Food, Family, and Memory
I haven't been watching many reality shows lately because of the crying. There is simply too much of it. Last season on Project Runway, Christopher cried because he was sure that he was the only person in the world who would design a dress inspired by a rock (something I am sure he is wrong about). I have no idea how much crying there is on The Hills, since I was never a fan, but it did catch my attention in People magazine that Heidi Montag, star of the show, cried after she had ten plastic surgery procedures in one day. Heidi, I know from a quick Google search, is 23, although since her plastic surgery she looks 33. Which is actually something to cry about.
I have been interested in and done research on this subject spun slightly different: What happens if your mother (not your favorite reality star) has plastic surgery? This is the subject of my new novel for teenagers, The Girl with the Mermaid Hair.
If, as a teenager, you spend hours in front of a mirror deciding, say, whether one nostril is larger than the other or worrying whether your breasts point in different directions (typical teenage obsessing), do you outgrow this madness or make more radical choices if your mother comes home with larger lips, a smaller ass, a new chin, a different nose, bigger breasts? How do you feel if your mom suddenly doesn't have any expression in her face? Or if you look into your mother's eyes and no one is home?
After 3 days of steady rain the outside temperature on the ground was stuck at 32 degrees and warm air was still sandwiched aloft causing the precipitation. I was nervous and so was the Weather Channel. I checked the icicles on the wires outside my kitchen window regularly - they are my predictor. My lawn was covered with birds out heavily feeding - not a good sign.
Maine was on the verge of serious trouble - perfect conditions for a severe icing event. By noon on Monday ice was collecting on top of the wires but the hanging icicles were still growing longer. That changed by early afternoon. ‘It’ was starting just as they predicted. The temperature was dropping and the icicles started to flip-they no longer hung straight down. Ice formed on top of the wires, freezing instantly and no longer dripping. Ice was forming the minute it hit any surface. When ice forms just on the top of wires it grows quickly heavy and the hanging icicles weighing less, literately flip. My icicles had rotated more than 45 degrees. This is so not a good thing.
Everything became encased in over an inch of heavy, clear ice. The weight of that much ice is more than anything can tolerate; electrical wires break, trees bend, limbs snap bringing more limbs with them and roofs collapse. It was too dangerous to leave my home and too dangerous to stay, but it’s didn’t matter anymore. I was staying with the ship.
I turned fifty-two last week. While I’m told that fifty-two is the new thirty-eight, no one told my metabolism. It seems to have slowed even more than I have. Knowing this, and knowing that the only way to really celebrate a birthday is to eat and then eat some more, my wife, Peggy, and I had been dieting from the end of the holidays to the big day – ten whole days. And when the big day came, we wasted no time in returning to our post-holiday fighting weight. Here is how we did it.
Thursday, my actual birthday, was the big kick off. We went to Patina for its annual truffle dinner. Patina has been having these extravagant dinners in honor of the truffle – yes, it is celebrating a fungus, but what a fungus - for the past several years, and we always talked about going, and this year, the dinner fell on my birthday. Given that Peggy and I have been together for almost 30 years, and she has simply run out of things to buy me as a birthday gift, especially just two weeks after Christmas, we decided that this would be it. She couldn’t have done better.
Easter. “Eater” with a full stomach, the inevitable outcome on any day replete with decorated eggs, chocolate bunnies, ham, lamb, brisket for the polydenominational and, for the faithful, whatever they have given up for Lent.
I grew up in a very faithful household—my father was an Episcopal priest and I was devoutly devout, an altar boy from age six and happy for it. The church, near San Diego and which held about 250 souls, was built over a two-year period of volunteer labor by the parishioners, who did everything except the plastering and electrical work. The labor was hard and sweaty, and in honor of all that sweat, my father put an empty beer can in the trench for the foundation. He didn’t put in a full can, he said with a twinkle in his eyes, “because I thought the Good Lord would object to the waste.” The church was an extension of our home, or vice versa—literally (the rectory was about 20 feet away), and figuratively (my mother, father and I folded several hundred palm crosses every year, with enough extra to be saved and burned for use on Ash Wednesday the next year).
When Easter rolled around, my mother boiled up a dozen eggs, which were dipped into various hues, and I hunted for them with gusto. The problem was, one or two hardboiled eggs of any color are enough to eat at one time; they soon are like sawdust in the mouth, and although they quickly grew boring, my parents were Depression-era folks and nothing went to waste.
Once upon a time in a kitchen far, far away, I was often babysat by my grandma in our fairy tale of a family deli in downtown New Haven, Ct. I could have done worse. She, a sorceress of superb taste, made ruggelach fresh daily, with me assisting, eating fistfuls of walnuts that 'just happened' to fall from the dough, licking the battered bowl of elixir from the cake preparations, eating crumbs that magically broke off the babka. My mouth was as busy as my hands as I ingested the mysteries of grandma’s cuisine.
