Food, Family, and Memory

joycookingcoverI’m not a good cook. My mother was an outstanding culinary creator, my older sister following closely on Mom’s Beef Wellington tracks. Not me. I veered off the path and out of the kitchen to do something--almost anything--else.

When I was married I fed my family, but I have to admit that probably my major cooking achievement was meat loaf. You know, the kind with the goopy raw egg that you squeeze through the meat with your fingers: the loaf that you form and finish off with that strip of bacon on the top.

My family didn’t starve but neither did their eyes widen over my delicate soufflés or my perfectly browned, crispy-skinned, Thanksgiving turkeys. We went out with friends to a local club for our Thanksgiving feast. I confess to never having cooked a turkey in my life.

Then, as the gods would have it, there came a time in my mid-forties when - because my second divorce was pending - I found myself living alone for the first time in 23 years in a rented 200 year-old farm house in a town where I knew no one. So stressed was I that all I could manage to eat was soup and Campbell’s quite quickly lost its appeal.

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This is an excerpt from the book "Clothing Optional: And Other Ways to Read These Stories"

weekend_update_b.jpgWe had just started Saturday Night Live, I was an apprentice writer, 24 years old and I felt intimidated.  Chevy was hysterically funny. So was John and Danny and Gilda and Franken. And Michael O’Donoghue, well, Michael O’Donoghue simply scared the shit out of me. So I stayed pretty much to myself. One day I came to work, and on my desk was a framed cartoon. A drawing – no caption – of a drunken rabbi staggering home late and holding a wine bottle. And waiting for him on the other side of the door was his angry wife, getting ready to hit him with a Torah instead of a rolling pin. I had no idea who put it there. I started looking around and out of the corner of my eye I saw a white-haired man in his office, laughing.  He had put it there. That was the first communication I had with Herb Sargent– which was significant given that he never spoke and he gave me a cartoon that had no caption.

30rock.jpgI had seen him years before. Or at least I think I did. When I was a kid. My father manufactured jewelry and he had his shop on 52nd Street between Fifth and Madison. I used to come into the city from Long Island and run errands for him during the summer. And no matter where the delivery was supposed to go, I made sure I got there by going through the lobby of what was then called the RCA Building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, with the hopes that maybe I would see Johnny Carson (whose show was upstairs) or some of the people from That Was the Week That Was: Buck Henry, Bob Dishy, David Frost – or Herb Sargent, who was the producer. I knew his name from the credits. As a young boy who wanted to be a TV writer some day, this was like hanging around outside of Yankee Stadium waiting to see the players going through to the clubhouse.

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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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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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photo-6Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of cooking with my Great-est niece and nephew, Lauren and Max. The question of what to make was easy, it had to be simple and memorable. My goal was for them to remember what we created together forever like my memories of cooking with my mother. Forever means to me that they will think of our afternoon when they eat any of the three things we made: butter, strawberry jam and cinnamon bread. Everyday food, so basic but rarely handmade anymore and if you want to interest kids in cooking you need to show them ‘food magic.’

We first started with activating or blooming the yeast- Not so interesting to them at first until I explained that yeast is a plant and like all plants it blooms in it’s own way. I didn’t have their attention yet, but I knew I would shortly. The yeast started to bubble and swell minutes after it came in contact with the sweetened warm water. They were watching-ish. I explained the process of bread making and my basic formula. How was I to explain gluten development to a 3 year old and 6 year old well enough for them to understand, much less care? I could hear the mantra repeatedly in my mind- DON’T TELL THEM, SHOW THEM. So, I did.

We added the liquid including the yeast to the flour/oats mixture and those small hands dove in without any prompting. I explained how cooking is visual and how important it was to watch minute by minute because magic happens instantly. As soon as I said that ‘fingers’ of dough started to form in bowl as they massage with their small hands. The gluten was forming, the magic was happening! Once the dough pulled away from the bowl, I dumped it out onto the floured granite counter-then the messy fun began.

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