Food, Family, and Memory

aunt iida"Hey, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick." - Clemenza teaching Michael to cook. The Godfather, Part I.

When Jeff and I were dating, we would on occasion deliver papers for his family’s Sunday morning paper route. I distinctly remember his mother’s detailed descriptions of whose paper went where: Mr. Lisi, the front door, Ms. Vitale, the side door, the Di Fusco’s, the front door if the screen was open but the back if it was locked. I also distinctly remember the smell that hit you when you walked up each of the little driveways early in the morning and opened the screen doors. Not coffee, not maple syrup, not bacon and eggs, but gravy.

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lambshanksI adore lamb shanks - even as a child. When I eat them gray clouds depart, the rain stops and on occasion I hear music. I love them that much. In a perfect world they are small, less than a pound but better closer to three quarters of a pound. They ideally come from the front leg and are called fore shanks, not the pseudo/imposter shank cut off the rear leg.

They need to be browned in a small amount of olive oil and braised slowly in stock or water to release their rustic flavor and to make them melt into tenderness. My mother always braised them in garlic, oregano, onions and chopped whole tomatoes. It was the scent of our home growing up. She’d slowly braise them on the stove for at least an hour and then placed the shanks onto raw rice and ladled the remaining liquid on top and baked them covered in the oven. When you could smell the rice, it was done but it still needed to rest for 15 more long minutes.

Our mother used ‘Greek rice.’ Lord only knows what that was. My guess is that it was long grain Basmati rice from India. No one ate much rice in Maine in those days. Our mother and my sister and I went on food shopping trips once a month to Boston. She’d order up a taxi from the doorman at the Parker House Hotel to take us to the less-safe area of Boston and have the taxi wait while we filled our shopping cart with small brown bags of ‘Greek rice’, tins of finely ground Arabic coffee for our father, pounds of feta cut from a wooden barrel, big plastic bags of Kalamata and Alfonzo olives, whole milk yogurt with a creamy top, a few long boxes of phyllo dough, dried oregano and large non-boxed heads of garlic, a tin of Greek olive oil, tiny capers and still warm spinach pies.

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preserves lg There is a difference between jam and preserves.  Jam is sweet fruit you spread on toast.  Preserves are a frozen moment in time—a piece of summer that you can carry with you the rest of the year:  high grass, long naps, warm evenings, your front porch… 

My neighbor Mary Wellington makes preserves.

Mary is a farmer.  And not only a single-family farmer--a single farmer.  She works three acres of very diverse orchards of Glenn Annie canyon all by herself, on which she grows over fifty varieties of fruit. 

Her preserves were so treasured and ubiquitous at local farmer’s markets that many people came to call her “The Jam Lady.” Her Blenheim Apricot jam is intoxicating.  Her Blood Orange marmalade is insane.  The red raspberry is well… indescribable.  But Mary Wellington preserves more than fruit.

If you wander up Glen Annie you will find a two story clapboard farmhouse peeking out from behind the persimmon tree.  Mary will greet you with her typical burst of enthusiasm and a clap of her hands.  She will launch into an impromptu tour of her orchard and its latest bounty:  You will flit from tree to tree sampling God’s offerings in a feast of the senses that is literally Edenic.  (I know I get religious about food—but I was raised that way.)   Taste the Santa Rosas… Smell the outside of this blood orange… Look at the color on these apricots... Oh don’t mind the bruise—just taste it.

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drink vanillabeancreamsoda smI grew up drinking Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. I loved it. I would go to Art’s Deli with my dad and nothing made me happier than a big bowl of matzo ball soup, a potato knish, and a bottle of cream soda. Oh, how wonderful it would be to be 14 again and eat all the carbs one desires. Sigh….

Just recently, my two older boys were dining with friends at our favorite, local deli; Factors, and it was here that they discovered Dr. Brown’s. A bit of nostalgia crept in along with a smile. Going to Art’s with my dad was always a treat, whether I got my “usual” or shared a corn beef sandwich with him, Dr. Brown’s always accompanied my meal. So, I find it only natural that my kids taste a bit of my childhood while they enjoy their favorite meal at our neighborhood deli.

One problem. We have a no soda rule in our house. They have become really respectful of the rule, however there are those times that they are with friends and the mom orders the drinks without hesitation. The open bottle of either black cherry or cream soda is too tempting. They are 11 and 14 after all, and I do let some things slide.

Instead of always saying no, whether in the super market or at a restaurant, I chose to try my hand at making one of their favorite at home. Granted, this is not going to become a household staple, but a rare treat always brings smiles to their faces and there is nothing wrong with seeing their eyes light up at that first sip or taste.

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barsI wish I could tell you exactly how many yards it was for me to get to Roxbury Park to give you the visual.    A hop.   Not even a skip and a jump.  I walked two houses up, crossed Olympic and I was there.

That is where I spent my summers.  Basically, doing absolutely nothing.  Kind of like a Seinfeld episode.  No sunblock.  No checking in with my mother.  I didn’t excel at anything in Roxbury Park.  Not at caroms.  Not the monkey bars.  And certainly not the rings.

At the rings, I watched other kids adept at swinging quickly back and forth from one to the next.  I stood high up one day, grabbed ahold and leapt off, but unable to catch the next ring, which seemed to move further and further away, I landed back where I started.  I spent long days trying to push myself further until I did finally grab onto that second one, which was such a victory.   Then I kept swinging back and forth, trying to gain the momentum I would need to get to the next, but failed and dropped to the ground.  Again I tried, over and over, all summer until I was finally able to go back and forth, leaving the other kids waiting in line, drumming their fingers.  And like a monkey, I would copy what the other ring junkies would do just before taking over the set for their performance.  They would dig their hands into the sand and rub some of it between their palms for better friction.  Or use chalk.   It never seemed to work for me, but I did it to look cool, like them.  Inevitably all us monkeys ended up with blisters.

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