Food, Family, and Memory

happy-hourWhat the hell is Happy Hour and why is everyone talking about it? The happiest hour for me is when I eat. But if it means standing around with drinks in your hand, eating from some communal barrel of glop, count me out. I don’t think Happy Hour would have appeal for me even if it were at a restaurant I wanted to go to. It just sounds awful. Or am I a snob?

The other day, I was recommending my new favorite restaurant in L.A., Tar and Roses, to someone who then asked, “Do they have a Happy Hour?” I was baffled by the question. It’s so foreign to me.

And then I got an invitation to join my daughter and her best friend Cody and a bunch of their hot 27-year-old friends for what I thought was dinner. But it wasn’t. It was Happy Hour at some Mexican restaurant’s bar (Marix Tex Mex). And while I think it’s brilliant for young people not yet making big money to be able to eat like that, I just couldn’t do it. I asked for a proper menu.

Today, it was back and forth all day about where to meet “in town.” The dreaded driving–into-town-for-an-hour-or-two-of-traffic hell. I hate it. I’m almost over it, but I’m so friggin social, I go anyway. I just wish I had a private helicopter to jet me around. Do you watch Dr. Oz? If you do, you know that to live an extra six years, it’s good to socialize. I was getting updates throughout the day and the number of chicks invited grew by the hour. I snuck in, or so I thought -- a switcheroo.

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recipe-box.jpgIt took me half my life to realize that when Guadalupe Contreras says “Gadaymee”, she means to say, “Goddamn it”. I thought for years that she had been referring to my sister, whose name is Amy, with a level of stifled frustration that I found hard to account for. I told a Spanish-speaking friend about this misunderstanding a while back, and he in turn informed me that my Spanish pronunciation of “I’m scared” (tengo miedo) sounds a lot like “I have shit” (tengo mierda). I relayed this conversation to Lupe. She claimed to disagree.

There are some things whose very greatness lies in the fact that they can’t be translated, or imitated at all, without some diminishment of their essence. This is often the case with poetry in translation, but I believe the phenomenon extends to other things, like bed-head, or fans of the Boston Red Sox. We read translations anyway, of course, secure that what we find in them will still be more than enough, that the meaning of a word, a palabra, can transcend language. Recipes can be like this for those who collect them, more than a list of ingredients, or a formula for the cook. Cooking from a recipe, or merely writing it down, is itself an act of translation, and so the closer that recipe comes to the source, the better. I feel this way about Albondigas soup, which is why my sister and I decided to take a lesson in preparing it from the true master, a woman who takes her own sources seriously, kneading raw beef like bread dough, and starting her meat stock with a pile of scary, dull white bones: Guadalupe Contreras.

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mattbreadpudding.jpgGrowing up there were just some things that this little pudgy boy would not eat. High on the short list of food items, along with sour cream and avocados, was this recipe called Capirotada. No matter how hard they tried I just wouldn’t move past the strange blend of ingredients that went into this Mexican bread pudding.

Now it’s the only thing I want to eat.

Capirotada is a Mexican bread pudding that’s normally served during Lent. Because of this it has always featured any ingredients that were on hand and someone on the humble side of desserts — a tad bit plain and not too sweet. And like most recipes coming from a country as diverse as Mexico, it’s also infinitely adaptable. It’s hard to find the same recipe for Capirotada when you begin to look around and speak with Mexican cooks.

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honeycombbowl.jpgMy mother prepared us breakfast every day of the week because she was not about to send us off to school on an empty stomach. Yet the only day I really remember eating breakfast was on Saturday. Not because she cooked an elaborate spread, but because we were left to fend for ourselves. It was the one morning my parents slept in – probably only to about 8 or 9, but it seemed like all morning and it was a thrill to be without parental supervision in the dining room. My siblings and I weren’t what you’d call “skilled” in the culinary arts, but we were quite capable of pouring a bowl cereal…and that’s where the trouble started.

These were the days before whole grains, when cereal was “crack” for kids, so filled with sugar one bowl probably exceeded your daily nutritional requirements for carbohydrates. There was no fiber to be found and we LOVED it. While in grammar school, we were allowed to “request” our favorite brand, but my mother had a strict food budget, so we never knew what we were actually going to find in the cupboard. If your choice was on sale, then it was your lucky week and the world was your oyster.

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from-our-gardenAlessandra, a neighbor of ours in Umbria, is a wonderful cook.

That’s a redundant statement, as virtually everyone in Umbria cooks well. Wait, let me qualify that — virtually every woman in Umbria is a wonderful cook. Boys were urged by their mothers to do other things — careers and such — whereas the girls fashioned ravioli with their nimble fingers before they learned to walk.

Anyway, Alessandra once served us an appetizer of various flora — zucchini flowers, sage and basil leaves — that were dipped in the lightest, most elegant batter I have ever tasted and then flash fried. They were appetizing indeed. When I pressed her for the batter recipe, she said, “It’s simple to remember — everything is one.”

As I struggled to comprehend this Zen concept, she scribbled the recipe on a napkin, which I still have.

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