Food, Family, and Memory

green olives Growing up in an Italian family in Canada, meant doing everything food-related at home. Long before words like “casareccia” (home-made) gave it respectability, we were merely those kids with giant vegetable patches for back yards, whose hundreds of relatives were always coming over to can tomatoes, roast peppers, peel beans, boil fruit, bake biscuits, make cheese, cure salami, press grapes and yes, strangle chickens. Some of those activities have diminished over the past 30 years. Indeed, if any of my generation continue the practice of strangling chickens, they’ll only be doing so as a catharsis. That said, my family continues to produce homemade Italian specialities to this day. I hope that never stops.

One thing we never got into was curing olives. I mean, we love olives. There are stories about every member of my family almost choking on an olive repeatedly in infancy. It didn’t matter which: the waterlogged run-of-the-mill canned ones, the meaty, slightly bitter, crunchy ones a relative smuggled back from Italy in his luggage, the prune-sized black ones that were so oily I’d call the dog over to wipe my hands on....

So given that my family loved olives and was so adept at curing and preserving food, why did we never do olives? A quick poll of the family one night over dinner gave me a unanimous answer to the question: I dunno.

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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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sap-bucket.jpgPerhaps it's my New England roots, but many of my favorite recipes, both savory and sweet, include maple syrup as a key ingredient. Of course, I always have it on hand to adorn things like my Crispy French Toast, Banana Pancakes, and Fluffy Buttermilk Waffles or to drizzle over my steel cut oatmeal, but I keep a major reserve to use as a "secret ingredient" in many of my other recipes. And this is the time of year that I begin to replenish my personal supply of 100% pure maple syrup.

There is no sweeter harbinger of spring than the sugary sap that flows from maple trees around the middle of March in Northern New England. In late winter and early spring, the roots of the maple trees are loaded with a clear, sweet liquid and it is the ideal combination of freezing nights and warm days that induces sap flow. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water uptake from the soil, and temperatures above freezing cause a stem pressure to develop, which allows the sap to flow out of tap holes made in the tree trunks. We had several maple trees at our house, and my brother and I, after a few hours of playing in the snow, would rejuvenate ourselves by sneaking handfuls of the sugary water-like sap from the gray lidded tin buckets that my Dad put out each year to collect the sap.

It was not uncommon to take a "Sunday drive" with my parents and head off to one of the many local "sugar houses" to watch the actual maple syrup production. You could spot them in the distance with the plumes of steam and smoke and, as you got closer, you could actually begin to smell the maple aroma in the air.

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freshcarrotsBy now, I doubt my parents are surprised by anything I do. I’ve dragged them along through three (maybe four) different careers, from North Carolina to New York City to Newport and Newtown. Surely this latest venture—farming on Martha’s Vineyard—has given them a chuckle (and a wrinkle) or two. But they’ve never been anything but supportive.

Still, I don’t think they realized that Roy and I were going to put them to work as farm hands when they came to visit last week.

We didn’t have a choice. I don’t get to see my parents much, and I didn’t want to miss spending time with them. But the farm stand has been hopping and there are a zillion plants still to get in the ground (not to mention the daily farm chores of harvesting and egg collecting and washing), and no matter how early you get up, half the day slips by in a heartbeat.

So we had family farm time. This is a most excellent concept, I tell you. Now I know why farmers traditionally had big families. Lots of help! Help that already speaks your language, knows your quirks, and can interpret instructions without a lot of explanation.

Granted my parents, though they are not exactly young anymore (they don’t want me to embarrass them, but they’re probably used to that, too, by now), know their way around plants and fresh food. My Dad is a talented landscape gardener and long-time plantsman, so asking him to turn over soil was like asking him to put on his socks. (And turn over soil he did, de-weeding a huge bed and making it tomato-ready in only a few hours.) My Mom is a great cook and vegetable lover, so asking her to help wash and pack greens was a no-brainer.

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groceries.jpg I pretty much know where everything is in every supermarket in LA. Owen’s Market has the best meat counter. Elat Market has the best hummus and eggplant dips. Whole Foods, as much as I don’t want to admit it, has the best pre-cooked shrimp. The Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica is great for heirloom tomatoes. Fresh & Easy has the best olive bread. Bay Cities has the best baguettes. I could go on for pages. It’s not my fault. It’s genetic.

When I was younger, I thought it took five hours to drive from LA to Santa Barbara because my mom convinced us we had to stop to eat at least three times on the way (at John’s Garden for fresh juice, at the Malibu Fish Market for fried fish sandwiches and at some divey Mexican place in Oxnard for tacos). When I went away to college I found out it takes five hours to drive to San Francisco and about 1 1/2 hours to drive to Santa Barbara, and, in fact, you probably don’t have to stop to eat even once on the way.

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