Posted on March 25, 2016
My mother had a favorite dish she often made for dinner for my dad and me. She was the first to admit that domestic talents eluded and bored her. Ever a good judge of character, I must now concur with her self-assessment. She was, however, a formidable raconteur. And, at our dinner table—or over entrees set on floral-patterned metallic TV tables—she would interrupt the TV evening broadcast of Huntley and Brinkley to regale us with stories of her day spent at the small dress shop where she worked. As often as not, she would reconfigure the neighborhood news. She scooped up these morsels along with the mail as she met the housewives wafting down their driveways with nearly choreographed timing as they too gathered their mail. There was always Bourbon-laced grownup laughter at our table, stories of golf shots missed and putts sunk, advice given about how to better style my hair and tidbits recounted from the bottomless pit of gossip that percolated up from the bridge tables in the living rooms of their friends. Alongside the main dish of discourse there were always heaps of food to go around and gratefully, lots of time in which to consume it–most of that food, though, was packaged, frozen, or canned. My mother could be counted on to buck commonly held, clichéd beliefs… like the tenets of good nutrition or the merits of not smoking or even holding off until 5:00pm to enjoy her cocktail. She was positively gleeful when frozen vegetables hit the cold-storage shelves of our local market. This startling sea change in food shopping paled in comparison, however, to the onset of the pre-cooked and smartly packaged, convenience-food availability. At first, these self-contained culinary question marks were available only in our most select grocery store in town–the one with the adjacent gift shop that also sold record albums. My mother’s go-to delight was a spaghetti-with-meat-sauce entrée that came housed in an opaque plastic tub. For her, it was well worth the trip across town to pick up a couple. But, mystifyingly, she added to this spaghetti a can or two (I never had her write down the recipe for obvious reasons) of Campbell’s onion soup. She called our ensuing dinner dish, “Slop,” in a total unironic way. Slop. It’s what’s for dinner.
My father had his specialty too. His he called, “Six Cans,” and I cannot remember much about the dish other than his enthusiasm in serving it TO COMPANY. I do think, in retrospect and in contrast to my mother’s delicacy, his dish was ironic in both name and nature. There’s no written record of this recipe either, but what I do have is a copy of his favorite cookbook, “A Wolf in Chef’s Clothing: The Picture Cook and Drink Book for Men,” first published in 1950. He would trot out this dog-eared canned-tomato-sauce-stained manual to the great amusement of my parents’ friends. This is probably why cocktails came swiftly upon the arrival of dinner guests and proceeded uninterrupted throughout the meal. Cooking instructions found within the pages of this cookbook included these for the recipe titled, “Salade [sic] Subversive.” 1. Cut two wedges [iceberg lettuce, obviously]; 2. Cut into quarters [tomatoes]; 3. Arrange THUSLY [my emphasis]; and 4. Pour over [bottled Russian dressing, amazing when you consider the political climate engendered by the mid-1950 McCarthy hearings] and serve.
I was a freshman in high school when my mother died, and I was hungry for companionship, food and folly. My father implored my mother’s sister to provide both dinner and supervision 5 nights a week. She too was not a gifted cook but occasionally whipped up something she called, “Nut Pie.” This constipating concoction was always arranged in a graham-cracker crust tenuously held together by its confining aluminum pie dish. The topping was canned whip cream or Cool Whip, and usually I was prevailed upon to decorate the pie while my aunt polished her nails. We enjoyed bowls of the faux white stuff as those red nails of hers were waved about to dry faster. Once she was confident that her “Cherries in the Snow” polish was set, she would bring out her knitting needles and give me a lesson in the handicraft that she was nearly world famous for. It seemed to me that in the time it took for that Nut Pie to bake, she would have finished a cable knit sweater and the beginnings of a knitted coat. I’m not sure what bound together the walnuts found within that pie, but I learned the basics of knitting as well as becoming a pro at manicures. Shortly after she served her last pie to us, she left the Bay Area and found her home once again in Minnesota. I made the pie by myself several times—even once with real whip cream. It was lousy.
