Food, Family, and Memory

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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frittatapanWhen I was a kid, Lent never seemed that hard to me. I had to give up something I really loved like Snickers (which I seriously needed to cut back on anyway) and avoid meat on Fridays (which meant eating my grandmother's fri--taaa-taas). Eating Nan's frittatas was not a sacrifice.

Frittata is nothing more than eggs with vegetables, cheeses, or meats cooked into it. Yet, my grandmother's frittatas were always something special -- delicious, healthy, and comforting.

Whether or not you recognize Lent or have an Italian grandmother, there are many reasons why you should know how to make a frittata:

  • They're ridiculously fast and easy to make.
  • They're the perfect meal for the end of the week when you've run out of food. You could put just about anything in a frittata, (though I'd avoid chocolate chips).
  • They're endlessly versatile. Make them with whole eggs, egg whites, or Egg Beaters; add meats, cheeses, or veggies; and eat 'em for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
  • They make great leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. Try some in a sandwich.
  • They're so much fun to say. Come on, you know you want to say it like Nan used to. So in your best Italian grandmother accent and say, "fri--taaa-taa" as if it's the greatest word in the world. I know for Nan, it was right up there with "pizzelle" or her favorite word, "bingo."
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ImageBack in the days when evening television was interactive family entertainment, when Ed Sullivan and "College Bowl" were on, my family used to gather in the TV room. In our house, that was the bar. It had a Fleetwood television built into the wall, with the controls built in next to the silk-covered sofa on which my mother would always lie, on her back, her head propped up by four pillows.

Next to her, on the coffee table, was a Dewars-and-soda on ice and a pack of Kent filters. My sisters and I would lie on the floor, my father would sit in his teak rocking chair, and we would watch television and eat TV snacks—clam dip baked on toasted Pepperidge Farm white bread; Beluga caviar, whenever anyone sent it over; a really disgusting (but great) dip made out of cottage cheese, mayonnaise, chives, and Worcestershire sauce, with ruffled potato chips; and Mommy's favorite, blanched and toasted almonds.

"Oh, goody," she would say, " 'College Bowl' is on tonight. Let's make blanched almonds."

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Sometimes, learning to cook is the best thing a child can do

thanksgiving table ideas In our house, the first smell of Thanksgiving was not turkey roasting or pumpkin pie but the bleach-sweet steam of my mother ironing the good tablecloth. I remember it from a time when I was small enough to creep unnoticed beneath the ironing board while she painstakingly transformed an undistinguished hump of wrinkled linen into a curtain of shimmering white. With a curt flick of her wrist, my mother sprinkled each length with water from a yellow, plastic bottle designed for this purpose, and then the iron would sizzle a path just above my head. Soon I was surrounded by a linen tent. The smell sparkled like hot stars.

So my Thanksgiving apprenticeship began.

Discovered, I was set to work folding the napkins, the first task allotted to small children wanting to be holiday helpers. The next year, I was allowed to place them beside each plate. My eyes were not that much higher than the table's surface and it seemed the most glamorous thing I had ever seen, a snowy landscape forested by crystal trees, glittering with silver and dishes of every size.

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boy-cooking.jpgWhen I was a kid, I was pretty much a geek.  At nine I started to stutter so badly that the school put me into a class for “special” students and my parents sent me to a psychologist.  The approach favored by the psychologist was to withhold talking until I said something.  Since I didn’t want to stutter and didn’t want to talk to him anyway, we mostly spent 50 minutes in silence.

My father was a pragmatist which meant he figured that whatever was was, so if I was socially awkward and stuttered, that’s who I was and he left it at that.  My mother however was an optimist.  She had proudly attended Hunter Model School in New York and felt that she was part of the liberal intelligentsia that wouldn’t rest until the world was cleansed of poverty, racism, sexism, and war.  Reading about the latest armed conflict in the newspaper, she would proclaim with frustration, “Why can’t people just get along?”

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