The other day my friend Pat Samuels stopped by, and as many of my conversations go, talk turned to food. What are you eating right now? What will you eat later? And of course, what have you eaten in the past? As Christmas was earlier this week, we talked about dishes we recall from Christmases when we were kids. Then we switched to foods we remember from our childhoods.
Pat’s family originated in Hungary, and her grandmother was a wizard in the kitchen Pat remembers perfect streudel, noodle pudding, paprikosh goulash, and stuffed cabbage. She and Paul serve stuffed cabbage at Christmas as an homage to her grandmother. It sounds lovely.
Ron’s childhood was in rural Indiana, and perhaps he overdosed on vegetables back then, because now he refuses to eat them. He remembers dinners at his grandmother’s house involving grease and cornbread. For dessert he would wipe the bacon fat with the cornbread until the pan was clean. They ate fried pork chops, fried bacon, and fried chicken. It doesn’t sound as if there were many green vegetables served even then. He mentions corn on the cob, peas from a can, and potatoes. He does like Iceberg Lettuce, as if that is a vegetable.
Another Indiana specialty is something called a Polish Buffet. We ate that at his high school reunion where I tried and failed to pass myself off as a graduate of Jimtown High. It consists of kielbasa, sauerkraut, pierogi, fried chicken, french fries, and mashed potatoes and gravy. The “salad” consists of red jello full of canned fruit cocktail. It’s a wonder Ron’s cholesterol isn’t sky high. Now his favorite food for celebration is his daughter’s red velvet cake. It really is delicious.
My mother was ill when I was growing up, so cooking wasn’t a big deal at our house. We celebrated most holidays at my Aunt Faigie’s house. Ron would have enjoyed those meals, as they were composed mostly of meat. Faigie would put all kinds of meat together: ribs, chicken, roast, in one roasting pan, pour Saucy Susan barbecue sauce over the lot, and roast until the pan was crusted with blackened sauce. My grandmother would occasionally burn something to go with it, such as kugel or noodle pudding. Blackened. Sometimes she would burn some cookies, too. Ironically, that side of the family has great genes and all of them have lived to 100. Go figure!
I clearly did not develop my love for fine dining from my family of origin, unless you consider Sunday dinners at our local Chinese restaurant as fine dining. Certainly those were finer than anything else we were served. I credit my former Mother-in-Law, Anna Maria Finesi Felder, with my cooking skill. She was the best cook I have ever known and would whip up gourmet dinners nightly for her husband and anyone else who showed up. Sometimes he would call her from the hospital in the afternoon and let her know he had invited all his interns for dinner that night. She’d say, “Okay, Sy!” and get to work preparing an elaborate Italian feast with whatever she had in her kitchen. She could make even liver delicious: Fegato a la Romana.
The tradition we had when my kids were growing up was modeled after Anna Maria’s huge feasts. We would invite all the “orphans” we knew, those without local families and create a festive gathering. The food was never traditional. We were vegetarian for many years, and so we had to be creative. Abby remembered one of her favorites from back then, Bread pudding with Asparagus and Fontina cheese and asked for the recipe the other day for her Orphan’s Christmas. In recent years I have prepared Middle Eastern food and Indian food. I love to cook and continue to prepare enough food for an army, so cooking for the holidays is a joy. Ron will say, “You have been working for twelve hours!”
I reply, “This isn’t work. I have worked in Juvie trying to convince hard-headed teenagers to learn something new. That was work.”
This year we had our great friends the Bresnans with us. John and Ron both love beef, so I made my first ever Standing Rib Roast with several green vegetables (which Ron refused). I attempted Yorkshire Pudding and, as an homage to my grandmother, created burned hockey pucks instead. This puck’s for you, Grandma! She would have been proud.