Food, Family, and Memory
Monday, mid morning, I found my five year old Sara, in the kitchen,
Curious, standing on her stool at the island counter,
Fiddling with the 24 table grapes on the plate,
The ones that were part of our experiment,
The ones that would answer all of our questions.
I admit, my questions:
How long does it take to make a raisin from a grape?
I don’t know daddy…
Will our raisins taste better than the ones out of the box?
I don’t know daddy…
Over time, what the heck goes on inside of a grape anyway?
And how? And why? And so on…
“Hey Sara Bear, how many grapes on that plate?”
I was tempted to start grouping them for her.
“I don’t know daddy, do you want me to count them?”
What a beautiful day! Perfect for taking a walk at the beach, shopping at our local farmers' market, cooking, and eating outside.
We've cleaned off the deck. Arranged tables outside for lunch. Prepared a carrot salad and a couscous with grilled vegetables, made kosher pickles and a pasta with braised beef and watercress, soaked chicken and onion rings in buttermilk for fried chicken, and baked a custard with chocolate.
Today will be a good day.
For me the fried chicken with onion rings is the centerpiece of the meal. I have strong childhood memories of my mom making fried chicken when we went to Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica. Nothing Colonel Sanders ever made came close.
My dad wasn’t much of a cook! He even burned the bacon. His idea of making baked beans was to put them in a pan of boiling water – in the can with the top still on. This might actually work, although the only time I remember him doing it, he forgot about them, the water boiled down, the can exploded (EXPLODED!!!), luckily no one was in the kitchen at the time, and a lot of the baked beans flew up to the ceiling and rested there. I do not remember if my mother thought this was funny.
He was a great barbeq-uer but that’s a different story.
He, also, had a ridiculously high metabolism and ate more than anyone in the family practically until his dying day, (seemingly without much of a weight problem, or cholesterol problem, I might add.) When we were little, he used to get up in the middle of the night sometimes, wake one of us, and we’d tiptoe down to the kitchen for a slice of home-made pie or chocolate cake OR Dad’s one and only specialty not cooked on a grill -- although curiously with grill in its title -- grilled cheese sandwiches.
My dad had a theory that one of the reasons people wake up in the middle of the night is because they’re hungry, so if you ate a piece of pie or cake or a grilled cheese sandwich (preferably with a glass of milk), you would fall right back to sleep. Note: I have not tested this theory since childhood.
What the hell is Happy Hour and why is everyone talking about it? The happiest hour for me is when I eat. But if it means standing around with drinks in your hand, eating from some communal barrel of glop, count me out. I don’t think Happy Hour would have appeal for me even if it were at a restaurant I wanted to go to. It just sounds awful. Or am I a snob?
The other day, I was recommending my new favorite restaurant in L.A., Tar and Roses, to someone who then asked, “Do they have a Happy Hour?” I was baffled by the question. It’s so foreign to me.
And then I got an invitation to join my daughter and her best friend Cody and a bunch of their hot 27-year-old friends for what I thought was dinner. But it wasn’t. It was Happy Hour at some Mexican restaurant’s bar (Marix Tex Mex). And while I think it’s brilliant for young people not yet making big money to be able to eat like that, I just couldn’t do it. I asked for a proper menu.
Today, it was back and forth all day about where to meet “in town.” The dreaded driving–into-town-for-an-hour-or-two-of-traffic hell. I hate it. I’m almost over it, but I’m so friggin social, I go anyway. I just wish I had a private helicopter to jet me around. Do you watch Dr. Oz? If you do, you know that to live an extra six years, it’s good to socialize. I was getting updates throughout the day and the number of chicks invited grew by the hour. I snuck in, or so I thought -- a switcheroo.
My Mimi told me something quite hysterically funny and dramatically morbid a few years ago…”If I die before your grandfather, he will have to eat something. I’ve taught him how to make cornbread. That should sustain him in between the three months I die and he remarries.”
Tears immediately streamed down my face at the humor and sadness that thought evoked. That is, however, a bit of my family’s humor in a nutshell… delightful and somewhat macabre running hand in hand. What has happened though is a rivalry between Mimi and Granddaddy as to who makes the better batch of cornbread. They both use the exact same ingredients, same iron skillet, and same kitchen and oven for baking, but there are slight differences I would like to address: first the title.
Since Granddaddy makes it himself, it is dubbed “Granddaddy’s World Famous Cornbread.” Mimi’s boasts simply as “Mimi’s Cornbread,” which I guess is the passive aggressive way of saying hers is best. Since everything she makes is wonderful, permitting Granddaddy to title his dish as such is totally apropos. Plus, that is Granddaddy’s personality – everything he or his children do, but especially anything his grandchildren take on, mind you, is the best, exceptional, or “world famous.” The feeling is completely mutual and reciprocating.
I’m proud of my grandparents and there’s never been a doubt they are of me or the rest of the brood. I think their only flaw is that they gave me deep roots and short wings, considering I live two doors down. The cycle continues. I digress.
