Food, Family, and Memory
My favorite Sunday night dinner is braised lamb shanks cooked with basmati rice or what we call “lamb and rice” at our house. It’s simple to prepare, truly, not because I have made it hundreds of times and could do it with my eyes closed.
It’s so fragrant and beautiful when finished; a plume of aromatic steam floats above the shank that’s covered with random pieces of tomato and onion, sitting on a mound of tomato red colored long grain rice perfectly separated.
Calliope Athanus, my Greek grandmother made this dish. She taught my French mother, who taught me. There were always lamb shanks in our freezer growing up. The butcher at the A&P saved all of them for my mother-she bought them all. When the two of us grocery shopped she always repeated to me, “ it must be the front shanks”, the fore shank. “Watch out, they always want to sell you the rear shanks” -she would shake her head and say - “they just aren’t the same.” She told me this every single time.
I saw a beautiful fruit tart today, but I didn’t buy it. Though one brief glimpse of its light crust, glistening white cream & assorted seasonal berries and our whole intense love affair came rushing back.
It’s the mid 1970’s. The place: Patrick Terrail’s West Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison. An old house on Melrose converted into the most innovative, modern French restaurant of its day. It was so very French and so very Hollywood, and when those two worlds collided on that patio of Astroturf and umbrellas, it was magic.
Big Hollywood deals were made, infamous fights broke out, and occasionally I was lucky enough – if someone with more money was paying—to be there, enjoying the food. That’s where it began – an infatuation that would turn into a stalker’s obsession. They had me at crème anglaise.
I was there a lot with Jackie Mason, which sounds so random, sort of like my celebrity dreams, but he was a friend of my dad’s and we went as his guest, or vice versa. Often, when we were at a meal with Jackie, he would do his bit:
Gentiles never finish drinking, Jews never finish eating. What do you think Jews talk about for breakfast? Where to eat lunch. At lunch: "Where should we have dinner?"
Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.
My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).
During the seven years in which I lived in Boston, I was completely safe from the specter of camping. My friends and acquaintances went to the Cape or Nantucket in the summer, but no one talked about camping. I was also blissfully unaware of all camping-related issues during my childhood years. We spent many summers in a cabin in Maine which was in the woods, had no television or telephone, and required the hauling of drinking water in jugs, because the taps were supplied by the lake. It was rustic, to be sure, but I slept on a mattress, had a dresser and a lamp, and saw a bright-line distinction between being "indoors" and being "outdoors." If I wanted to use the small, but clean and regularly accoutred bathroom, for example, I could go "indoors," and close the door behind me. If I chose to be among the trees or swim in the lake, I could go "outdoors." There was no confusion between the two locations, particularly relative to bathroom usage.
When I became a parent, and met all kinds of other interesting parents, it became clear that people around here camp with great relish, and that they feel that others should enjoy the experience. They speak with great love about being surrounded by nature, getting closer to family, and the fun of cooking over an open fire. Early on, I deflected all attempts to bring me into the Cult of Camping with a polite smile, a shake of my head, and a speech along the general lines of "I would not, could not, in a tent/I would not if you paid my rent/I do not like dirt, Sir or Ma'am/a stolid urbanite, I am!"
The guy to the right of me, wearing a stained #13 Alex Rodriguez jersey, grabbed his glove and screamed “Here it comes! Here it comes!”
The woman behind me was yelling “Oh my gawd! It’s comin’ this way!”
The man in front of me put down his beer and said “I got it, I got it.”
All I could see was that spinning white orb against the summer night sky, getting closer and closer. It was like it was looking right at me. All I could think was “OHMYGOD”.
I was 7 years old the first time I went to Yankee Stadium. It was the summer of 1977; the Summer of Sam; a blazingly hot summer of serial killers, blackouts, and punk rock. My folks were good friends with a few people that were rabid Yankees fans. How could you not be that year? Willie Randolf, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Bucky Dent, and, of course, Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. My birthday is in October and so I always felt he and I had a special connection.
It was different then. It was mania. It was terrifying as we shuffled our way through the concourse- beers sloshing onto me, cigarette cherries burning my arms, sweaty crowds of smelly New Yorkers pushing to get to their seats in time.
Well, maybe it wasn’t that different.
