Food, Family, and Memory
I blame my mom. Growing up eating her hearty Italian pasta dinners has made nearly all other grains seem insubstantial. Rice is good, but you have to eat more of it to get full. Wheatberries are filling, but they take too long to cook. Couscous is, well, wimpy. That's right, couscous is wimpy. How can anyone get full on a dinner of delicate, fluffy couscous? I can't. That's why I have relegated it to breakfast.
For breakfast, couscous works. It's a welcome change from oatmeal and is just as versatile. It can be made with water or milk and tastes great with add-ins like nuts, dried fruits, or fresh berries. Of course, a drizzle of melted butter, maple syrup, or honey only makes it better.
This Warm and Nutty Breakfast Couscous is packed with belly-filling good carbs and lean protein. It's crunchy, chewy, sweet, and filling. It's definitely not wimpy.
After graduating from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (a.k.a. Auburn) and marrying my grandmother, my grandfather joined the Air Force. Starting their married lives in Ashiya, Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu, Mimi and Granddaddy were much akin to many newlyweds.
They were setting up house, planning a family, learning to cook, so on and so forth, yet, being in post World War II Japan influenced these Southern newlyweds more than they would ever realize. One of those influences was in the kitchen, where Mimi began her culinary prowess in the land of bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and soy sauce. This was the 1950’s and upon return to the South, those Japanese and other Asian sways may still be found in her cooking today.
“Where we were in Japan, Southern Japan, we were on the same latitude lines as home, so the seasons, produce, and flora were much of the same as home… azaleas, camellias, etc. all grew and bloomed there.” Mimi said. Besides that, many Southerners eat many things over rice i.e. Creole, red beans, gumbo, and stews, so that part of the cuisine was a tête-à-tête between the two cultures for sure.
As with so many foods in our lives, dishes served when we are young put strong imprints on our adult palates. Most nights when my father came home from work, he would settle into his leather recliner and watch wrestling on TV. While my sister and I set the table, my mother would serve him an appetizer plate and his cocktail of choice, a 7&7 (Seagrams & 7-Up).
His favorite appetizers reflected his Russian Jewish background. There would be plates of pickled herring with sour cream, chopped chicken liver, pickled beets and onions, anchovy fillets and pumpernickel bread that he ordered from a mail-order outlet in New York.
Wanting a father-son moment with my father, who was decidedly old school and not much into father-son moments, I would sit next to him and share the appetizers (and steal a sip of his 7&7 when he wasn't looking). I definitely developed a taste for the anchovies and chicken livers but not for the pickled herring with sour cream!
One day, with very little in the refrigerator, I wanted a lunch with a lot of flavor that wouldn't take much effort to create. With a box of pasta, a couple of chicken livers, a tin of anchovies, an assortment of aromatics and a few other ingredients, I put two and two together and made a dish that was light and delicious. I wonder if my dad would have liked it?
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.
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.