Food, Family, and Memory

aunt iida"Hey, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick." - Clemenza teaching Michael to cook. The Godfather, Part I.


When Jeff and I were dating, we would on occasion deliver papers for his family’s Sunday morning paper route. I distinctly remember his mother’s detailed descriptions of whose paper went where: Mr. Lisi, the front door, Ms. Vitale, the side door, the Di Fusco’s, the front door if the screen was open but the back if it was locked. I also distinctly remember the smell that hit you when you walked up each of the little driveways early in the morning and opened the screen doors. Not coffee, not maple syrup, not bacon and eggs, but gravy.

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melomakarona.jpgAs my daughters will attest, I am not a cook. 

Indeed, the only thing I have ever cooked is brown rice and boiled eggs (you notice I said boiled and not scrambled or poached or anything remotely requiring any cooking skills) so it was a testament to my attempts to be fearless, that the first time I cooked anything more complicated than brown rice or a boiled egg, was on national television on Martha Stewart’s show...

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strawberries-sliced-and-fresh.jpgMy Auntie Vera and Uncle Johnny lived in a small house on a large piece of property in a rural area near North Judson, Indiana. They were my dad’s aunt and uncle. Through my child eyes, they seemed old enough to be grandparents. They had no children of their own, though, so they loved spoiling me and my brother. My favorite time to visit them was during strawberry season. I knew I could look forward to Auntie Vera’s delicious strawberry shortcake.

Before we arrived, she would pick the fresh, sweet berries from her large garden. After cleaning and slicing them, she would sprinkle them lightly with sugar and let them sit out on the kitchen counter until dessert time. Her homemade shortcakes would be cooling on a rack on the counter right beside the strawberries.

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freddetartI saw a beautiful fruit tart today, but I didn’t buy it. Though one brief glimpse of its light crust, glistening white cream & assorted seasonal berries and our whole intense love affair came rushing back.

It’s the mid 1970’s. The place: Patrick Terrail’s West Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison. An old house on Melrose converted into the most innovative, modern French restaurant of its day. It was so very French and so very Hollywood, and when those two worlds collided on that patio of Astroturf and umbrellas, it was magic.

Big Hollywood deals were made, infamous fights broke out, and occasionally I was lucky enough – if someone with more money was paying—to be there, enjoying the food. That’s where it began – an infatuation that would turn into a stalker’s obsession. They had me at crème anglaise.

I was there a lot with Jackie Mason, which sounds so random, sort of like my celebrity dreams, but he was a friend of my dad’s and we went as his guest, or vice versa. Often, when we were at a meal with Jackie, he would do his bit:

Gentiles never finish drinking, Jews never finish eating. What do you think Jews talk about for breakfast? Where to eat lunch. At lunch: "Where should we have dinner?"

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keylimepie.jpg So what's the first thing to order in the Florida Keys, after the mojito and conch fritters? Key lime pie, of course. So we did.  We ordered a slice just about everywhere we ate, and the hands-down best came not from a fancy waterfront restaurant or anywhere on Duval Street, but from the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.

We went to the store on Big Pine Key at mile marker 30, next to Pizza Works in the scenic Winn-Dixie plaza. The company sells pies out of about twenty other locations.

 

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