December 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays. Our first essay was about a mystery cookie from the Italian Alps, and today we have a story about a main-course dish: mashed potatoes. Judy Martin, from Cupertino, California, appeared here before with an essay about food and dating.
The Mashed Potato Monster
By Judy Martin
Every holiday meal must include mashed potatoes. But my mother made them from a box. I never could understand why she liked those flat, dry, ragged little flakes that pretended to become potatoes when hydrated. Even my elementary school made real mashed potatoes. Except for the time they turned out to be mashed turnips. That was a nasty surprise for a first grader!
When I was 10, I spent a week visiting my cousins. One night, a small sigh of pleasure escaped my lips at the dinner table. There were lumpy mashed potatoes on my plate. What a treat! My aunt heard my sigh and demanded to know its cause. I responded that the potatoes had lumps. This was the ultimate compliment. It meant the potatoes were real. But she refused my compliment. No matter how much I tried to explain, I don’t believe she ever forgave me for commenting on her lumpy mashed potatoes.
We ate mashed potatoes often when I was growing up, and I continued the tradition with my own family. For everyday meals, they were made with margarine and low-fat milk. But for holidays, they were dressed up using my grandmother’s preparation method (no flakes for her) with lots of real butter and pre-heated evaporated milk. Sometimes I even added sour cream or cheese. I was proud that my son Matt grew up eating real mashed potatoes. He didn’t care what else was on the holiday menu as long as there were mounds of mashed potatoes.
The first holiday Matt spent with his new wife’s family in California was a culture shock. He was horrified to learn that not everyone eats mashed potatoes on holidays. In fact, his wife’s family never eats them at all. His mother-in-law’s potato casserole just wasn’t an acceptable substitute. He marched into the kitchen and prepared his own mashed potatoes. I was mortified to hear this story; I had created a Mashed Potato Monster.
Matt’s in-laws are good sports and, unlike my aunt, don’t offend easily; they found his mashed potato obsession humorous. Now we often spend our holidays all together and to avert another holiday crisis, I make sure there are mashed potatoes on the menu.
October 24, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation—reconciliation with a food or a loved one, or even a food-related failure of reconciliation. Today’s story comes from Kelly Robinson, a freelance writer for Mental Floss, Curve and other magazines, and the author of an earlier Inviting Writing essay about addiction to Tab. She blogs about books and writing at Book Dirt, and can tell you without equivocation that she didn’t do it.
The Case of the Criminal Lunch Meat
By Kelly Robinson
I read nostalgic food memoirs with a skeptical eye, especially the ones that are sweet as cotton candy unicorns. They’re true, I suppose, but the Norman Rockwell-esque scenes just don’t jibe with some of the most memorable moments at table with my family.
Sure, we had our share of dinnertime jollies—my toddler sister eating mountains of chicken livers because she was told they were chocolate cake, for example—but they’re so easily eclipsed by images of things like my Aunt Nancy in a white nightgown, covered from top to bottom with blood-red beet juice. I’ve never seen Carrie in its entirety. I don’t need to.
There’s also my other sister, who spilled her drink at something like 3,057 consecutive dinners, giving our mother fits that left no tooth ungnashed. Our mother seethed just as much when we had guests one night and the lid to the butter dish was removed to reveal the Twisted Sister logo my metalhead brother had carved there.
And then there was the incident of the gritloaf, which I’ve promised my mother never to speak of again.
The real family drama, though, the one that surpasses even metal bands in the butter or horror movie nightgowns, involves a single slice of bologna. It was 1979. My sister, brother and I were anticipating our mother’s arrival home, and for once, we scrambled to make sure things were in order: no plastic bags tied to the cat, no stray Weebles on the floor. We were neatly lined up on the couch, wondering what stunt Yogi Kudu would pull next on “That’s Incredible!”
Mom walked in, surveyed the room slowly, then stopped suddenly and screeched: Who put the bologna on the wall?!
And there was, indeed, a single slice of bologna, red plastic ring outlining its shiny meat circle, adhered to the wall, slightly above and to the right of the television set. The denials came in rapid fire, and once the interrogation was well underway it was clear that none of us seemed to have done it. None of us admitted it, anyway.
I don’t recall the actual punishment. I may have blocked some it out of my mind, but I know it was severe. I’m sure we were grounded for life plus twenty years and cut off of Little Debbie snack cakes. We probably didn’t get to watch “That’s Incredible!” that night, either.
The bologna game of whodunit still rages today, and it rages hard. We’re now entering our fourth decade of pointing fingers and making accusations. You’d think someone would be mature enough to cop to it, but no one has ever cracked, and whoever it was, the other two of us didn’t witness the deed.
