Food, Family, and Memory

drivingSpainFirst off, I need to explain going bowling in France was never on my wish list, top or bottom.

My sister and I were invited to a friend’s home in a tiny mountainous town in the Southwest of France. We planned to land in Barcelona to have a little road trip and go exploring before our visit. We planned on two days meandering from Barcelona to St Jean, France. We also wanted to stop in Arenys de Mar, a little town in Spain on the ocean. It’s famous for Paella and we had spent an entire summer there eating it many years ago.

Our flight arrived early. We rent a car and a GPS and we were off! The GPS assured us we would arrive in time for lunch in Arenys de Mar. The weather was sunny and beautiful as our little car clicked off the kilometers. The signs for Arenys de Mar appeared and we both smiled. 30 kilometers…15…and finally 2. Then the unthinkable happened. We hit a bump-a big bump just as my sister was changing the setting on the GPS. It went into Romanian, I think, and there was no getting it back into English. A melt down ensued - how would we ever find our friend’s house in the mountains, hours from here? Suddenly, we were no longer mellow and carefree or hungry for our paella lunch in a town we had so many precious memories of.

I assured my sister somebody will help us - be patient. As we descended into Arenys de Mar the GPS was chattering in a language all it’s own. I noticed a Renault car dealership so I pulled in on two wheels stopping feet from the mechanic’s knees. Let’s just say, he was surprised to see us.

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roux-2.jpg As any good Cajun cook will tell you, "First you make a roux." But what, you might ask, is a roux?.

Even with the proliferation over the last couple of decades of Cajun chefs, Cajun restaurants and Cajun cookbooks, blackened this and blackened that (what ever that means); most non- Cajun aficionados of South Louisiana’s cuisine can’t explain a roux either.

But I was in luck Sunday when an actual real life Cajun from Kraemer Louisiana, my best pal Keith, showed up at my kitchen door in Silver Lake. "I heard ya'll needed some help with a roux."

As my fellow Louisianaian explains, the gumbo starts with the cast iron skillet, not the roux. If you don’t have a thick skillet the heat won’t distribute properly and the roux will be either over or under cooked. With that in mind, I turn the fire on high and pour one cup of canola oil in the skillet along with one piece of bacon. The bacon adds a subtle flavor and also serves somewhat like a canary in a coal mine. If the bacon cooks too fast the fire’s too hot (I said kinda like a canary in a coal mine).

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boy-cooking.jpgWhen I was a kid, I was pretty much a geek.  At nine I started to stutter so badly that the school put me into a class for “special” students and my parents sent me to a psychologist.  The approach favored by the psychologist was to withhold talking until I said something.  Since I didn’t want to stutter and didn’t want to talk to him anyway, we mostly spent 50 minutes in silence.

My father was a pragmatist which meant he figured that whatever was was, so if I was socially awkward and stuttered, that’s who I was and he left it at that.  My mother however was an optimist.  She had proudly attended Hunter Model School in New York and felt that she was part of the liberal intelligentsia that wouldn’t rest until the world was cleansed of poverty, racism, sexism, and war.  Reading about the latest armed conflict in the newspaper, she would proclaim with frustration, “Why can’t people just get along?”

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groceries.jpg I pretty much know where everything is in every supermarket in LA. Owen’s Market has the best meat counter. Elat Market has the best hummus and eggplant dips. Whole Foods, as much as I don’t want to admit it, has the best pre-cooked shrimp. The Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica is great for heirloom tomatoes. Fresh & Easy has the best olive bread. Bay Cities has the best baguettes. I could go on for pages. It’s not my fault. It’s genetic.

When I was younger, I thought it took five hours to drive from LA to Santa Barbara because my mom convinced us we had to stop to eat at least three times on the way (at John’s Garden for fresh juice, at the Malibu Fish Market for fried fish sandwiches and at some divey Mexican place in Oxnard for tacos). When I went away to college I found out it takes five hours to drive to San Francisco and about 1 1/2 hours to drive to Santa Barbara, and, in fact, you probably don’t have to stop to eat even once on the way.

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ashtabula1Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.

My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s  recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).

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