Food, Family, and Memory

222_peachpie.jpg After decades of biting into and spitting out mouthfuls of mealy mushy flavorless fuzzy fruit sold as ‘prime peaches’, suddenly this year the peach crop is reminding me of the juicy beauties I enjoyed 40 years ago. Almost certainly it’s because I’ve been getting my peaches at local farmer’s markets from growers who actually let the fruit ripen on the tree before hauling them off for sale.

This wondrous ‘back to the future’ phenomenon has spurred me to forego dinner on many a night for big bowls of sliced peaches lightly dusted with brown sugar and tossed with sour cream, a childhood summer treat I thought I’d never again experience. In my enthusiasm to recapture a fond memory, I have several times purchased many more peaches than one person could possibly consume.

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frenchroadOkay, I admit that I have read Patricia Wells' Food Lover’s Guide to France so many times that the pages are no longer glued to its spine. My copy smells old because it is old. It isn’t all that accurate anymore but there is still some relevant information, just less. This book is the reason I have had so many treasured memories of France.

The most memorable one in the whole book for me was finding the walnut oil man - Patricia Wells wrote that he had a water wheel that aided in the extraction, used no electricity, the farm was difficult to find and beware of the dogs. All true, but so much more...

I was the navigator, not the driver that day. I was responsible for finding all the tiny little roads on our paper map to the mill. Half the roads weren’t on the map and any signage was obscured by overgrown trees. It was very rural and our afternoon was turning into either a treasure hunt or wild goose chase. I could feel we were near. When my boyfriend asked if I found the road on the map, I nodded. Not true, we were lost.

You can guess what the driver said as we drove threw the same intersection for the fourth time. “How can we be lost if you are reading the map? You know how to read a map?” “Yayyyy”, I replied - you could cut the tension with a butter knife. One more try, then I would agree to give up the goose chase. Suddenly, I saw it - the faded yellow sign covered with ivy and grown up trees like Patricia had described, only more overgrown.

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eggs.jpgBoth of my parents worked, and both of my parents cooked. My mother cooked our nightly dinner, cooked elaborately for dinner parties, and cooked traditionally for holidays; my father had a small selection of specialties which he prepared brilliantly, but from which it was unwise for him to stray. Just as he could play “Waltzing Matilda”on the piano with great panache (but nothing else, because he didn’t read music and had never had a piano lesson in his life) he prepared omelets, souffles and quiches that were enviable in their perfection and deliciousness. He also had a way with bread pudding and rice pudding. Outside this egg-y arena he cooked with rather less flair, tending to make meatloaf stuffed with random and vaguely repellant leftovers, lunches featuring Devilled Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, and his 1970s specialty of pork chops with Risotto a la Milanese. This last item he made quite nicely, but so often that my brother and I dreaded our mother’s departure for a conference, knowing that we would, at least twice, be served the ubiquitous pork and risotto duo when we really craved macaroni and cheese or fried chicken.

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southoffrance.jpgThere is an edible experience I had as a child that remains unsurpassed. The year was 1963, I was ten. I still think about it and have tried many times to recreate it. I need to ask my brother if he remembers the moment as vividly as I do.

We were at our friends’ farm in the country, just outside of Paris. By day, I ran around chasing wild cats and at night, recited (for a very small audience) “Cinderella,” in French. Given as an assignment by my teacher at home, Monsieur Willmaker, I knew it by heart. Other than “Cinderella,” and announcing “Je m’appele Frederique,” I could not understand or speak a word of the language. I rocked the accent though, and I was extra proud of it, which is why I was the biggest show-off with my nightly act.

After a long day of running around the Constantines’ farm, their mom pulled us aside for a quick snack. We were way out in a field when I saw her approaching with a basket of goodies. When I saw that she had fresh baguettes with butter, I perked up. She spread the beurre (butter, mind you, from their own cows) on the bread and then took out a big hunk of chocolate, like a chocolate bar. And that piece of chocolate went on top of the bread. Looking at it, I thought, nah. I just couldn’t get my brain around it. But I was hungry and I was checking out everyone else’s happy faces. So, I took a small first bite. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was the most delicious taste of life.

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My Mother Vina
My Mother Vina circa 1957

Instead of turkey, mashed potatoes, etc., stuffed grape leaves (along with shish-kabob and pilaf) is the traditional centerpiece of our Christmas dinner.

Disclaimer:  Every script I’ve ever written is overly descriptive and too long, so no doubt this recipe will be, too.  Apologies in advance. 


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