Food, Family, and Memory

gingersnaps.jpg There are certain social barriers we face throughout our lives, that when knocked down, make a big impression on us.  Especially when you’re a kid.  When I was in the 6th grade at Hawthorn Elementary School my homeroom teacher whose name escapes me, but for our purposes let’s just call her Miss Pritchard, had a kickass ginger snap recipe.  Up until that time the store bought ones always burned my tongue so I just ruled them out in my cookie lexicon. They were also flat where Miss Pritchard’s were fluffy and thick. The sugar that dusted the store bought ones gave off that diamond glint but Miss Pritchard’s looked like something you saw when you opened a treasure chest.  They were also crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Hoo yeah!

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FreddeMoulinRougeNow that awards season is over I have a big one to give out.

Let me say at the start, I go to too many restaurants. I was basically raised eating in fancy restaurants. Long before other parents took their kids out to dinner, mine were trendsetters. We were taken everywhere. We were seen and heard. But, we ate our gourmet meals and behaved. Then it was straight home to a proper bedtime.

A friend’s mother, whom I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, recently told me that the first time she met my family, she had been eating with her husband at Villa Capri and spotted us, kids and all, dining at this almost exclusively grown-up place. What she noticed was how well behaved we were.

My parents rarely adhered to the unspoken rules of the 1950’s. They didn’t believe in babysitters. Aside from Villa Capri, we ate at Chasen’s, Scandia, Brown Derby, Moulin Rouge, and every Sunday night at Matteo’s. We even lived for a brief period at the Garden of Allah Hotel, though it was long after guests like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and F. Scott Fitzgerald had checked out. Anyway, that’s a little of the backstory.

Would today’s Hollywood even exist without its bistros? Nobu, Palm, Mozza, Craft. The oil that lubes the wheels in this town is extra virgin olive oil, preferably for dipping the great bread into at Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica Canyon. And no great restaurant would survive here or anywhere without those unsung heroes of fine dining – the bussing staff. Technically bussers. But usually referred to as “busboy,” an antiquated term it may be time to lose. Setting tables, clearing tables, cleaning tables, bringing food, you name it, quietly and efficiently. If the service is good, much of the credit goes to them. And that includes “busgirls.” In England the job is often referred to as a waiter’s assistant, a more dignified job description, if you ask me.

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morisot_woman-at-her-toilette
“…I remember, as the chief result, a very pleasant little supper after the theatre, at Miss Tempest’s house near Regent’s Park, for the purpose of talking the matter over.”

-Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

I had always rather imagined myself living the sort of life in which after theatre dinners would figure quite prominently. There would also be suppers after the opera, the symphony and the series of Beethoven string quartets. I would nibble on some grapes, and maybe have some tea and biscuits to tide me over as I got dressed and did my hair and makeup, and after the performance I would come in from the cold (it’s always cold in this particular fantasy), my head still full of this character or that movement, to the smell of something delicious to eat.

While I readily acknowledge that this dream of mine is largely the result of reading far too many 19th and early 20th century novels involving the British aristocracy and their American descendants (Henry James! Edith Wharton!!). I have stubbornly clung to the hope that at least once before I died, someone would have dinner ready for me when I got home from a performance. I can now say that it happened, and that it was less elegant, but just as wonderful as I had hoped.

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keywestbridgeThere’s no question my husband loves his daughter, his dog and me – and no question, in that order – but he is not sentimental. He’s got his moments – as in, let’s dump my high school notes, let’s save his 80′s matchbooks – but on the whole, what Greg likes best is the ca-chunk of the recycling bin. Or better yet, the trash.

His today’s-today stance makes me a target. He is especially fond of letting me know how fortunate he’s been to hear every tale of my family, friends, dogs, the pink curtains in first grade and every bite I’ve eaten since 1985. He likes to say there’s nothing he doesn’t know – no story he hasn’t heard, no tale untold, and this worries me. If I run out of material, what will we talk about in the nursing home? I’ve been thinking of doing stupid things just for the anecdotes. I need to keep him on his toes.

It’s not that he doesn’t remember; the man recalls every gift he ever gave me and every taco, sancho, and burrito he’s ever known – it’s just that he doesn’t need to. His memories live in lockdown, a place I don’t understand, a place that clearly lacks soft lights and throw pillows. So it’s all the more shocking to know there’s one memory that routinely escapes, one tableau he repeats – happily repeats, a terrible man-sin – and that memory is Key West.

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strawberries-sliced-and-fresh.jpgMy Auntie Vera and Uncle Johnny lived in a small house on a large piece of property in a rural area near North Judson, Indiana. They were my dad’s aunt and uncle. Through my child eyes, they seemed old enough to be grandparents. They had no children of their own, though, so they loved spoiling me and my brother. My favorite time to visit them was during strawberry season. I knew I could look forward to Auntie Vera’s delicious strawberry shortcake.

Before we arrived, she would pick the fresh, sweet berries from her large garden. After cleaning and slicing them, she would sprinkle them lightly with sugar and let them sit out on the kitchen counter until dessert time. Her homemade shortcakes would be cooling on a rack on the counter right beside the strawberries.

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