Food, Family, and Memory
I went to cooking school at the advanced age of 17 in 1973 in the bustling town of Newton Centre, Massachusetts. There wasn’t any question in my mind what my future held for me, I simply had to find the perfect place that would form it exactly as I had dreamt it would.
Newton Centre was an upscale, hip little suburb just a short distance from Boston. Affluent and hip enough to embrace a greengrocer called Blacker Brothers just as the ripples of the food revolution were beginning. Blacker Brothers was a Mecca for so many, long lines formed out the door every Saturday morning. Boxes of the most gorgeous and exotic produce lined the floor along a very long wall just waiting to be delivered in company vans. As boxes were loaded more took their vacant spots. It was “THE” place to shop long before Whole foods was on every block because they did it right.
Buying produce and putting together deals is what the two brothers and their father did each night as their customers’ house lights turned off. This store was so unique and full of jewels that Faschon in Paris was their only rival. The extensive selection of fruit was “ready to eat” and fragrant, that you could always count on. Fresh herbs were a new phenomena, yet they had them all, including chervil. Even if berries weren’t on my list I could never resist the sweet scent as I entered their store. Everything was hand chosen.
I could keep extolling the virtues of this store until my last breath. It was magic and made an impression that changed my future, or rather, my destiny.
Cherries are especially prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Just about every variety you can think of are currently available at the markets and farm stands. They are hard to pass up since they are so juicy and sweet.
I have such great childhood memories of the cherry picking adventures I experienced with my family in Beaumont, California. My brother and I would climb up in the trees on these really high-rickety ladders. We would pick and eat cherries until the juice was dripping down our chins, hands and necks. It was always really hot, which means we were very sticky, sweaty and extremely dirty by the end of the day. You can picture it right? And for some reason we were always wearing white, something I still don't understand.
Anyway, I had a load of fresh, sweet cherries last week and I couldn't let summer go by without making a fresh cherry pie. However, I wanted to spice it up. If you have never experienced a "spiced cherry" anything...it's time.
When I was growing up, my parents took me and my sister to all kinds of restaurants but rarely ones with "kid's menus." We regularly came into San Francisco to eat Chinese food, tried sushi long before it became popular, and celebrated birthdays and school graduation at fancy French restaurants. Unlike many kids who probably longed for Taco Bell or McDonald’s, I enjoyed eating at The Good Earth, a casual restaurant near my house. The menu had a mix of salads and sandwiches and some very unique entrees. It wouldn’t necessarily be considered “health food” by today’s standards but there were quite a number of vegetarian dishes.
At The Good Earth, pretty much anyone could find something they would like to eat, and that made it perfect for dining out with everyone from my teenage girlfriends, to my grandmother. The Good Earth was famous for it’s spicy cinnamon tea which you can buy to this day. Although the restaurant chain was sold and very few restaurants remain, I remain haunted by the memory of Walnut Mushroom Casserole. It was my go to dish.
There was one prerequisite for our birthday dinner for Robin. A red leather booth. Where to find one? So few places left with that old Rat Pack-era feel. I still miss them. One of my all-time favorites was Sneaky Pete’s on the Sunset Strip. It was next door to Whisky A Go-Go, where Duke’s Coffee Shop is now. Waitresses were dressed in really short-skirt barmaid outfits. A place where Johnny Carson sometimes sat in on drums with the musicians. How great was that? Good that it’s been closed for a hundred years, or it might make me miss my father too much. I went there with him all the time for steak and a baked potato with tons of butter, sour cream & chives.
Peggy had gone last week to Dan Tana’s, the dimly lit, checkered-tablecloth, celeb-oriented Italian place in West Hollywood. Libbie thought it was perfect for the Robin dinner. Since I never went to Dan Tana’s much back in the day, it would be a nostalgia-free zone – no memories with my dad to weigh me down. Still, I spent the rest of the week toying with the idea of changing restaurants. Many texts and phone calls back and forth between the girls. Robin said she would be just fine if we all met at Nate n’ Al’s, the Beverly Hills deli we all grew up in, but some of us just couldn’t envision a birthday celebration there. So, I never cancelled the reservation -- and here is how retro Dan Tana’s is: they never called “to confirm.”
For those of you that have children, I am sure you (like me) spend your Saturday’s and Sunday’s at the park or gym, watching children, small and large, playing with balls. Basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, and lacrosse balls. Three boys, 3-6 games (depending on Isaac’s travel basketball schedule), spent at the park and gym.
Oh, and then there is the weekly team snack. I have tried to outlaw it, or outlaw certain snack items, but I am often met with the evil eye and that look of “is she crazy or just stupid”. I simply do not understand how so many of these parents think that a bag of pre-packaged chips, a plastic bottle containing colored liquid, or a sandwich filled cookie equates to something they would want their child to put in their body after they just did something wonderful for their body!?
I have learned to keep my mouth shut and instead, hopefully teach by doing. For Levi’s last football game, I was snack mom. Tea cakes have become our latest and greatest and we can’t decide if they are a muffin, a cake, or a cupcake. Really doesn’t matter what they are – they are delicious.
