Food, Family, and Memory

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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poolparty.jpgEvery summer when we were kids, my brother and I would visit my grandparents on Lake Minnetonka in Orono, Minnesota. We spent some of our days waterskiing on Mud Lake, seeing plays at the Guthrie, and riding the rollercoaster at Mall of America. But most of our WASPy Midwestern days were spent at the Woodhill Country Club playing tennis or lounging poolside.  Many teenagers were bored by Woodhill’s sea of Lilly Pulitzer sundresses and Brooks Brothers’ monogrammed golf-sweaters, but I was fascinated. I was convinced (since I was a teenage TV junkie) the Woodhill Country Club, built among some the largest estates of suburban Minneapolis, was built on a bedrock of scandal.

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chickendinnerWe had friends to dinner the other night, a nice little party with flowers and wine and Josie upstairs.  These days I like making it nice but not stiff, special without fuss – but just a few years back it was all fuss all the time – to a newly minted chef girl, married girl, grown-up girl, hosting meant acrobatic recipes, exotic combinations, an absurdly high drive to please.

Our first true guests were from my husband’s office, a funny and casual couple who were treated to undercooked, over-garlicked lamb and several under-mixed, over-ginned martinis.  The evening would feature a clogged sink, dishwater buckets, our crotch-poking Dalmatian and one seriously wailing fire alarm.  The last thing they saw was Greg broom-whacking the smoke detector and me at the sink, right hand down the drain and left hand in the air.  Bye, great having you! Everyone meets these horrors, but why?  When you turn 25 they should hand you a pamphlet called Hosting! Relax and Don’t Try Anything New. Let’s face it, the clues were there – the oven temp was off, I’d never mixed martinis, I tied that lamb loose as a blind butcher.  I could have seared steaks or made cheese fondue or even flipped omelets.  I could have used a standby.

A lot of people say they don’t do standbys, they prefer something new, something dazzling, an unknown mushroom or an expensive hunk of cheese.  Okay, dazzlers:  I don’t care if you’re Julia Child, there are people coming at seven.  That mushroom could taste like dung and the cheese might hit the floor, so do what you know.  Do what you do well, be comfortable and your guests will be comfortable, do a standby.

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emptynestEver since joining the club, my diet has changed. Health club? Good God no! Book club, country club, beach club? Wrong again! I am now a card carrying member of the worldwide group of “empty nesters.” The club one is automatically granted membership to once their last or only child leaves the house for college or life elsewhere. No dues, no rules, and absolutely no where to go!

When my husband and I dropped the youngest of our two daughters off at college this past September in London no less, (our eldest went east to upstate NY, but not far enough for our baby, she needed another continent!) there were, of course, tears. I did cry myself to sleep the night after we said goodbye. Exhaustion and jet lag could’ve played into it a bit. We should have planned the trip better. A week to shop for a college room in a foreign city, plus a winter wardrobe (her Southern Cal cutoffs and T-shirts wouldn’t do in London come October) and her own kitchen setup as her dorm had no cafeteria just a communal kitchen on every floor that the 8 residents to a hallway shared, was a race I barely won.

Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom, as I learned with the first college drop, sets it up so well. The last few weeks before they leave, the kids are so nervous aka obnoxious, you really can’t wait to kiss them goodbye, put the pedal to the metal and head home. The old gal was on the job this time as well, but London is so far away from Los Angeles and this was my baby! Even though she had me running in and out of every frigging vintage shop in London for the winter coat that didn’t exist, and up and down the escalator at the largest Tesco ever created until I begged for an oxygen tank, (“Excuse me Sir, would you happen to have an inhaler I could borrow?”) I fell to pieces after we left her. So much for the year of living dangerously. Senior year when I didn’t know who to kill, her or me...or my husband, for if I hadn’t married him to begin with...

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cookingbarefootMy sister and I were raised in a house with two working parents. When we were younger, our father worked nights while our mother worked days. This schedule left our dad on dinner duty. Luckily, having been raised by a working mother himself, our father already had cooking skills in place. My mother, who didn’t know the difference between olive oil and Karo syrup, wrote a note to my dad’s mom thanking her for teaching him how to cook. My mother claims it was Gloria Steinem’s influence that led her to delegate my dad to kitchen duty, but really it was because he was the only one who knew how to “wear the apron” in the house.

Despite our mother’s feminist take on women in the kitchen, my sister and I happily cook at our stoves, bare-feet and all. I’ll whip up lunches and dinners for friends and family, but Alexandra goes beyond, preparing dinner for her new husband nearly every night. I recently had the opportunity to witness this firsthand when I invited myself (last minute) to their Upper West Side apartment for dinner. When I entered, Alexandra called out from her galley kitchen, “I’m making fish tacos. Go sit down at the table.” I went into the dining room and saw their new table was set with their brand new “everyday” dishware I had purchased for them off their wedding registry. My brother-in-law entered a few moments later and, in between work calls, began to pour a buttery, slightly sweet white wine to accompany the spicy fish tacos.

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