Food, Family, and Memory

sorrentohotel.jpgI was barely six years old and on an early summer vacation with my sister, Tanya and my Mother, a woman way a head of her time. The three of us were off on another adventure this time to the small town of Sorrento, Italy. Our father loved to travel but never outside the United States after he immigrated from Albania during the first World War to escape the atrocities in his village.

He indulged our mother's wanderlust and desire to show us the world with enthusiasm. That summer, our adventuresome mother picked the spectacular hotel Bellevue Syrene perched on a sheer cliff hundreds of feet above the ocean. The converted palace was surrounded by formal gardens in full bloom and the ocean side terrace dripped with blue Wisteria. It was dinner that evening that awoke my love of food and changed the course of my life.

The dining room was a formal affair like things used to be fifty years ago. As we three approached the entrance guarded by the Maitre D', he pulled back the heavy velvet drapes exposing the jewel box like dining room. As he led us to our table the azure blue color of the Gulf of Naples view from the floor to ceiling windows was so clear we could see Capri.

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My favorite all time saying is that 'you can pick and choose your friends but not your family.' Perhaps that's because I have some extended family members who are constant reminders of that famous quote.

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My immediate family is very close as well as my 1st cousins, aunts and uncles and for the most part, I would choose to be friends with them. However, I do have some cousins "that don't know me and I don't know them" and would prefer to keep it that way. I have been known to desert my grocery cart and flee when I catch a glimpse of them at the grocery store. These people and their lifestyles made Jeff Foxworthy rich and famous.

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lattdad.jpgI associate mail order food with my father.  When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections.  He took me to only one professional football game.  He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies.  I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving.  I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around. 

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy.  He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea.  Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family.  Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was taken literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev.  He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair.  When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

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Sometimes, learning to cook is the best thing a child can do

thanksgiving table ideas In our house, the first smell of Thanksgiving was not turkey roasting or pumpkin pie but the bleach-sweet steam of my mother ironing the good tablecloth. I remember it from a time when I was small enough to creep unnoticed beneath the ironing board while she painstakingly transformed an undistinguished hump of wrinkled linen into a curtain of shimmering white. With a curt flick of her wrist, my mother sprinkled each length with water from a yellow, plastic bottle designed for this purpose, and then the iron would sizzle a path just above my head. Soon I was surrounded by a linen tent. The smell sparkled like hot stars.

So my Thanksgiving apprenticeship began.

Discovered, I was set to work folding the napkins, the first task allotted to small children wanting to be holiday helpers. The next year, I was allowed to place them beside each plate. My eyes were not that much higher than the table's surface and it seemed the most glamorous thing I had ever seen, a snowy landscape forested by crystal trees, glittering with silver and dishes of every size.

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img_1904.jpgMy daughter Celeste recently returned from a semester abroad in Dakar, Senegal.

She spent several months in the West African city perfecting her French, learning Wolof, the unofficial language, and studying West African culture, art and Islam. One of the biggest adjustments for her was the custom of eating out of a communal bowl….with toddlers no less! Boy, I wouldn’t want to share the plate with my own family, and we’ve been exchanging the same germs for decades.

So, what did Celeste miss most after months of mutton and rice en famille? Bacon, avocados, pie, eggs from her back yard AND Mexican food.

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