The feud still rages, yes, but the more time passes, the more the feud bonds us rather than divides us. We’re parents of children who have moved out of state or joined the Army. We work in very different fields. We sometimes go months without seeing or talking to each other. But, come holiday time, when we’re all in one room for what might be the only time until next year, there is no conversation so awkward or silence so deep that it can’t be completely turned around with the question, “So who really put the bologna on the wall?”
I fume. I didn’t even like the smell of bologna, I insist. My sister points the finger at my brother, who is my prime suspect this year. He thinks it was me, and that my dislike of lunch meat smell is a lifelong cover story.
It might seem odd by some family’s standards, but it’s how we communicate, and there’s comfort in knowing that’s how we always will.
I’ve always wondered if a deathbed confession might be what it would take to ultimately solve the mystery, but it hardly matters. In fact, it’s far more likely that one of us would slowly wheeze and cough out last words from the hospital bed and say, “I-i-i-i-i-t wasn’t m-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.”
The only proper response from the rest of us would be, “We love you too.”
October 17, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation: how food repaired a relationship of some sort—or didn’t, despite your best efforts. Our first essay comes from Alexia Nader, a graduate journalism student at New York University and a freelance writer.
How Do You Apologize in Italian?
By Alexia Nader
I was up to my elbows in raw ground beef, anchovy paste, capers and onions, and completely panicked. “Call your mother now and tell them that dinner is going to be late, tell them to wait an hour,” I yelled to my boyfriend Marco as my chest sank—I had already ceded complete success. It’s bad form to show your dinner guests the frenzy of preparing a big meal; when they enter the door, the cook should have everything under control in the kitchen and look calm and composed. I was walking around the kitchen barefoot with frizzy hair and no make-up, wearing Marco’s dead aunt’s ancient apron and sweating profusely in the August heat. But I was determined to put on the table the meal that I had traveled two hours to Marco’s tiny hometown of Russi, Italy to prepare. It was my last plea for Marco’s family to forgive me for stealing their son away to America.
Two days before the Sunday lunch, I gleefully sketched out a list of dishes and ingredients for the meal. Having just returned from a month-long, self-guided exploration of Basque France and Bordeaux, I had foie gras confit in my pantry and memories of gambas and steak tartare at the forefront of my mind. What really determined my menu choices, though, was my refusal to make Italian food for Marco’s family after attending one inimitable lunch at Marco’s grandmother’s house. I could never compete with her four courses, honed to perfection by hundreds of years of Emilia-Romagna tradition—the antipasti were diaphanous slices of mortadella, prosciutto and coppa; cappelletti in brodo, puffy lunettes of fresh filled pasta that were the product of hours of painstaking craft, floated in a savory pork broth for our primi; tender and hearty roast rabbit with mashed potatoes followed; cake, coffee, and sorbet felt like a symphonic coda. Much of the same audience would soon be eating my food. I wanted to dazzle them with the exact opposite of rustic, traditional cuisine: an understated meal that, for them, would evoke both the exotic and urbane.
The attraction of the unknown had worked well when I first started dating Marco three years earlier. I was studying abroad in Bologna. He was an engineering student, precise and methodical in his thinking, shy and naïve—the complete opposite of the quick-talking city people that I usually befriended. Some months into the relationship, I learned that he came from a family of farmers. His uncle still owned a peach grove where Marco picked peaches for ten euros a day every summer, and his grandmother was the type of person who could wring a chicken’s neck for dinner without batting an eye and pick out a ripe cantaloupe by rapping on its tough rind.
On our first date my lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prevented us from talking about most of our interests, except for one—our obsession with trying new food. I learned that Marco would try any dish at least once and, despite his hometown’s lack of foreign restaurants, had discovered and fallen in love with Japanese food. He learned that my childhood—living in Miami among people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean—had given me this compulsive need to sample and cook with as many flavors as I could get my hands on.
For our many meals together in my cramped apartment, I cooked everything but Italian food—lentil lettuce wraps, arroz con pollo, tacos al pastor, panang curry—all dishes that made his eyes widen in surprise upon experiencing a flavor he had never known existed. I got an immense feeling of satisfaction when he called his mother and excitedly told her what new food he had just tried. He had lived for 19 years eating an unadulterated form of his regional cuisine; I relished corrupting his palate with my bastardized, global cooking repertoire. Marco was a convert, but his family, whose members had never been on an airplane or lived outside the humble, rural province of Ravenna, wouldn’t be so easily won over.
