Food, Family, and Memory
Two times a week I have to find stuff to do for several hours in Old Town Pasadena. This is a part of Pasadena that is, well, the oldest. If you can imagine any part of California old, this is it. Many of the ‘old money’ resides here and the architecture reflects the Spanish influence tinged with Victorian and Craftsman flavor. The reason I go is because my daughter Hannah is a competitive cheerleader. Not the kind connected with a school. She’s too young for that. The kind from Bring It On. The kind you see on ESPN. My little Westside dolly is the one they throw up in the air. The one who brings her leg back to touch her head while being hoisted aloft. Frankly, I’d puke if I ever had the guts to get up there, but she’s tough and fearless.
If you attend one of these competitions, which I’ve done for many seasons now, you hear sped up hip-hop for hours on end. I actually like hip hop to some degree, but after hours of it, I want to kill myself. This past season, her team; Explosion, had a sixties theme, so their music was a mash up of Sam and Dave, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Monkees, Steppenwolf etc. It was fabulous and they took first place nine times out of the eleven times they competed. Obviously, not because of the music, but because they ‘stuck it’ every time.
“Can we have dessert?” my four-year-old grandson asks, a conspiratorial half-smile pulling down the right side of his mouth. He knows full well that this is not dessert time, but also knows that spending special time with Mama Dora means tossing all parental restrictions to the wind. Ice cream? Yes! Cookies? Why not! Chocolate? Of course! As far as I’m concerned, a grandparent’s holy responsibility is to spoil the grandchild. The parents’ holy responsibility is to deal with the aftermath—a sugar-filled, hyper child, who’ll climb up walls and spin like a possessed dreidel. So! We will have chocolate, I silently decide, my own mouth watering.
“Two,” he negotiates. “Two what?” I ask, as if I don’t know. “These tiny square, brown things,” he says, without naming chocolate, as if voicing the magic word might summon his parents, heaven forbid. “Ok,” I reply “two.” So we march to the kitchen, arrange the table with china plates and napkins. It’s important to set a good example even, or especially, when chocolate is at stake. I put two chocolates on each of our plates. Help him up the stool and sit next to him.
I grew up drinking Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. I loved it. I would go to Art’s Deli with my dad and nothing made me happier than a big bowl of matzo ball soup, a potato knish, and a bottle of cream soda. Oh, how wonderful it would be to be 14 again and eat all the carbs one desires. Sigh….
Just recently, my two older boys were dining with friends at our favorite, local deli; Factors, and it was here that they discovered Dr. Brown’s. A bit of nostalgia crept in along with a smile. Going to Art’s with my dad was always a treat, whether I got my “usual” or shared a corn beef sandwich with him, Dr. Brown’s always accompanied my meal. So, I find it only natural that my kids taste a bit of my childhood while they enjoy their favorite meal at our neighborhood deli.
One problem. We have a no soda rule in our house. They have become really respectful of the rule, however there are those times that they are with friends and the mom orders the drinks without hesitation. The open bottle of either black cherry or cream soda is too tempting. They are 11 and 14 after all, and I do let some things slide.
Instead of always saying no, whether in the super market or at a restaurant, I chose to try my hand at making one of their favorite at home. Granted, this is not going to become a household staple, but a rare treat always brings smiles to their faces and there is nothing wrong with seeing their eyes light up at that first sip or taste.
I have a 1932 copy of The Joy of Cooking that’s being held together at the spine with duct tape. The book, like so many things my mother gave me or tried to impart to me, has become a cherished item only years after her death.
I wasn’t that close to my mother. I know she loved me very much, but she was a talented woman who was bored to death with mothering (I have two older siblings) by the time my twin brother and I came along. I can dig it. I would have had more kids myself, but if I had to sing “Wheels on The Bus” one more time, someone was gonna get hurt.
We had friends to dinner the other night, a nice little party with flowers and wine and Josie upstairs. These days I like making it nice but not stiff, special without fuss – but just a few years back it was all fuss all the time – to a newly minted chef girl, married girl, grown-up girl, hosting meant acrobatic recipes, exotic combinations, an absurdly high drive to please.
Our first true guests were from my husband’s office, a funny and casual couple who were treated to undercooked, over-garlicked lamb and several under-mixed, over-ginned martinis. The evening would feature a clogged sink, dishwater buckets, our crotch-poking Dalmatian and one seriously wailing fire alarm. The last thing they saw was Greg broom-whacking the smoke detector and me at the sink, right hand down the drain and left hand in the air. Bye, great having you! Everyone meets these horrors, but why? When you turn 25 they should hand you a pamphlet called Hosting! Relax and Don’t Try Anything New. Let’s face it, the clues were there – the oven temp was off, I’d never mixed martinis, I tied that lamb loose as a blind butcher. I could have seared steaks or made cheese fondue or even flipped omelets. I could have used a standby.
A lot of people say they don’t do standbys, they prefer something new, something dazzling, an unknown mushroom or an expensive hunk of cheese. Okay, dazzlers: I don’t care if you’re Julia Child, there are people coming at seven. That mushroom could taste like dung and the cheese might hit the floor, so do what you know. Do what you do well, be comfortable and your guests will be comfortable, do a standby.
My sister and I were raised in a house with two working parents. When we were younger, our father worked nights while our mother worked days. This schedule left our dad on dinner duty. Luckily, having been raised by a working mother himself, our father already had cooking skills in place. My mother, who didn’t know the difference between olive oil and Karo syrup, wrote a note to my dad’s mom thanking her for teaching him how to cook. My mother claims it was Gloria Steinem’s influence that led her to delegate my dad to kitchen duty, but really it was because he was the only one who knew how to “wear the apron” in the house.
