Food, Family, and Memory

potatolatkasI’ve had two mothers-in-law. Neither were big fans of mine. One was the “I will not reveal my recipes to you” kind, and the other, many years ago, gave me the few recipes I still use. I think I’m kind of likeable, but maybe not if I’m married to your son? Moving on.

Cooking scares me. I’m just not that talented in the kitchen. I can dance. But I can’t follow steps. Cooking is all burners and timing and chopping and it’s something that has always overwhelmed me. So, here is what I am: a great guest. I’ll eat your food. I’ll tell you how great it tastes. I actually clap, applauding you when I’m sated.

I’m in awe of traditions that people have created. I dropped that ball. I’ve been divorced, and with blended families found it’s just not my thing. But I appreciate this quality in other people, and this Chanukah my husband and I were invited to our friends Chuck and Karen’s party.

You walked through the front door into the tantalizing aroma of potato pancakes. Like a bloodhound, I followed the scent till I was at the stove where two of my friends, now married 37 years, were hard at work. A tag team of latke makers, Richard was using a ladle to drop the round balls into burning oil. At his side, JoAnn, with a spatula, turned and removed them from the heat at just the right moment. I watched, mesmerized.

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helpposter.jpgThe Help surprised some people that Southern whites could treat their servants with so much inhumanity in the 1960's. I was shocked by a few specific incidents, but not surprised. I saw it close up as a child. Not in Jackson, Miss., where the story is set, but in my hometown of Beverly Hills where the help was almost exclusively 'negro,' before the Black Power Movement and the influx of Hispanic housekeepers and nannies in the late 70's and early 80's.

My overly emotional reaction to the film puzzled me. Good story, great performances, but floods of tears? On the drive home, memory hit and re-opened an old wound that I had hidden away. Of course... ESMUS HEMPHILL, our black maid in the 50's & 60's who was let go when I left for college and who I never thanked enough for all she did or properly protected her against my mother's unconscious cruelty towards her.

My mother, born into working class Memphis in 1925, became politically liberal, but personally she still carried a few racist seeds in her DNA. She would sit at the head of our dining table in Beverly Hills and ring a sterling silver bell to signal to Esmus that it was time to serve.

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lobsters_sm.jpgMy father was a dyed-in-the-shorts Bermudian who loved to feast on all things from under the sea. Shrimp, crab, oysters, mussels, fish of all kinds, and lobsters. Five years of serving in the Canadian Army overseas in Holland and France during World War ll chewing on K rations in a trench didn’t diminish his early island jones for a crustacean or almost anything seaworthy and edible.

Relocating to the Toronto suburbs in Canada in the late Forties where seafood restaurants were almost as scarce as mermaid sightings still didn’t discourage his quest for a taste of the ocean. He did his best to pass his glorious seafood cravings on to his children, but as a toddler, I balked at the thought of sliding one of those grey slimy, pulsating mollusks down my tender young throat no matter how much tangy cocktail sauce was dumped on it.  I cringed at the thought of cracking open a giant scarlet claw to scoop the steaming white meat dripping with warm clarified butter and lemon.

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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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ok_ryan.jpgOn a trip through Oklahoma, I was reminded again how deliciously satisfying homemade food can be in restaurants off the beaten path.

We had traveled north from Tulsa, stopping in Pawhuska to visit Ryan Red Corn whose t-shirt company Demockratees is an internet sensation.

Ryan's politically savvy t-shirt designs speak to his reaction to the Bush administration's policies. With Barack Obama's election, Ryan has the opportunity to use his considerable talent to create more inspirational designs.

For breakfast Ryan and his dad, Raymond, took us to a local institution, Sally's Cafe. With a long counter out front and an over-sized table behind the kitchen, Sally's is an authentic diner from the 1930's.

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