Food, Family, and Memory

kidscooking.jpgThe only time my dad came in the kitchen was to ask when dinner was ready. True to his generation he literally couldn't boil water. My mother and grandmother taught me to cook.

Long before there were neighborhood farmers' markets, my mom liked to stop at roadside stands to buy fresh tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. She followed recipes but also liked to experiment. She enjoyed having my sister and myself in the kitchen with her because she believed that cooking was fun.

I regarded it as a parental duty to teach my sons as my mom taught me.

When Franklin was six years old I gave him a step stool so he could reach the cutting board, a bunch of parsley, and a knife. He did an excellent job mincing the parsley. The only problem we had was when his mom saw that I had outfitted him with a very sharp 8" chef's knife.

She disapproved mightily. But no blood was spilled that day, and Franklin has grown up to be a very good cook, so has his younger brother. Having taught them both a few kitchen skills, they are off and running.

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androuetcheeseHow did it happen that the Androuet Restaurant in Paris could quietly disappear without fanfare or protest? How could it become a dilapidated sign over a store front; soulless, diluted and gone? Why have I waited so long to write about it? Secretly, I hoped that somehow it would come back to life.

The original cheese shop, ripening caves and restaurant was located on Rue Amsterdam. Rue Amsterdam was quirky and not so nice an area. The street was long and one-way. We would circle around for half an hour to be able to park close enough to be safe after dark. It was Mecca for a cheese lover - I am a zealot.

The tiny, refrigerated shop on the first floor was filled with every cheese made in every corner of France. Each one was ‘a’ point’-- perfectly aged and ready to eat. The three tiny, older women tended the inventory of cheeses constantly. When you walked in there was no grand greeting, only a quick look up and aloof ‘Bon jour’. I always wondered if they knew how difficult a place it was to find. If they did know how much effort it took maybe they would have been kinder. It doesn’t matter now because the best cheese shop in the world is gone. Maybe their intense concentration is what it took to maintain such high quality.

Cheese is like wine; it opens in your glass-the first long sniff of its’ aroma to the last sip of perfectness. Cheese is like that as well - birth, aging and perfection and it then it gone, too. These three women struggled to keep so many cheeses perfect. Most, barely lasting a day or two. I understood why they never looked up from their arduous work.

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home-canned-food1.jpg Peter John is my favorite cousin. He has a knack for saying, in a hilarious manner, what everyone else is thinking. At a family dinner he once joked that in the event of World War III, after the nuclear fall out, he would somehow manage to make it to my dad’s house, because it would be the only place left in Rhode Island that wouldn't run out of food.

It's true. My dad has a large basement whose food contents could rival that of any Super Stop n’ Shop or Costco. I am not sure if this is an Italian thing, or a 1950's bomb shelter thing, or because he grew up in a large family where money was not plentiful but manual labor was. I could write several posts about his canning tomatoes, pickling peppers, and stuffing sausages his whole life. I suspect there is a part of him hard-wired to always have ample amounts of food stored. Trust me, he does.

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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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idyllwild250.jpgOr maybe I should say citrus was California?  But no, despite the Southern California citrus industry going the way of the subsequent aerospace industry, I still think citrus is California.  I was inspired to write about California citrus by an article that recently ran in the Sunday Los Angeles Times’ L.A. Then and Now column: “Southern California’s Great Citrus Had It’s Crate Advertising.” The article is about the colorful labels slapped onto the wooden crates the fruit was packed in, and how they were considered cutting-edge marketing at the time.  Big, bold, multi-color images of the fruit and the growers logos let the consumer know that the oranges, lemons and grapefruit of that specific grower were special, above average. 

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