Despite our mother’s feminist take on women in the kitchen, my sister and I happily cook at our stoves, bare-feet and all. I’ll whip up lunches and dinners for friends and family, but Alexandra goes beyond, preparing dinner for her new husband nearly every night. I recently had the opportunity to witness this firsthand when I invited myself (last minute) to their Upper West Side apartment for dinner. When I entered, Alexandra called out from her galley kitchen, “I’m making fish tacos. Go sit down at the table.” I went into the dining room and saw their new table was set with their brand new “everyday” dishware I had purchased for them off their wedding registry. My brother-in-law entered a few moments later and, in between work calls, began to pour a buttery, slightly sweet white wine to accompany the spicy fish tacos.
I am not certain, but I fear we foodies of Martha’s Vineyard don’t measure up to the truly high standards of obnoxious and perfectionist self-importance that other summer colony foodies get to display. (The Hamptons and the state of Maine come to mind.) I am embarrassed that there are only so many uppity remarks available to us if the lobster roll wasn’t toasted in butter, and what can you say other than “more please” when devouring freshly shucked Katama oysters or Atria’s wok fried whole lobster? Lazy and content, (and now that summer is officially over) we find ourselves with the end of summer blues, and boy, are they running.
Bluefish abound in our fish markets especially smoked bluefish. Now this is an area where we Vineyard foodies can almost strut our stuff: Looking at a piece of smoked bluefish produces the obvious foodie smirk. “Where did you get your fish?” If your answer isn’t John’s or Larsen’s then it bloody well better be something akin to, “Oh I have a friend who lives in the attic over Karen’s garage. He catches and smokes a few fish every week for friends…but they are not for sale.” (I can relate to bluefish as their travel habits mimic ours: Found in Florida waters during winter, they make their way to Massachusetts by June, avoiding the Memorial Day crush of late May). Smoked blue fish served with honey mustard is the ubiquitous cocktail party spread at any Vineyard party, and, I really don’t care where it comes from.
This is a story about Beef Stroganoff. But before your mind wanders to sour cream and Russian Tzars, picture the small kitchen in which it was created. Probably 9 by 9, with a rudimentary stove, a wooden counter which doubled as a chopping board, a hatch leading into a dining room, a single sink with a window facing onto the mountain, with the silver birch trees, where the blueberries and wild strawberries grew in the summer. The larder, where on special occasions gravlaks was made (weighed down with wooden boards and round lead sinkers), was reached via a trap door in the wooden floor, the entrance covered by a red and white rag rug.
Because this story takes place a long time ago, when I was just a small child, the details of the preparation of the stroganoff are hazy. In those days such things did not interest me, and although no doubt many conversations were had by the grown-ups in the family about which butcher had the best meat as it was a special occasion -- and just on that day money didn't seem to matter quite as much -- I think I may have been sitting on the roof of the wooden outhouse, picking black morello cherries and stuffing them into my mouth at the time.
I did know that when the meat did arrive -- via my grandfather's dark red Lancia with its sweet-smelling leather seats -- there was a great welcoming party consisting of my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, maybe even my father in his rolled up jeans and a fish bucket, having coincidentally just stepped off the boat after a morning of catching cod and mackerel in the days when cod were as bountiful as the little crabs under the jetty. My grandfather was in his city clothes, his doctor clothes. The dark grey wool trousers, the pale blue shirt, the elaborately polished brown loafers he wore in Oslo. He carried the special stroganoff beef in front of him, laying it on his two hands like a tray, wrapped in white butcher paper and tied with twine. He had a smile on his face.
When I was a kid, Lent never seemed that hard to me. I had to give up something I really loved like Snickers (which I seriously needed to cut back on anyway) and avoid meat on Fridays (which meant eating my grandmother's fri--taaa-taas). Eating Nan's frittatas was not a sacrifice.
Frittata is nothing more than eggs with vegetables, cheeses, or meats cooked into it. Yet, my grandmother's frittatas were always something special -- delicious, healthy, and comforting.
Whether or not you recognize Lent or have an Italian grandmother, there are many reasons why you should know how to make a frittata:
- They're ridiculously fast and easy to make.
- They're the perfect meal for the end of the week when you've run out of food. You could put just about anything in a frittata, (though I'd avoid chocolate chips).
- They're endlessly versatile. Make them with whole eggs, egg whites, or Egg Beaters; add meats, cheeses, or veggies; and eat 'em for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- They make great leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. Try some in a sandwich.
- They're so much fun to say. Come on, you know you want to say it like Nan used to. So in your best Italian grandmother accent and say, "fri--taaa-taa" as if it's the greatest word in the world. I know for Nan, it was right up there with "pizzelle" or her favorite word, "bingo."
My husband Mike passed away suddenly two years ago. A “catastrophic coronary event,” I remember hearing before the doctor launched into the “We did everything we could” speech. I sat motionless in the Naugahyde chair in that dimly lit room they usher people into to tell them such things.
My husband Mike could put the caption on the cartoon we call life. I can still be felled by a wave of sadness when the world calls out for his wit, but it usually passes as the business of life encroaches and forces the sadness aside. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that grief is not a linear process or a series of predictable steps. It comes and it goes, lingers or dusts by. It can overpower or gently remind. Now you see it; now you don’t.
The second year into loss, the cycles of grief had given way to the flat, dark monotony of depression. Since action is my default response, I checked out inspirational websites for those contemplating putting themselves out of their own misery, and I downloaded into my iPhone Kindle any number of self-help books about depression and the powers of positive thinking, and I answered every “Are you suffering from...” and “On a scale of 1-10...” quiz that the books offered.