recipe at holiday time.