Food, Family, and Memory

toastiteI 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.

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teacakesFor 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.

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chocolatesquares “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.

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jessiejuneatlake.jpgIf you’ve never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “The Last American Man”, I suggest you pick it up this Fourth for a bit of quirky, patriotic fun.  It chronicles the true story of a modern day hero who lives in a teepee in the Appalachian Mountains, eating only what he himself picks, raises or kills.  The guy is an egomaniac and a genius, and the writing, especially when detailing how he forages in the woods, is funny and sensitive and page-turningly good.     

The only problem with that book is the title.  He’s not the last American man. My mother is.

She spends every summer, and most of every fall, wading through rivers with a fly-fishing rod, and hiking giant, shale-covered mountains to sleep under the stars.  She’s had staring contests with bears and cougars, weathered lightning storms under scraggly trees, and once hiked three miles back to her truck with a broken tailbone.   

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shippingnews.jpgMy dad lived part-time in Sag Harbor and made the drive from the city every weekend in every type of weather. I would visit him and my stepmother every summer, and we’d stay put for the weekend, usually poolside. My dad and I would swim back and forth and read books and nap. He would do his Sunday puzzle and I would nudge him for clues; I would read books he gave me and he would nudge me about which part I was up to. Because to me, my dad was part Phillip Roth and part John Updike, I read Phillip Roth and John Updike. Because we both loved to punctuate the headier reading with murder mysteries, he would toss me his copies of Lee Child or Lawrence Block, and I would gobble them up like candy. I still have the water swollen copy of Annie Proulx’s Shipping News that he accidentally tossed into the water in order to save me from a hovering bee, and I remember how he had said he envied my getting to read it for the first time.

But what would any return home to the family be without the requisite favorite foods? Besides the inevitable Saturday night Maine lobster dinner, the most memorable part of the summer food wise, in addition to the musk melons and the corn and potatoes and other fresh fare at the roadside markets, were the little blue and white checkered bags of chocolate chip cookies that one could find only at Kathleen’s Bakeshop.

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