Food, Family, and Memory
Yesterday morning, I stood at the entranceway to our living room and surveyed the damage. There were stacks of books and magazines on the coffee table, tumbles of blankets on the couch, a smattering of empty mugs with used tea bag strings dangling over their rims. My abandoned crutches were leaning on the door, my physical therapy CPM machine on the floor.
Two weeks after my hip surgery I can finally walk without assistance.
This, unfortunately, means I can clean as well.
It’s fine. I like it actually. It’s very cathartic after two weeks of being absolutely still.
Shannon, my insane boyfriend and exceptional caretaker, has taken the weekend off to run a marathon in Niagara. He’s an ultra runner.
This marathon is 100 miles. ONE HUNDRED MILES. I know. I think the same thing.
Several times a week my amazing other half will call me at my office, check on me to see how my day is progressing, and then follow it up with "What would you like for dinner?" Before you think I’m the luckiest man on earth to get that phone call every day (because I am!), please keep in mind that the question should really be "Hi there; What Would You Like To Eat Tonight So That I Can Compare It To My List Of What We Have In The Kitchen Against What I Actually Feel Like Making For Dinner Depending On Several Factors Like Time, Mood, Willingness and Temperature."
We then begin a little phone dance of niceties like "Oh, you know, whatever you want is fine" and "But that really doesn’t help me out, Matt, which is why I called" which gives way to "Whatever we bought Sunday at the Farmers Market isn’t going to last until tomorrow so make something with that" which gets a "Fine. And where will I get a recipe for what you’re talking about" and I’ll respond with "Um, improvise?" which meets a "With TAHINI, A BUNCH OF SAGE AND SHRIVELED PLUMS?!?" to which I’ll say "Oh god, nevermind, really, I’ll eat whatever you want to make. Seriously. I don’t care."
The first time my sister cooked for me, we were both in our 20s and living together in my 500 square foot studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was the day I had quit my job working in book publicity and had decided to go back to freelance film production work. My sister, Alexandra, having just finished up her first transfer semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, wanted to make us a home-cooked meal to celebrate our big life changes. She was already cooking by the time I arrived at our apartment that evening. I smelled pasta boiling and lots of lemon and basil. I started over towards the blender to take a sniff, but she shooed me away. “It’s almost done. Go and sit down.”
My Auntie Vera and Uncle Johnny lived in a small house on a large piece of property in a rural area near North Judson, Indiana. They were my dad’s aunt and uncle. Through my child eyes, they seemed old enough to be grandparents. They had no children of their own, though, so they loved spoiling me and my brother. My favorite time to visit them was during strawberry season. I knew I could look forward to Auntie Vera’s delicious strawberry shortcake.
Before we arrived, she would pick the fresh, sweet berries from her large garden. After cleaning and slicing them, she would sprinkle them lightly with sugar and let them sit out on the kitchen counter until dessert time. Her homemade shortcakes would be cooling on a rack on the counter right beside the strawberries.
Growing up, my brother Paul was good at baseball, my brother Chris was good at math, and I was good at eating.
I don't mean I ate a lot (which I did). I mean I was a skilled eater. I could eat a big bowl of spaghetti without splashing my top with gravy. Every time. I could rearrange the components of a New England boiled dinner on my plate so that you would swear I had eaten virtually all of it, when in fact, I hadn't even touched it.
Some families would show off their kids at a violin or dance recital, my parents would invite people over to watch me eat an artichoke.
By age six, I was a virtuoso artichoke eater. It was a performance I had mastered like no other.
Whenever we had artichokes, I would be wiping the last drop of lemony juice from my lips, while all of the adults at the table were still hacking and picking at the outer leaves. Even my athletically gifted older brother was clueless when it came to the heart. Dumb jock.
I grew up in a family in which manners extended well beyond “please” and “thank you,” and the placement of one’s napkin on one’s lap. I answered the phone “Graham residence, Ann speaking” and said “excuse me” before I interrupted adult conversation. I was also expected to recognize adult conversation, and to refrain from interjecting my own opinions or anecdotes unless they were requested. I was never encouraged to believe that I had the same rights as adults in the household, and consistently taught to consider “the other person” in matters which ranged from sitting through dull stories told by old people to expressing great joy upon receiving a(nother) knitted hat for Christmas.