I decided on a three-course menu: mâche salad with foie gras, black grapes, and balsamic drizzle; steak tartare with toast points and truffle oil; and a fruit salad. These choices were a product of many hours staring off into space and mentally aligning different factors: the season, how hungry Marco’s family would probably be at 4 p.m., the late afternoon heat, how much truffle oil would cost and the day of the week. When I was growing up, Sunday was when we ate a Lebanese version of steak tartare called kebbeh nayeh; I planned on telling Marco’s family this as I set the plates of tartare on the table.
When Marco’s family arrived at the apartment at 5:00, the tartare was setting in the refrigerator, my balsamic glaze had reduced and I had conscripted Marco for the duty of brushing slices of bread with truffle oil. Marco’s father and brother gathered around the table that I had set up near the balcony, trying to keep their fidgeting inconspicuous. Marco’s mother offered to help out in the kitchen. I burst out with a sharp no, and immediately stopped short, telling myself that subjecting your boyfriend’s mother to your control-freak cooking tendencies is not a step in the right direction. I brought out the courses, spread them family-style around the table, sat down, and tried to loosen up with a big gulp of prosecco.
There is one key element of a successful meal that can’t be planned in advance—lively, continuous conversation. Even though Marco’s family ate everything on the table, the unfamiliar food made them uncomfortable. I gradually understood that, for Marco’s family, casual conversation was not appropriate for a fancy meal. They ate their foie gras and truffled toast points in silence, save for a few comments about how fresh the meat tasted and what a nice touch the balsamic glaze was. I tried to stimulate small talk but my attention was divided between eating my food and spying on everyone’s plates to see how much they were eating.
That the food was too strange and foreign was as much of a white elephant as the fact that the meal was meant as an apology. I was the reason that Marco was leaving his family; no amount of pleasure that could be garnered from my impeccably planned meal could obscure my role in the matter. My first try at mending bridges with food failed. I realized that, for a meal to meld, both the diners and the cook need to put their ideas of what the food should be and mean aside, and simply eat. Had we done that, we would have been a happy group of four Italians and one American interloper, enjoying some delicious summer fare on a sticky August afternoon.
February 11, 2011
I love funny family stories, the kind that get told over and over again and get better with age. My family certainly has its fair share, but since I started dating my husband six years ago, I’ve heard a whole slew from the annals of his family’s lore.
There’s the story of my mother- and late-father-in-law and the honeymoon picnic. That one takes place in 1973, somewhere en route from Central Nebraska to Yellowstone, and ends with a pesky swarm of bees. Then there’s the story of Ryan (my husband) and the unslurpable peanut butter milkshake. They sound, I realize, like the titles of Berenstain Bears books. And, oddly, most revolve around food. One story, in particular, is always revisited on Valentine’s Day.
To set the scene: My mother-in-law lives in Grand Island, Nebraska, a city of about 50,000 people that has slipped, in recent years, from third to fourth largest in the state. Grand Island is an exit off of Interstate 80, the highway that runs from Teaneck, New Jersey, to San Francisco, bisecting the country. The place (and my mother-in-law, for that matter) is as Midwestern as it gets. As my husband puts it, draw an “X” over the United States and you mark the spot.
Karen lives on a tree-lined street that reminds me of the one Marty McFly drives his DeLorean down during Back to the Future. Being there feels a bit like traveling back in time. It’s the land of casseroles and fine folks, where the biggest event of the day may be a porch visit from a neighbor. And it’s great—especially when you are looking for a change of pace from a big city.
It’s not a fancy place. Patrons of one of the most popular restaurants in town, Texas T-Bone, are free to toss peanut shells on the concrete floor. So, naturally, Karen and her husband often kept things pretty simple for Valentine’s Day. Occasionally, they would exchange cards. Other times, while grocery shopping, they would just show each other the Valentines they would have gotten. “I’m practical,” Karen says. She would usually urge him not to, but Clark, Karen’s husband, loved to buy her roses. And they would usually opt to prepare a dinner at home. “Because [at restaurants] it was always crowded—well, as crowded as Grand Island can be,” she says.
So, on a particularly cold Valentine’s Day, in 2005, Karen decided she would fix something warm and hearty: a meatloaf. (I called her today just to hear the story again.) “I hardly ever made meatloaf, and he loved it,” she says. At the very last minute, she shaped it into a heart. Though she claims it was not a big deal—just a “little meatloaf of love”—she says, “I pulled it out of the oven. I did the whole close your eyes deal. And you would have thought I had given this man the world.”
Karen is the shutterbug of the family, but it was Clark who said, “Go get the camera.” The photo is buried in a box somewhere, or else I’d share it. But I can imagine what it looks like—Clark grinning ear to ear over that heart-shaped meatloaf. I searched Flickr.com for some sort of replacement, not expecting much, and was surprised to find a few other meatloaves made with love. When I tell Karen, she laughs. “I thought I was being so original,” she says. “It must be a hot thing!”
