Food, Family, and Memory

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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frenchroadOkay, I admit that I have read Patricia Wells' Food Lover’s Guide to France so many times that the pages are no longer glued to its spine. My copy smells old because it is old. It isn’t all that accurate anymore but there is still some relevant information, just less. This book is the reason I have had so many treasured memories of France.

The most memorable one in the whole book for me was finding the walnut oil man - Patricia Wells wrote that he had a water wheel that aided in the extraction, used no electricity, the farm was difficult to find and beware of the dogs. All true, but so much more...

I was the navigator, not the driver that day. I was responsible for finding all the tiny little roads on our paper map to the mill. Half the roads weren’t on the map and any signage was obscured by overgrown trees. It was very rural and our afternoon was turning into either a treasure hunt or wild goose chase. I could feel we were near. When my boyfriend asked if I found the road on the map, I nodded. Not true, we were lost.

You can guess what the driver said as we drove threw the same intersection for the fourth time. “How can we be lost if you are reading the map? You know how to read a map?” “Yayyyy”, I replied - you could cut the tension with a butter knife. One more try, then I would agree to give up the goose chase. Suddenly, I saw it - the faded yellow sign covered with ivy and grown up trees like Patricia had described, only more overgrown.

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lambshanksI adore lamb shanks - even as a child. When I eat them gray clouds depart, the rain stops and on occasion I hear music. I love them that much. In a perfect world they are small, less than a pound but better closer to three quarters of a pound. They ideally come from the front leg and are called fore shanks, not the pseudo/imposter shank cut off the rear leg.

They need to be browned in a small amount of olive oil and braised slowly in stock or water to release their rustic flavor and to make them melt into tenderness. My mother always braised them in garlic, oregano, onions and chopped whole tomatoes. It was the scent of our home growing up. She’d slowly braise them on the stove for at least an hour and then placed the shanks onto raw rice and ladled the remaining liquid on top and baked them covered in the oven. When you could smell the rice, it was done but it still needed to rest for 15 more long minutes.

Our mother used ‘Greek rice.’ Lord only knows what that was. My guess is that it was long grain Basmati rice from India. No one ate much rice in Maine in those days. Our mother and my sister and I went on food shopping trips once a month to Boston. She’d order up a taxi from the doorman at the Parker House Hotel to take us to the less-safe area of Boston and have the taxi wait while we filled our shopping cart with small brown bags of ‘Greek rice’, tins of finely ground Arabic coffee for our father, pounds of feta cut from a wooden barrel, big plastic bags of Kalamata and Alfonzo olives, whole milk yogurt with a creamy top, a few long boxes of phyllo dough, dried oregano and large non-boxed heads of garlic, a tin of Greek olive oil, tiny capers and still warm spinach pies.

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blue cotton candyMy idea of a good time is dragging my sorry ass up the stairs after a long day, plopping down on the bed, snuggling with my husband and watching re-runs of Law and Order or, if God REALLY loves me, a NEW episode of Real Time With Bill Maher. This 4 star vacation is earned after a day of schlepping kids, policing homework and of course the dance of death known as feeding everyone.

I’ve lost the will to live at that point, so preparing food for myself is out of the question.  I hastily eat something over the sink or bring things up to the bed that can be dipped or combined such as pesto with bread and diet coke, or Cheezits and Cranberry Juice. Oy.

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alangrandson.jpgI sing to my grandsons, one via the wonders of video "Skype-ing," and the other up close and very personal. I perform the usual stuff mostly: "The Wheels on the Bus," "Old MacDonald,""Itsey-bitsey Spider", and "The Alphabet Song," with everyone's favorite line: "L-M-N-O-P." 

One day, however, I  found myself, singing a made-up ditty in Spanish to my Jewish-Mexican-American, two and a half year-old, West Coast grandson with a tune that  seemed vaguely familiar but that I could not, at first, place: "Yo tengo hambre ahora, Yo tengo hambre ahora, Yo tengo ha-ambre ahora, Yo tengo hambre, hambre, hambre ahoraaa."  That, by the way, translates to: "I'm hungry now" which he usually is. 

I searched my brain for the origins of the tune and discovered its source in the long buried confines of my youthful synagogue attending memories. It was the music to: "Heiveinu Sholom Aleichem." "Peace be with you" is how that translates, more or less. This is a nice sentiment that may explain its continued presence in my neuronal liturgical coffers despite my having long ago strayed from the fold.

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