I was raised in a very sheltered household when it came to food. Sure, we would eat the incredible Italian or Chinese food my father prepared by hand, or feast on amazing French, Japanese, Indian, Greek, Bistro, or Thai cuisines from local restaurants. I mean, I did grow up in New York. But I was very cloistered when it came to one cuisine… American. I was probably 25 before I tasted my first meatloaf. My father and stepmother were both raised in the suburbs (one in Maryland, one in the Midwest) with very traditional American family fare and it was an unspoken law that that cuisine never would cross their daughter’s lips (or their own ever again).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I married a man who had been raised on a gaggle of Air Force bases across the south. The Christmas after we got engaged we visited his grandparents who lived in Florida. His whole family had flown in from various places across the country, as they did every year. I had only met the nuclear family and was a little on edge to meet the rest of the herd. I was a young and outrageous artist and felt a lot of pressure to present myself as relatively normal to my new ultra-conservative family.
The first night we were all gathered in the 1960’s wood paneled eat-in kitchen as Maw Maw (his grandmother) announced we would be having Chuckie Casserole for dinner. This was met with a great cheer from the crowd.
There’s barely a minute to breathe and yet I am practically hyperventilating. I’ve never been good at containing my excitement, and this year, I seem to be more excited than ever about Fair Week.
You could get really cranky around here during the third week in August when traffic tangles up and thousands of people descend on the Island. And I must admit, after an onslaught of farm stand customers—and traffic jams in our own driveway—yesterday, I was just plain exhausted. But I woke up to the clear air and blue skies today feeling giddy.
This year the President’s family vacation overlaps directly with Fair week, making things even more exciting (or more frustrating—depending on your point of view) than usual. We happen to be on the excited end of the spectrum on this one, too. Friday we were given the opportunity to contribute to a gift basket of local food heading directly to the chefs who will be cooking for the Obama family this week (at a house only a couple miles up the road from us). We sent cherry tomatoes and eggs, and a pint of Fairy Tale eggplants, too, which apparently the chefs especially liked. Roy is really hoping that the President is waking up to a breakfast of Green Island Farm eggs—but who knows?!
As my birthday approaches I can't help but think of my sisters - I'm the middle one - and my maternal grandmother. My sisters and I are born two years apart, with our birthdays all in the last week of September. If you do the math, I guess one can blame the joyful spirit of the holidays on the closeness of the timing.
My brother, as the oldest and only boy, always seemed to get special treatment over us girls. I'm sure he felt tortured by his loud, energetic sisters, but at least he never had to share his birthday party. I can't really blame my parents for lumping our "big days" all together on the middle weekend between them all. My father worked two jobs to support his young family, so lack of money paired with convenience produced - throughout our childhood - one giant party for "the girls." It was a "more-the-merrier" type of event and we were all showered with enough gifts to make us contented despite the lack of individual attention.
When we were very young my mother took care of the cake, but as we got older and began developing our own opinions, all we ever wanted was my grandmother's Red Velvet Cake. I can't remember the first time I ate it, but I can still taste it today. It was the same every time with a dense, almost chewy texture; the sweet tang of the cream cheese frosting; that distinct something-more-than-just-chocolate flavor that distinguishes this classic cake from all others.
Alessandra, a neighbor of ours in Umbria, is a wonderful cook.
That’s a redundant statement, as virtually everyone in Umbria cooks well. Wait, let me qualify that — virtually every woman in Umbria is a wonderful cook. Boys were urged by their mothers to do other things — careers and such — whereas the girls fashioned ravioli with their nimble fingers before they learned to walk.
Anyway, Alessandra once served us an appetizer of various flora — zucchini flowers, sage and basil leaves — that were dipped in the lightest, most elegant batter I have ever tasted and then flash fried. They were appetizing indeed. When I pressed her for the batter recipe, she said, “It’s simple to remember — everything is one.”
As I struggled to comprehend this Zen concept, she scribbled the recipe on a napkin, which I still have.
So, we had this awesome carrot cake down on Cumberland Island last November for our father’s birthday…the cake was baked and smuggled onto the island by Julie, Daddy’s wife and our new personal gourmet chef! This cake is unbelievably good and it is one of those dishes that lingers in your mind long after the last crumbs have been eaten. Obviously so, since I had the cake back in November and I was still reeling about it come February. I had to make the cake…I had to make the cake Julie’s way, so, I did. I followed her tweaks and tips for a successful cake and boy oh boy was it!
One of her tweaks on the traditional carrot cake recipe is to soak the carrots in cinnamon for three days…THREE DAYS!!! I thought this was crazy, but I wasn’t going to improve upon such a phenomenal dessert. Four cups of shredded, cinnamon soaked carrots, along with oil, flour, sugar, soda, eggs, additional cinnamon and salt constitute this cake. It is easy breezy to make, but takes some thoughtful culinary twists to enhance this dish to the next level.
Another tweak is the garnish…toasted and salted pecans. Now I could eat my weight in pecans, but toasting these and any nut for that matter brings out the flavor and enhances anything they complement. Butter and salt…good butter and sea salt mind you. No skimping there. The sweetness of the cake matched with the salty pecans is delectable.
Yet, the cake’s sweetness isn’t so much of a sugary sweet, but an earthy sweet brought on by the carrot and cinnamon love fest created three days prior! What else could this cake need…well, the perfect icing…a frosting of cream cheese lightly sweetened and buttery to perfection.