Every Valentine’s Day, people eat heart-shaped foods—chocolates, conversation hearts, cut-out sugar cookies, sandwiches with the crusts artistically lopped off and maybe even pancakes or fried eggs. But, even a meatloaf hater like myself has to appreciate my mother-in-law’s creativity. Inspired by it, I made a heart-shaped pizza a couple of years ago.
What crazy culinary things have you done in the name of love?
December 6, 2010
Today’s featured writer is Jane Pellicciotto, a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon who keeps an illustrated log of her fresh produce purchases and contributes occasionally to the Portland Farmers Market blog.
Pass the Gravy
By Jane Pellicciotto
Whenever we visited my father’s family in New York, it was with a mix of excitement, curiosity and a little dread.
Brooklyn had what the Maryland suburbs lacked—subways rumbling overhead, the Chinese five-and-dime, colorful accents, and Grandma Pell’s cooking. But it also meant a nail-biting journey in the car with my father, for whom driving was sport. He would jockey for position among the black Cadillacs on the narrow avenues, while I’d slide down the vinyl seat so I couldn’t see the too-close cars. Instead, I’d try to think about the pizza awaiting us.
Grandma Pell, whose name was Lena, was born in Manhattan in 1908, a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. She’d never been to Italy herself, but maintained her family’s ways around food. Put oregano in the pizza sauce, never in the marinara. Fry sausages in olive oil, but the meatballs in vegetable. Soak the eggplant in salt water first; fry the slices not once, but twice.
Rules were not universal, however. An argument once broke out between my uncle’s sister and her husband whether to stuff peppers with raw or cooked pork. Heads turned when a hand came down hard on the table. Raw won.
The kitchen was always grandma’s domain and from its small space came humble, but glorious food: unadorned pizzas, stuffed squid, spaghetti pie, green beans stewed in tomatoes, and eggplant parmesan that melted in your mouth like butter. We saw these visits as an excuse to eat with abandon—salami and proscuitto and capacollo, slabs of salty wet mozzarella, extra helpings of rigatoni and meatballs. But most of all, for me, it was about the stuffed artichokes. One by one, I’d savor the slippery metallic leaves and the slow journey to the heart.
Grandma, who always wore a cotton housecoat, was methodical. She had a head for numbers, having been a bookkeeper despite her father’s orders to be a seamstress. And she was practical. Once, she overheard my uncle ask us if we wanted greens. Grandma came into the dining room, set down a bowl of broccoli rabe dotted with slivered garlic and said, “You don’t ask. You just put it!” Meaning, if someone wants it, they’ll eat it. Don’t fuss. (Then again, grandma would also ask over and over, “Did yas have enough? Have some more. It’s gotta get eaten.”)
My siblings and I were hungry for words and language and culture, keeping our ears perked for delicious turns of phrase like “just put it,” which we added to our own lexicon. Sauce didn’t just taste good, it “came nice,” as if a benevolent thing arrived at the front door. Dishes were “put up” rather than loaded into the dishwasher, and the ends of words were clipped while their centers were drawn out, adding bouncy drama to Madonna, calamari, mozzarella.
There is an edge to New Yorkers, not to mention Italians. And my grandmother had the misfortune to outlive her only two children—my father and aunt—by almost half a century. So I cherish one of the lighter moments in my memory. Back when my brother was a teenager, and very particular about clothes, Grandma announced on one visit that she had been saving a pair of dungarees for him. She returned with a relic of the bygone disco age. We looked at each other with alarm, but to our surprise my brother tried on the jeans. He emerged from the bathroom walking stiffly, stuffed into the jeans like a sausage. His flattened butt was emblazoned with metallic gold lightening bolts. We didn’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, but none of us could contain the laughter, including grandma, who could see the jeans were painfully out of date.
It is no myth that getting a recipe from an Italian grandmother is nearly impossible. Once, I tried to get an answer as to how long she kept the marinated artichokes in the refrigerator, knowing that botulism could be a problem.
After many fits and starts, she finally offered, “not long.”
When I asked why, she said, “they get eaten.”
My sister’s efforts were able to extract more details of Grandma’s amounts and processes, until we had something resembling recipes. Try as we might, we can’t quite duplicate the flavors we tasted all those years. I’m convinced it’s about more than just ingredients. Taste is about place—the cold ceramic floor, the well-used paring knife, the loud exchanges, even the distant sound of car alarms. Still, when I prepare roasted peppers, I make sure never to leave a seed behind.
Grandma Pell died last summer just shy of turning 101. Salute.