Food, Family, and Memory

clowncone.gif In Margate, New Jersey, there is an ice cream shop that time forgot. It is called Two Cents Plain and it has little white wire chairs with red and white striped seats, red and white wallpaper festooned with whimsical line drawings of flappers in long necklaces and gents in boaters, and a jar on the counter where customers can deposit tip money for the scoopers’ college funds. It looks just the same today as it did in 1979, when I had my fifth birthday party there.

We had the whole place to ourselves that day! What a thrill for a five-year-old. More thrilling still were the ice cream “clowns” (still on the menu) which were presented thusly: a scoop of ice cream on a plate, and a sugar cone inverted on top as a hat, point side up, and a face drawn on the scoop of ice cream with Red Hots. I had asked for a baby sister for my birthday that year and instead was presented with a baby brother, and the ice cream clowns went a long way towards placating me.

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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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human_hand.jpgA fork by any other name would still be a fork. Unless you called it your hands. Then the fork is rendered moot. Hands are more versatile than forks. They posses a way cooler gadget. The opposable thumb (come-up of all evolutionary come-ups) possesses some remarkable moves.

Unfortunately we don’t often get to put those moves into practice with familiar western cuisine. But why rely on some intermediary device to enjoy that most intimate sensation of eating? Some form of artifice, really, when we consider that we already have what it takes.

My earliest inclinations were to forgo tools and bound the gulf between food and eating (associations begin firing at Lacan’s l’hommelette, a slippery slope). My favorite foods (burritos, sushi) can technically and efficiently be eaten with one’s hands. Still, my lifetime eating career has been dominated by silverware.

Until my wife introduced me to her native cuisine. Nepali food predates industrial metal forgery and globalization. Silverware was not a concern when the recipes took shape, nor is it a concern today when they’re served.

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ChickMagnetChickenG 2159My nephew, who lives in a tiny New York apartment, called me with a recipe emergency. He’d invited a new Potential Girlfriend (PGF) over for dinner and wanted to cook something that was cheap and easy but impressive. I thought this was ambitious for a guy whose cooking skills are limited to pouring cereal and microwaving popcorn, but I had an idea.

Henry’s understanding of ingredients is, shall we say, unsophisticated; he has probably never spoken the words “paprika” or “fennel.” But he did well with the shopping list I gave him, texting me only once when he was bewildered by varieties of olive oil.

We began Skype instruction two hours before the PGF’s ETA. “So, first you preheat your oven to 350 degrees,” I said.

After a brief silence, Henry admitted that the oven was where he keeps his shoes. After a less brief silence on my end, I told him to get the (damn) shoes out of his oven and call me back. We hung up, resuming instruction five minutes later when Henry’s oven was vacated.

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risotto-mushroom.jpgBack in 1990, rice and love became forever entwined in my mind. A man I’d gone out with for ten years broke off our relationship...and my response to grief was to learn how to make risotto. After I taught myself to make proper risotto, I went on a blind date with an Italian, and some time later found myself in Florence, seeking the approval of my future mother-in-law, whose favorite dish was risotto. Rice and love. From a distance of twenty years, the emotion and the starch wind around each other with all the choreographed beauty of ballet.

The year of my great misery I was living in a tiny apartment in the graduate ghetto of New Haven, Connecticut. Most of the space was in the kitchen, which I found inspirational. I spent my free time cooking, crying and reading. My favorite cookbook was Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking, a tome with long fervent essays that included a long piece on risotto. I would stand over the pot, stirring as Paul instructed, reading a romance borrowed from the public library, and crying every now and then when it seemed the heroines had a better life than I did. After a month or two of this, I was quite good at risotto and I started to think about men in a more cheerful manner, which led to a blind date with Alessandro, a graduate student in Italian with loopy black curls and a swimmer’s body. He liked my risotto. It wasn’t until years later, when I ate his mother’s creamy, delicious risotto, that I understood how important it was.

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