My brother and I were not allowed to chew gum, yell or play loud music in the house, or to thump up and down the stairs. We wrote thank-you notes, ate what we were served as guests and held doors for people. My mother disapproved of containers (milk, catsup, salsa, soda bottles) on the table, and required that condiments be decanted, and that we knew which forks and spoons were used for what purpose. We could sit through a concert or lecture without getting up or rattling wrappers, and we could eat at a nice restaurant without disturbing other diners. If we had to, we could sit still while the adults drank (endless) cups of coffee after dinner and discussed people we didn’t know. We were not allowed to use the words “fart” or “butt” or to comment in any way about the passing of gas.
My dad lived part-time in Sag Harbor and made the drive from the city every weekend in every type of weather. I would visit him and my stepmother every summer, and we’d stay put for the weekend, usually poolside. My dad and I would swim back and forth and read books and nap. He would do his Sunday puzzle and I would nudge him for clues; I would read books he gave me and he would nudge me about which part I was up to. Because to me, my dad was part Phillip Roth and part John Updike, I read Phillip Roth and John Updike. Because we both loved to punctuate the headier reading with murder mysteries, he would toss me his copies of Lee Child or Lawrence Block, and I would gobble them up like candy. I still have the water swollen copy of Annie Proulx’s Shipping News that he accidentally tossed into the water in order to save me from a hovering bee, and I remember how he had said he envied my getting to read it for the first time.
But what would any return home to the family be without the requisite favorite foods? Besides the inevitable Saturday night Maine lobster dinner, the most memorable part of the summer food wise, in addition to the musk melons and the corn and potatoes and other fresh fare at the roadside markets, were the little blue and white checkered bags of chocolate chip cookies that one could find only at Kathleen’s Bakeshop.
Both of my parents worked, and both of my parents cooked. My mother cooked our nightly dinner, cooked elaborately for dinner parties, and cooked traditionally for holidays; my father had a small selection of specialties which he prepared brilliantly, but from which it was unwise for him to stray. Just as he could play “Waltzing Matilda”on the piano with great panache (but nothing else, because he didn’t read music and had never had a piano lesson in his life) he prepared omelets, souffles and quiches that were enviable in their perfection and deliciousness. He also had a way with bread pudding and rice pudding. Outside this egg-y arena he cooked with rather less flair, tending to make meatloaf stuffed with random and vaguely repellant leftovers, lunches featuring Devilled Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, and his 1970s specialty of pork chops with Risotto a la Milanese. This last item he made quite nicely, but so often that my brother and I dreaded our mother’s departure for a conference, knowing that we would, at least twice, be served the ubiquitous pork and risotto duo when we really craved macaroni and cheese or fried chicken.
Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of cooking with my Great-est niece and nephew, Lauren and Max. The question of what to make was easy, it had to be simple and memorable. My goal was for them to remember what we created together forever like my memories of cooking with my mother. Forever means to me that they will think of our afternoon when they eat any of the three things we made: butter, strawberry jam and cinnamon bread. Everyday food, so basic but rarely handmade anymore and if you want to interest kids in cooking you need to show them ‘food magic.’
We first started with activating or blooming the yeast- Not so interesting to them at first until I explained that yeast is a plant and like all plants it blooms in it’s own way. I didn’t have their attention yet, but I knew I would shortly. The yeast started to bubble and swell minutes after it came in contact with the sweetened warm water. They were watching-ish. I explained the process of bread making and my basic formula. How was I to explain gluten development to a 3 year old and 6 year old well enough for them to understand, much less care? I could hear the mantra repeatedly in my mind- DON’T TELL THEM, SHOW THEM. So, I did.
We added the liquid including the yeast to the flour/oats mixture and those small hands dove in without any prompting. I explained how cooking is visual and how important it was to watch minute by minute because magic happens instantly. As soon as I said that ‘fingers’ of dough started to form in bowl as they massage with their small hands. The gluten was forming, the magic was happening! Once the dough pulled away from the bowl, I dumped it out onto the floured granite counter-then the messy fun began.