We were major meat eaters in those innocent days, breakfast, lunch, noshes, suppers and snacks. How could we not be, with kosher creatures sticking out their tongues or lolling seductively about in grandpa's display cases? Lunches of exotic fare like liverwurst, baloney, pastrami, corned beef and melt-in-your-mouth scoops of the Chartoff chopped liver filled my plate. Pieces of the ubiquitous Hebrew National salamis were served in challah sandwiches, on toothpicks, fried up with eggs or put on my grandpa's homemade pizzas. Grandma's brisket was to die for, and she and grandpa left the earth from heart disease far too soon to prove it.
A fork by any other name would still be a fork. Unless you called it your hands. Then the fork is rendered moot. Hands are more versatile than forks. They posses a way cooler gadget. The opposable thumb (come-up of all evolutionary come-ups) possesses some remarkable moves.
Unfortunately we don’t often get to put those moves into practice with familiar western cuisine. But why rely on some intermediary device to enjoy that most intimate sensation of eating? Some form of artifice, really, when we consider that we already have what it takes.
My earliest inclinations were to forgo tools and bound the gulf between food and eating (associations begin firing at Lacan’s l’hommelette, a slippery slope). My favorite foods (burritos, sushi) can technically and efficiently be eaten with one’s hands. Still, my lifetime eating career has been dominated by silverware.
Until my wife introduced me to her native cuisine. Nepali food predates industrial metal forgery and globalization. Silverware was not a concern when the recipes took shape, nor is it a concern today when they’re served.
I keep connecting with an early childhood memory about summer days at the beach.
To get to the beach we'd drive a long time in our hot car
home, I was always sunburned, with gritty sand in my swimsuit. The
travel part wasn't what I liked, but the picnic lunch my mom packed
sure was. Fried chicken, potato salad, biscuits with butter and honey,
watermelon slices, and egg salad.
My dad rarely came with us so usually my mom had a friend along for company while my sister and I splashed in the water, determined to annoy one another as much as possible. After awhile we'd get tired.
Then it was time to eat. We'd load up paper plates and settle down on the sand watching the older kids body surf. We didn't talk much but we'd share the moment enjoying our mom's food.
My mother had a lifelong, deep obsession with everything Mexican. I mean, obsessed. Is there a word for it? I looked it up just now and it’s Mexicophile.
We never knew where my mother’s fixation stemmed from. Perhaps, her Texas roots. She was raised on a small farm in Sweetwater. Or, could it have been the Spanish house she was so proud to own? My mother would wax poetic about every detail of my childhood home. The beamed ceilings. She could stare for hours at their beauty. The stained glass window. The tiles in the foyer. The black wrought-iron railing leading up the tiled staircase. The big bay window. Her pepper tree. Even the French doors were, to her, so very Mexican. Trust me, this woman was so proud of her two story, 3,500-square foot Spanish house you might have assumed she was the architect.
She was WAY ahead of her time in this Mexican love because these were the 1950’s and 60’s. Mexican Americans were not as ubiquitous as today, where every other Californian seems to have a Latin background. I just heard on NPR that in the 1700′s the first settlers in Los Angeles were Mexicans. My mom would have been in Mexican heaven, had she stayed in L.A. And, of course, had she not died so young. Today, she’d be all over the immigration law changes.
I’m in Center City Philadelphia, back in my hometown for a medical meeting, waiting to cross Market Street, and I hear this exchange between two people who have approached from behind:
“Hey, jeet?” “No, jew?”
Since I keep the Anti-defamation League on my cell phone speed dial for times like this, I’m about to call, when I realize where I am and what the natives are saying:
“Hey, did you eat?” “No, did you?”
Indeed, those two are not casting any aspersions on my ethnic identity, but merely seeking to hook-up for lunch using the area’s “ancient” short-circuiting vernacular.
The Help surprised some people that Southern whites could treat their servants with so much inhumanity in the 1960's. I was shocked by a few specific incidents, but not surprised. I saw it close up as a child. Not in Jackson, Miss., where the story is set, but in my hometown of Beverly Hills where the help was almost exclusively 'negro,' before the Black Power Movement and the influx of Hispanic housekeepers and nannies in the late 70's and early 80's.
My overly emotional reaction to the film puzzled me. Good story, great performances, but floods of tears? On the drive home, memory hit and re-opened an old wound that I had hidden away. Of course... ESMUS HEMPHILL, our black maid in the 50's & 60's who was let go when I left for college and who I never thanked enough for all she did or properly protected her against my mother's unconscious cruelty towards her.
My mother, born into working class Memphis in 1925, became politically liberal, but personally she still carried a few racist seeds in her DNA. She would sit at the head of our dining table in Beverly Hills and ring a sterling silver bell to signal to Esmus that it was time to serve.