Food, Family, and Memory

valley01_sm.jpgPerhaps it was the slant of late afternoon sunlight filtering through the vine-laced pergola, gracing the plank of organic crudités.  Maybe it was the large grape leaves serving as blotters and platters for the abundant array of fresh foods presented that perfect June day.

Of course, it also had to be the occasion.  It was 1984.  Northern California was still new to Manhattanite me.  We were celebrating the opening of my girlfriend Jessel’s Gallery, birthed in an abandoned granary building on Atlas Peak Road down the hill from the Silverado Country Club in Napa.   Diane Jessel, an artist, author, impresario, was a patron of other female artists, and had a gallery full of gifted gals’ tantalizing take away ceramics, California impressionist canvases, and funny, functional, folk art pieces. 

But I had NEVER seen a tuna salad quite like that one... 

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rackribs.jpgamy ephron colorI have an image of my father wearing a blue and white canvas pin-stripe apron over his clothes that my mother gave him (with good reason), standing over the barbecue in our backyard alternately spraying charcoal fluid (with big effect) on the briquettes and a few moments later spraying, using his thumb as a spray cap, a large bottle of Canada Dry Soda Water filled (and refilled) with water from the hose onto the resulting flames from the barbecue that were threatening to ruin his perfect barbecued ribs.  They were perfect which is sort of surprising since my father couldn’t really cook at all.  Scrambled eggs and burnt bacon is about all I remember from his repertoire except for the night he exploded a can of baked beans since he’d decided it was okay to heat them in the can (unopened) which he’d placed in a large pot of boiling water and, I think, forgotten about them.  Tip:  don’t try that at home.

But his barbecued pork ribs were perfect.  The secret was the sauce.  The secret was that he marinated them religiously overnight (turning them constantly).  The secret was that he cooked them perfectly albeit with a strange method that involved alternately kicking the fire up to high temperatures and then knocking it down.  It was a method that I still remember and it was before we knew that charcoal fluid is truly bad for you so don’t try that at home either.

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friedchickenWhat a beautiful day! Perfect for taking a walk at the beach, shopping at our local farmers' market, cooking, and eating outside.

We've cleaned off the deck. Arranged tables outside for lunch. Prepared a carrot salad and a couscous with grilled vegetables, made kosher pickles and a pasta with braised beef and watercress, soaked chicken and onion rings in buttermilk for fried chicken, and baked a custard with chocolate.

Today will be a good day.

For me the fried chicken with onion rings is the centerpiece of the meal. I have strong childhood memories of my mom making fried chicken when we went to Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica. Nothing Colonel Sanders ever made came close.

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butcher-paper-packageMy favorite Sunday night dinner is braised lamb shanks cooked with basmati rice or what we call “lamb and rice” at our house. It’s simple to prepare, truly, not because I have made it hundreds of times and could do it with my eyes closed.

It’s so fragrant and beautiful when finished; a plume of aromatic steam floats above the shank that’s covered with random pieces of tomato and onion, sitting on a mound of tomato red colored long grain rice perfectly separated.

Calliope Athanus, my Greek grandmother made this dish. She taught my French mother, who taught me. There were always lamb shanks in our freezer growing up. The butcher at the A&P saved all of them for my mother-she bought them all. When the two of us grocery shopped she always repeated to me, “ it must be the front shanks”, the fore shank. “Watch out, they always want to sell you the rear shanks” -she would shake her head and say - “they just aren’t the same.” She told me this every single time.

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img_1904.jpgMy daughter Celeste recently returned from a semester abroad in Dakar, Senegal.

She spent several months in the West African city perfecting her French, learning Wolof, the unofficial language, and studying West African culture, art and Islam. One of the biggest adjustments for her was the custom of eating out of a communal bowl….with toddlers no less! Boy, I wouldn’t want to share the plate with my own family, and we’ve been exchanging the same germs for decades.

So, what did Celeste miss most after months of mutton and rice en famille? Bacon, avocados, pie, eggs from her back yard AND Mexican food.

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