Food, Family, and Memory

Aileen Bordman GivernyNaively, I asked for larks. The grocery clerk seemed perplexed.
      “You know,” I added …  “song birds? And, laurel branches, please.”  

Armed with my shopping list from my 1954 edition of the Alice B Toklas cookbook  (the Hashish Fudge recipe was expunged from that edition) I was beginning life as a newly wed.  I didn’t realize that Alice B Toklas was not Betty Crocker; that our local grocery store in Fort Worth, Texas was not a wildfowl and gourmet food purveyor circa Paris 1920’s; and that I wasn’t cooking for Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse or Braque. I was a recently graduated art student and lookin’ to live La Vie Bohème.  Anything that associated delicious food and painting was what I most wanted in life.  Since I was a woman and not a man-with-a-wife, if I wanted it, I was going to have to do it all myself! And, so … arm in arm with Alice, I started my career as a would-be painter/chef.  Never made Alice’s Larks. However, the super impressed clerks at my market thought I was an authentic epicurean, and I never dared tell them otherwise.

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ChickMagnetChickenG 2159My nephew, who lives in a tiny New York apartment, called me with a recipe emergency. He’d invited a new Potential Girlfriend (PGF) over for dinner and wanted to cook something that was cheap and easy but impressive. I thought this was ambitious for a guy whose cooking skills are limited to pouring cereal and microwaving popcorn, but I had an idea.

Henry’s understanding of ingredients is, shall we say, unsophisticated; he has probably never spoken the words “paprika” or “fennel.” But he did well with the shopping list I gave him, texting me only once when he was bewildered by varieties of olive oil.

We began Skype instruction two hours before the PGF’s ETA. “So, first you preheat your oven to 350 degrees,” I said.

After a brief silence, Henry admitted that the oven was where he keeps his shoes. After a less brief silence on my end, I told him to get the (damn) shoes out of his oven and call me back. We hung up, resuming instruction five minutes later when Henry’s oven was vacated.

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helpposter.jpgThe Help surprised some people that Southern whites could treat their servants with so much inhumanity in the 1960's. I was shocked by a few specific incidents, but not surprised. I saw it close up as a child. Not in Jackson, Miss., where the story is set, but in my hometown of Beverly Hills where the help was almost exclusively 'negro,' before the Black Power Movement and the influx of Hispanic housekeepers and nannies in the late 70's and early 80's.

My overly emotional reaction to the film puzzled me. Good story, great performances, but floods of tears? On the drive home, memory hit and re-opened an old wound that I had hidden away. Of course... ESMUS HEMPHILL, our black maid in the 50's & 60's who was let go when I left for college and who I never thanked enough for all she did or properly protected her against my mother's unconscious cruelty towards her.

My mother, born into working class Memphis in 1925, became politically liberal, but personally she still carried a few racist seeds in her DNA. She would sit at the head of our dining table in Beverly Hills and ring a sterling silver bell to signal to Esmus that it was time to serve.

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STOCK chicken beakerA roasted chicken goes a long way in our house. It is one of those easy dishes that requires very little prep. Stuffing the cavity with a whole lemon cut in half, a whole garlic bulb cut in half, some thyme, salt, and pepper creates the simplest of flavors. Smear the body with soft butter, lots of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, toss in the oven for about an hour and a half. Serve it with some roasted carrots and some sort of green and dinner is on the table for just a few bucks.

Rarely does all the chicken meat get consumed. Left overs get shredded, made into enchiladas, soft tacos, or thrown into soups. The carcass gets tossed into a big stock pot along with some chicken necks, lots of roots, vegetables, and herbs. Cover with water, bring to a boil, cover it and let it simmer for 24 hours.

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chef-giada-de-laurentiis-cookslaraine newman cameo lgBetween 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.

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