My father’s sister was then called upon to help us out with meal preparation. She would come to our home only on Sundays because she couldn’t drive and my father would have to provide her with round-trip transportation. She would emerge from his car carrying bushels of rhubarb (this was revelatory not only for the amount she would tote but because it was a fresh vegetable), pails of apples, or baskets of beets. Each of these was stewed or boiled or mashed or creamed or god-knows-what to create infinite amounts of jars whose contents languished in our refrigerator for weeks. This food from her Russian Jewish heritage was probably one reason the Tsars hated our people. As these musky smells filled our kitchen, she would retell the fables, tales, and parables she heard as a child. The stories seemed vaguely menacing and dark. Spoken to me in her juicy, Yiddish-English mash-up, she was compelling. I was enthralled with Solomon’s wisdom, David’s conquest of Goliath, and stories of the shtetl and those damn Cossacks. By the way, my aunt never heard of Russian dressing…bottled or otherwise. Anyway, the parboiling of vegetables or fruits couldn’t last long enough for my tastes. I was intrigued by her view of the world and how good always triumphed over evil–even if it took forever to get to that point. It was comfort food for my heart and soul. So what if we had no food we wanted to eat after she left. We would drive her back to her home in Oakland, and my father and I would eat dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in town. I might share with him a story of Minsk from my aunt. He would inevitably pepper our conversations with a risqué joke or two heard at the golf course. I can’t remember what we ate at these restaurants, but I still remember his jokes.
As a fourteen-year-old solely responsible for the grocery purchases for my father and me, I felt heady with responsibility. My dad opened an account at the market so I could take a taxi to the store and buy whatever I determined was needed. He must have asked me to purchase some things for him, maybe MJB coffee or razor blades; I was not totally unaware that normal, fully fleshed-out families had things in their refrigerator like milk, and tucked within their cupboards one might find cereal or rice. But, with the logic only a teenager possesses, I reasoned that certain things were of equal importance to our kitchen staples and no one was strolling down the grocery-store aisles with me to say otherwise. Into that grocery cart, I hurled Ovaltine, fried-chicken TV dinners, Tang, ice cream sandwiches, Chef Boyardee spaghetti and my favorite breakfast food: Toast’em Pop Ups. As I recall, these were the trailblazers of a food product still available today. Looking like a brown mailing envelope that had been licked shut on all sides, the packet was coated from seam to seam with a glistening white frosting of dubious origin. Relax. There was fruit inside.
The taxi driver would not only cart me and my bags of groceries home, he would bring the bags into the kitchen and place them on the yellow Formica counter. I assume he too was sending the bill to my father because I can’t recall ever having money on me. Once the groceries were put away and my homework was done, my father would arrive home from work and ask me to choose my restaurant choice for the evening meal. A tough decision because I had knowledge that those Swanson TV dinners were fresh for the re-heating. Ultimately, though, I would make my decision, and we would head out for our evening meal where once again jokes and laughter were shared, conversation of our days spent at school and work was parceled out. Our extended family on that particular evening might include a waitress or the short-order cook, or the couple at the next table.
As I got ready for bed, I would make certain I had money to buy lunch at the school cafeteria the next day before heading to our kitchen to prepare further. There I would grab the toaster, two Toast’em Pop Ups, and a glass filled with milk. Taking this assemblage to my bedroom, I placed the toaster on the floor under my desk and plugged it in next to the crescent-moon-shaped nightlight. The Pop Ups stood sentry—one in each toaster slot–so that all I had to do in the morning was depress the lever. The milk would be deliciously tepid having spent the night in its glass.
A few weeks ago, I was in a hip, exposed-brick and Edison-bulb-lit bakery that sits next door to a Yoga studio in Brooklyn. The bakery’s flour is organic and whole grain, the fruit for the pastries is locally sourced, and the sugar—who knows—but probably not refined. Atop the tiled counter on a milk-glass white platter under a glass dome sat house-made replicas of my teenaged breakfast. The calligraphed-label read, Pop Tarts. I ordered two but couldn’t finish them. They were made that morning with fresh ingredients and topped with a mere drizzle of icing; not cloying in that familiar, satisfying-to-me way and definitely not toasted. I ordered a glass of milk, and the server asked if I wanted soy or almond because they did not serve dairy. The small portion of the reverse-faux pastry I did consume was a faint reminder of mornings in my bedroom, but it made me sad in a way I never was in high school.
Back then, I was wearing my flannel pajamas, firing up that chrome toaster, and washing down my week-day breakfast with a glass of luke-warm milk…all parts of a ritual that sustained me. And, there was plenty of nourishment in that.
Milk and Honey,