Food, Family, and Memory

honeycombbowl.jpgMy mother prepared us breakfast every day of the week because she was not about to send us off to school on an empty stomach. Yet the only day I really remember eating breakfast was on Saturday. Not because she cooked an elaborate spread, but because we were left to fend for ourselves. It was the one morning my parents slept in – probably only to about 8 or 9, but it seemed like all morning and it was a thrill to be without parental supervision in the dining room. My siblings and I weren’t what you’d call “skilled” in the culinary arts, but we were quite capable of pouring a bowl cereal…and that’s where the trouble started.

These were the days before whole grains, when cereal was “crack” for kids, so filled with sugar one bowl probably exceeded your daily nutritional requirements for carbohydrates. There was no fiber to be found and we LOVED it. While in grammar school, we were allowed to “request” our favorite brand, but my mother had a strict food budget, so we never knew what we were actually going to find in the cupboard. If your choice was on sale, then it was your lucky week and the world was your oyster.

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gingersnaps.jpg There are certain social barriers we face throughout our lives, that when knocked down, make a big impression on us.  Especially when you’re a kid.  When I was in the 6th grade at Hawthorn Elementary School my homeroom teacher whose name escapes me, but for our purposes let’s just call her Miss Pritchard, had a kickass ginger snap recipe.  Up until that time the store bought ones always burned my tongue so I just ruled them out in my cookie lexicon. They were also flat where Miss Pritchard’s were fluffy and thick. The sugar that dusted the store bought ones gave off that diamond glint but Miss Pritchard’s looked like something you saw when you opened a treasure chest.  They were also crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Hoo yeah!

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greenspotI 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.

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lattdad.jpgI associate mail order food with my father.  When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections.  He took me to only one professional football game.  He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies.  I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving.  I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around. 

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy.  He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea.  Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family.  Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was taken literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev.  He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair.  When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

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schneckenWhether you like FaceBook or not, it has its' merits. People and relatives are easier to find.

Last week a woman left me a message and a friend request. I hesitated.  I had no idea from her picture who this person was and why she was ‘friending’ me. Curious, I opened up her profile. This dark haired, beautiful woman was my second cousin.

After the surprise of finding a new family member, I explored her profile to find out about her, as I hadn’t seen her in 50 years. She still lived in Florida, the last place that I had visited with her and her family but this time she was all grown up.

Brenda is her name, just like mine. Odd that we share the same name and she is older by barely a month. We messaged back and forth that evening and I liked her. Then she announced that she was coming to Maine 3 days later to see the foliage with her husband. I invited them to dinner and to stay at my house. She declined but agreed to visit us at our store. The common thread we shared was my aunt Alice, my mother’s aunt and her grandmother.

I felt compelled to tell her some obscure piece of information so she had no doubt that I was truly the correct Brenda. I don’t know why.  I said if she stayed overnight I would make pineapple schnecken, for breakfast just like aunt Alice always made for me. She knew I was ‘the’ Brenda that she was looking for. I knew exactly how to make the schnecken because I had saved the recipe in a special place for 50 years in my heart.

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