Food, Family, and Memory
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.
Nat King Cole holds some magical power over me. I was shopping the week before Thanksgiving when I heard it--
Jack Frost nipping on your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.
That most mellow of voices (along with Frank and Bing) transfixes me. I hear it, and I'm instantly struck with holiday cheer, which for me, means shopping for foods such as cranberries, pomegranates, and, of course, chestnuts.
Here's the thing with roasting chestnuts. The actual roasting and removing of the nut from its shell is a lot less romantic than it sounds. Every year growing up it was the same thing: We would enthusiastically purchase a big bag of fresh chestnuts, roast them, and then puncture our fingers in a desperate attempt to eke out the tiniest piece of chestnut we could find that wasn't studded with sharp shards of shell or tinged with mold.
Thank goodness someone came up with bottled chestnuts. My mom first bought them a few years ago and sent me some. I removed the bottle top and, in 5 seconds flat, was eating a chewy, moist, chestnut devoid of shell and mold. Bottled chestnuts can be found at most organic markets and Italian specialty markets. I also like Trader Joe's vacuumed-packed chestnuts.
One of my favorite desserts growing up were these little square tea cakes from Martino’s Bakery in Burbank. My dad would pick them up from time to time and surprise me with a little after dinner treat. Their flavor and their shape were distinct. They were moist, not too sweet, and oh so addicting. When I was pregnant with my first, I craved them; couldn’t get enough. Weekly my dad would bring me a few and I would covet them and eat them all by myself, one by one.
For years I have been making this Caramel Cake. The first time I bit into it, it brought back so many childhood memories. It felt like I had come home. And it reminded me of my dad. Recreating many of our favorite family recipes and converting them into gluten free versions has become a weekend hobby.
Maple almond tea cakes are every bit as good, if not better, than the originals from my childhood. I made the first batch last week. Eli ate 90% of them. Today, he saw the photos on my computer and begged for more. I made him a deal; if he gathered all the ingredients I would make more. Never saw him move so fast!
As a little girl, I loved to swim, still do. Just about any chance I got to go swimming, I would. I dreamed of having my own pool. My bigger dreams were to be an Olympic swimmer and also to swim the English Channel.
Pools and water became an obsession as well as a love. I would look into my backyard and fantasize a swimming pool. It never appeared. My dad always lived in an apartment building with a pool so there was usually a place for me to swim. When I was older and using his for exercise, I would have to share it with his elderly neighbors. They could get nasty and it was tricky navigating around their crankiness. Some of them became my new best friends in life...as long as we stayed in our own lanes.
When I saw the David Hockney series of pools, I totally understood how the swimming pool was his muse.
I was barely six years old and on an early summer vacation with my sister, Tanya and my Mother, a woman way a head of her time. The three of us were off on another adventure this time to the small town of Sorrento, Italy. Our father loved to travel but never outside the United States after he immigrated from Albania during the first World War to escape the atrocities in his village.
He indulged our mother's wanderlust and desire to show us the world with enthusiasm. That summer, our adventuresome mother picked the spectacular hotel Bellevue Syrene perched on a sheer cliff hundreds of feet above the ocean. The converted palace was surrounded by formal gardens in full bloom and the ocean side terrace dripped with blue Wisteria. It was dinner that evening that awoke my love of food and changed the course of my life.
The dining room was a formal affair like things used to be fifty years ago. As we three approached the entrance guarded by the Maitre D', he pulled back the heavy velvet drapes exposing the jewel box like dining room. As he led us to our table the azure blue color of the Gulf of Naples view from the floor to ceiling windows was so clear we could see Capri.