Food, Family, and Memory
I have an image of my father wearing a blue and white canvas pin-stripe apron over his clothes that my mother gave him (with good reason), standing over the barbecue in our backyard alternately spraying charcoal fluid (with big effect) on the briquettes and a few moments later spraying, using his thumb as a spray cap, a large bottle of Canada Dry Soda Water filled (and refilled) with water from the hose onto the resulting flames from the barbecue that were threatening to ruin his perfect barbecued ribs. They were perfect which is sort of surprising since my father couldn’t really cook at all. Scrambled eggs and burnt bacon is about all I remember from his repertoire except for the night he exploded a can of baked beans since he’d decided it was okay to heat them in the can (unopened) which he’d placed in a large pot of boiling water and, I think, forgotten about them. Tip: don’t try that at home.
But his barbecued pork ribs were perfect. The secret was the sauce. The secret was that he marinated them religiously overnight (turning them constantly). The secret was that he cooked them perfectly albeit with a strange method that involved alternately kicking the fire up to high temperatures and then knocking it down. It was a method that I still remember and it was before we knew that charcoal fluid is truly bad for you so don’t try that at home either.
When I was 4 years old I was on Kids Say The Darndest Things with Art
Linkletter. My folks told me the teacher in our Nursery School
recommended me. When I think about the fact that I once called her
‘fatso’ just to try out the word, nothing personal, and she got so mad
she locked me in a broom closet, I’m ever convinced of the altruism of
I told some outstanding whoppers to Art Linkletter and my lies are preserved in perpetuity on a 78 recording that was issued to each family along with a Tiny Tears doll for the girls. This thrilled me no end.
Pilgrimages to the mountains this fall by my grandparents have yielded this Farmer with apples aplenty. Pies, cakes, and tarts have abounded this season and finally, after much persistence i.e. nagging and begging on my part, Mimi has made her Apple Butter.
This delicacy has a longstanding place in my memory of warmth and delight, for Mema, Mimi’s mother, would make this and the smell and taste bring back memories of her. She would fill dough with this apple concoction and bake apple turnovers or fry apple fritters. Mimi has perfected the recipe and we use it on breads, biscuits, poundcake, or simply as dessert itself. I take only a spoonful at a time, yet, still, the jar keeps diminishing in volume. I suppose it is the spoonfuls throughout the day that cause the diminishment.
This sauce is that good – you’ll find yourself sampling right off the stove and right out of the fridge… hot or cold, warm or cool, Mimi’s Apple Butter will surely become a favorite. With the holidays fast approaching, jar some apple butter to give to your neighbors, friends, and loved ones, that is, if you can bear to share!
My mother made perfect lox, onions, and eggs. Except it isn’t really lox, onion, and eggs, it's nova scotia, onions, and eggs.
And nova scotia’s best when it comes from a deli department, loose or fresh-sliced, instead of a package at the grocery store.
By now, I doubt my parents are surprised by anything I do. I’ve dragged them along through three (maybe four) different careers, from North Carolina to New York City to Newport and Newtown. Surely this latest venture—farming on Martha’s Vineyard—has given them a chuckle (and a wrinkle) or two. But they’ve never been anything but supportive.
Still, I don’t think they realized that Roy and I were going to put them to work as farm hands when they came to visit last week.
We didn’t have a choice. I don’t get to see my parents much, and I didn’t want to miss spending time with them. But the farm stand has been hopping and there are a zillion plants still to get in the ground (not to mention the daily farm chores of harvesting and egg collecting and washing), and no matter how early you get up, half the day slips by in a heartbeat.
So we had family farm time. This is a most excellent concept, I tell you. Now I know why farmers traditionally had big families. Lots of help! Help that already speaks your language, knows your quirks, and can interpret instructions without a lot of explanation.
Granted my parents, though they are not exactly young anymore (they don’t want me to embarrass them, but they’re probably used to that, too, by now), know their way around plants and fresh food. My Dad is a talented landscape gardener and long-time plantsman, so asking him to turn over soil was like asking him to put on his socks. (And turn over soil he did, de-weeding a huge bed and making it tomato-ready in only a few hours.) My Mom is a great cook and vegetable lover, so asking her to help wash and pack greens was a no-brainer.
There is a difference between jam and preserves. Jam is sweet fruit you spread on toast. Preserves are a frozen moment in time—a piece of summer that you can carry with you the rest of the year: high grass, long naps, warm evenings, your front porch…
My neighbor Mary Wellington makes preserves.
Mary is a farmer. And not only a single-family farmer--a single farmer. She works three acres of very diverse orchards of Glenn Annie canyon all by herself, on which she grows over fifty varieties of fruit.
