Food, Family, and Memory

kris-alan-and-me-in-70s-or-early-80s-245x300I cannot trace the exact moment, but somehow we started off on the wrong foot. And like a big wave, our discontent swelled over time, neither of us knowing the origin of it. We had both dug our heels in the sand.

When my sister-in-law, Kris, turned the big 4-0, my brother threw her a party. A really big one. Kris had always been a fan of Rita Coolidge, so naturally, Alan booked Rita for a private concert to honor his wife. He went all out.

As the big day approached, my one-day-to-be-husband urged, “You should really get along with Kris.” I agreed. I thought it was time to bury the hatchet.

So I did.

I went to a hardware store and bought a hatchet. I also purchased a beautiful gift bag that I filled with sand. Actually, cat litter. Where else can you get sand? And I buried that hatchet.

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elaine_plimpton.jpgGay Talese, one of the gods in my personal pantheon of iconic writers, once said that restaurants are a great escape for him.

They are for me, and for many New Yorkers.

The right restaurant, not too fussy or trendy, with a big bar for chatting, eating, drowning the thoughts of the day and sparking the thoughts of the night, is one of the reasons why I love this city and have since I moved here 15 years ago.

Elaine's was that kind of place. Is that kind of place, I guess, although I can't imagine being there without the possibility of a sighting of the so-called "Queen of the Night."

I'm not anywhere near interesting or famous, the kind of person who would be a welcome regular at her "store," as she called it, but in the time I spent there I witnessed what I realized was the last act of a play I didn't want to end. I wanted to write a role for me, to be even just a bit player in the creation Elaine had made.

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ice1-104After 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.

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androuetcheeseHow did it happen that the Androuet Restaurant in Paris could quietly disappear without fanfare or protest? How could it become a dilapidated sign over a store front; soulless, diluted and gone? Why have I waited so long to write about it? Secretly, I hoped that somehow it would come back to life.

The original cheese shop, ripening caves and restaurant was located on Rue Amsterdam. Rue Amsterdam was quirky and not so nice an area. The street was long and one-way. We would circle around for half an hour to be able to park close enough to be safe after dark. It was Mecca for a cheese lover - I am a zealot.

The tiny, refrigerated shop on the first floor was filled with every cheese made in every corner of France. Each one was ‘a’ point’-- perfectly aged and ready to eat. The three tiny, older women tended the inventory of cheeses constantly. When you walked in there was no grand greeting, only a quick look up and aloof ‘Bon jour’. I always wondered if they knew how difficult a place it was to find. If they did know how much effort it took maybe they would have been kinder. It doesn’t matter now because the best cheese shop in the world is gone. Maybe their intense concentration is what it took to maintain such high quality.

Cheese is like wine; it opens in your glass-the first long sniff of its’ aroma to the last sip of perfectness. Cheese is like that as well - birth, aging and perfection and it then it gone, too. These three women struggled to keep so many cheeses perfect. Most, barely lasting a day or two. I understood why they never looked up from their arduous work.

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sorrentohotel.jpgI was barely six years old and on an early summer vacation with my sister, Tanya and my Mother, a woman way a head of her time. The three of us were off on another adventure this time to the small town of Sorrento, Italy. Our father loved to travel but never outside the United States after he immigrated from Albania during the first World War to escape the atrocities in his village.

He indulged our mother's wanderlust and desire to show us the world with enthusiasm. That summer, our adventuresome mother picked the spectacular hotel Bellevue Syrene perched on a sheer cliff hundreds of feet above the ocean. The converted palace was surrounded by formal gardens in full bloom and the ocean side terrace dripped with blue Wisteria. It was dinner that evening that awoke my love of food and changed the course of my life.

The dining room was a formal affair like things used to be fifty years ago. As we three approached the entrance guarded by the Maitre D', he pulled back the heavy velvet drapes exposing the jewel box like dining room. As he led us to our table the azure blue color of the Gulf of Naples view from the floor to ceiling windows was so clear we could see Capri.

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