I was walking past Zabar’s the other day and I noticed an ad in the window trumpeting the return of the Toas-Tite grilled sandwich maker. Just seeing the word – Toas-Tite – tossed me back six decades to my earliest childhood cooking experiences in suburban Baltimore. It seemed every family had one of these gizmos hanging on their kitchen wall or crammed into a drawer.
I entered Zabar’s and climbed the steps to the second floor, where they sell pots, pans and every cooking gadget known to mankind, and they had a whole stack of them, boxed neatly in cardboard by a company that calls itself Replica Products, which says it all. The Toas-Tite of my toddlerhood was cast iron and weighed four or five pounds. I had to wait until I got big enough to lift it. This replica – perfect to the eye – comes in at about a pound-and-a-half, tops. Okay, fine. That’s life.
I had to have it.
There’s no question my husband loves his daughter, his dog and me – and no question, in that order – but he is not sentimental. He’s got his moments – as in, let’s dump my high school notes, let’s save his 80′s matchbooks – but on the whole, what Greg likes best is the ca-chunk of the recycling bin. Or better yet, the trash.
His today’s-today stance makes me a target. He is especially fond of letting me know how fortunate he’s been to hear every tale of my family, friends, dogs, the pink curtains in first grade and every bite I’ve eaten since 1985. He likes to say there’s nothing he doesn’t know – no story he hasn’t heard, no tale untold, and this worries me. If I run out of material, what will we talk about in the nursing home? I’ve been thinking of doing stupid things just for the anecdotes. I need to keep him on his toes.
It’s not that he doesn’t remember; the man recalls every gift he ever gave me and every taco, sancho, and burrito he’s ever known – it’s just that he doesn’t need to. His memories live in lockdown, a place I don’t understand, a place that clearly lacks soft lights and throw pillows. So it’s all the more shocking to know there’s one memory that routinely escapes, one tableau he repeats – happily repeats, a terrible man-sin – and that memory is Key West.
Between watching TV, overeating, avoiding walking the dog and playing Jewel Quest 2, who has time to plan meals? Not me. But lately I just can’t stand it anymore. Also, the overeating has brought me to my knees. Literally. My knees are killing me! What I’ve been doing lately is watching the various cooking channels while foraging in my pantry in order to approximate ingredients.
There’s always a show or a cookbook on how to keep a well-stocked pantry and I’ve learned from them. Yesterday this served me well when I created an after school meal for my starving teenage athlete who refuses to buy lunch at school because of the ‘long-ass line’ at the cafeteria.
As I watched the adorable Giada De Laurentis whip up a pasta dish I was inspired to create one of my own with the ingredients I had at hand. The day before, I’d gotten some gorgeous boletus mushrooms from the Beverly Hills Farmers Market. They were sitting on top of my toaster oven in a brown paper bag. I’d never cooked with them before and the surfer dude who mans the stand at the market always gives cooking tips that I suspect are one size fits all so I wasn’t entirely confident but I figured with enough garlic and maybe some butter it would be alright. Well, it was more than all right.
This fall I took a night train ride from Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois. Normally, I find the train relaxing, a chance to rest, read and reflect. On this trip, however, I just wanted to sleep. But the guy sitting behind me snored so loudly that even the usually soothing train sounds couldn’t drown out his volcanic eruptions.
By the time we arrived at Union Station, I stumbled out of the train bleary-eyed, and headed for the nearest coffee shop. There, I unpacked a treasure from inside my backpack – my sister-in-law’s zucchini bread. I sat by the window, watching Chicagoans hurry through a light rain to their offices. Sipping a steaming latte, I savored every bite of the cake-like bread slices. I can’t think of a breakfast I’ve enjoyed more.
I realized I had never baked zucchini bread. Back home in Los Angeles, I decided it was time to rectify that situation.
My dad is a competitive person, especially when it comes to the weather in wintertime. He'll call me from Rhode Island and say, "What's the weather like in San Diego?"
I tell him what I always tell him: "Oh, it's the same. Sunny and 70s."
Then, invariably, he'll say something along the lines of, "Yeah, it's was beautiful today in Rhode Island too. It was 44 degrees. It was so warm I had to take my jacket off."
Poor guy. Doesn't he know he just can't win the weather war? Search "best weather in the world," and San Diego always makes the list, along with other celestial destinations such as The Canary Islands and Cabos San Lucas. Consider this: In January 2011 Rhode Island earned the dubious distinction of "3rd Snowiest January in History." In San Diego, you can expect sunny skies and high 60s pretty much every day.