With mini orange and chocolate chip tea cakes in hand, fruit kebabs, and water, not only were the parents “ooing and aahing”, but the kids were asking for seconds. Sometimes with kids it is all about the presentation, and having fruit on a stick was a sure fire winner.
It wasn’t often that my dad was in charge of making supper, but every once in a while my mom would hand preparation of the last meal of the day off to him. His motto in the kitchen was, "the simpler, the better." He’d open a can of Campbell’s bean with bacon soup, mix it in a pot with some water, then slice up a couple of hot dogs and toss them in. He had supper on the table in no time at all. And, I think we liked it. Ugh.
My standards for bean soup have a come a long way since then. No more Campbell’s for me. On a chilly Saturday afternoon, I love having a pot of homemade bean soup simmering on the stove.
I like to use dried beans when I can. They are very inexpensive and I find their taste and texture to be so much better than canned beans. I like to use a quick soak method, boiling the rinsed beans for 2 minutes, then removing the beans from the heat, allowing them to soak for an hour in the hot water.
When I would visit my friend Lisa in London in the early 80’s, I would sometimes see my bi-country friend Allan. He lived here in L.A. and also London where he was a television producer. His flat was in the Holland Park/Notting Hill area, but I love the name Ladbroke Grove so much that I want to say he lived there. I love all the names of the streets and villages in Great Britain.
On occasion, he took me along for a Sunday lunch he had been invited to. Allan would say, “This bloke wants me to come round, would you fancy joining us?” Once there, I was in awe of the carefree, unkempt, unfazed style of the host, hostess and everyone really.
When I entertain, I’m stressed out, dressed up, have too much food and am just generally overwhelmed by it all. Whereas, these folks looked like they stayed up too late (not a touch of makeup on the women) and hardly gave a thought to the guests they were now entertaining in their home. This was the antithesis of the Martha Stewart entertaining regime.
The houses weren’t straightened up, nor the tables set. Drinks went around first. Drinks seemed much more important than food. Then slowly (sometimes hours had passed), and oh-so casually, the women would find their way to the kitchen and start hunting for leftovers. WHAT? They invited people over without even the forethought of what food they might serve. It was baffling.
Last year, we had friends and family over to celebrate La Vigilia, which is a traditional Christmas Eve feast that had its beginnings in the south of Italy. It celebrates the wait for the birth of baby Jesus. Vigilia – the wait. Traditionally the meal is comprised of seven fish dishes – including shellfish, of course – and it can be one of the great feasts of the year. It can be a blowout, actually, un cenone, which means a very large and very long dinner.
We decided to go another way. Yes, we would do the seven fishes but we would take it easy on ourselves – just three courses instead of seven – plus dessert at the end, of course — and we split up the work load between four cooks: myself, the eminent Don Michele di Sicilia, our daughter, Alison and her beau, Shannon. So it was a kind of BYOF – bring your own fishes.
We had twelve people for dinner. We started with one of my favorite appetizers – anchovies on sweet-buttered bread. That’s it – as simple as you can get, but the combination of the briny fish and the sweet butter is one of the great single bites of all time.
We eat Mimi’s Sauce with just about everything. Now, I am fully aware that I said “we eat Mimi’s Sauce…”
Fish, chicken, pork, burgers, fries, veggies – Mimi’s Sauce is the condiment of choice for my kinsmen and me. It is simultaneously basic and brilliant and can be the foundation for many a saucier sauce or simply delightful in and of itself. Spread on a turkey sandwich or as a dip for Cajun steamed shrimp, I am sure you’ll find a favorite use for Mimi’s Sauce.
Many fried chicken establishments across The South have their own “Special Sauce.” This dipping sauce ranges and varies among the different spots, carefully guarded and some establishments even charge a quarter for an extra sauce.
A quarter – that’s big money! And you know what? We pay it, because one little pack is not enough for our chicken and fries!
I miss apple-picking in New England. Overall the produce found in Southern California is superior to anywhere we have lived, but just like football, when it comes to apples, you simply can't beat New England.
New England has scores of picturesque orchards with rolling hills and countless trees. There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as biting into a just picked Macoun apple while standing in the warm sun on a chilly fall New England day.
The first autumn that Jeff and I lived in North Carolina, we planned our annual apple-picking day. When we arrived ready to pick, we were aghast that our treasured McIntosh, Macouns, and Cortlands were nowhere to be found. Instead we had to make due with Red Romes, Galas, and Arkansas Blacks (a hard, tart apple which became my new favorite).
Just as we got used to our apples in the Southeast, we then moved to California and had to learn an entirely new set of apples. Though crunchy, sweet Fujis are probably the most popular apple here, my local favorite is the Pink Lady.
Unlike her name, she's quite sassy, just right for an eating apple. Then there's the Winesap, which according to Riley's Farm of Oak Glen, CA, is the "Celebrity Rock Star of Apples." No wonder. It's deep crimson red, super firm and crispy, and assertively tart. Definitely not an apple for the timid.