Her preserves were so treasured and ubiquitous at local farmer’s markets that many people came to call her “The Jam Lady.” Her Blenheim Apricot jam is intoxicating. Her Blood Orange marmalade is insane. The red raspberry is well… indescribable. But Mary Wellington preserves more than fruit.
If you wander up Glen Annie you will find a two story clapboard farmhouse peeking out from behind the persimmon tree. Mary will greet you with her typical burst of enthusiasm and a clap of her hands. She will launch into an impromptu tour of her orchard and its latest bounty: You will flit from tree to tree sampling God’s offerings in a feast of the senses that is literally Edenic. (I know I get religious about food—but I was raised that way.) Taste the Santa Rosas… Smell the outside of this blood orange… Look at the color on these apricots... Oh don’t mind the bruise—just taste it.
Perhaps it's my New England roots, but many of my favorite recipes, both savory and sweet, include maple syrup as a key ingredient. Of course, I always have it on hand to adorn things like my Crispy French Toast, Banana Pancakes, and Fluffy Buttermilk Waffles or to drizzle over my steel cut oatmeal, but I keep a major reserve to use as a "secret ingredient" in many of my other recipes. And this is the time of year that I begin to replenish my personal supply of 100% pure maple syrup.
There is no sweeter harbinger of spring than the sugary sap that flows from maple trees around the middle of March in Northern New England. In late winter and early spring, the roots of the maple trees are loaded with a clear, sweet liquid and it is the ideal combination of freezing nights and warm days that induces sap flow. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water uptake from the soil, and temperatures above freezing cause a stem pressure to develop, which allows the sap to flow out of tap holes made in the tree trunks. We had several maple trees at our house, and my brother and I, after a few hours of playing in the snow, would rejuvenate ourselves by sneaking handfuls of the sugary water-like sap from the gray lidded tin buckets that my Dad put out each year to collect the sap.
It was not uncommon to take a "Sunday drive" with my parents and head off to one of the many local "sugar houses" to watch the actual maple syrup production. You could spot them in the distance with the plumes of steam and smoke and, as you got closer, you could actually begin to smell the maple aroma in the air.
This is an excerpt from the book "Clothing Optional: And Other Ways to Read These Stories"
We had just started Saturday Night Live, I was an apprentice writer, 24 years old and I felt intimidated. Chevy was hysterically funny. So was John and Danny and Gilda and Franken. And Michael O’Donoghue, well, Michael O’Donoghue simply scared the shit out of me. So I stayed pretty much to myself. One day I came to work, and on my desk was a framed cartoon. A drawing – no caption – of a drunken rabbi staggering home late and holding a wine bottle. And waiting for him on the other side of the door was his angry wife, getting ready to hit him with a Torah instead of a rolling pin. I had no idea who put it there. I started looking around and out of the corner of my eye I saw a white-haired man in his office, laughing. He had put it there. That was the first communication I had with Herb Sargent– which was significant given that he never spoke and he gave me a cartoon that had no caption.
I had seen him years before. Or at least I think I did. When I was a kid. My father manufactured jewelry and he had his shop on 52nd Street between Fifth and Madison. I used to come into the city from Long Island and run errands for him during the summer. And no matter where the delivery was supposed to go, I made sure I got there by going through the lobby of what was then called the RCA Building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, with the hopes that maybe I would see Johnny Carson (whose show was upstairs) or some of the people from That Was the Week That Was: Buck Henry, Bob Dishy, David Frost – or Herb Sargent, who was the producer. I knew his name from the credits. As a young boy who wanted to be a TV writer some day, this was like hanging around outside of Yankee Stadium waiting to see the players going through to the clubhouse.
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.
Back in 1990, rice and love became forever entwined in my mind. A man I’d gone out with for ten years broke off our relationship...and my response to grief was to learn how to make risotto. After I taught myself to make proper risotto, I went on a blind date with an Italian, and some time later found myself in Florence, seeking the approval of my future mother-in-law, whose favorite dish was risotto. Rice and love. From a distance of twenty years, the emotion and the starch wind around each other with all the choreographed beauty of ballet.
The year of my great misery I was living in a tiny apartment in the graduate ghetto of New Haven, Connecticut. Most of the space was in the kitchen, which I found inspirational. I spent my free time cooking, crying and reading. My favorite cookbook was Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking, a tome with long fervent essays that included a long piece on risotto. I would stand over the pot, stirring as Paul instructed, reading a romance borrowed from the public library, and crying every now and then when it seemed the heroines had a better life than I did. After a month or two of this, I was quite good at risotto and I started to think about men in a more cheerful manner, which led to a blind date with Alessandro, a graduate student in Italian with loopy black curls and a swimmer’s body. He liked my risotto. It wasn’t until years later, when I ate his mother’s creamy, delicious risotto, that I understood how important it was.