Post #72: More Than a Nibble

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THE FIRST FANCY PLACE

I am starched, white gloved and frilled.  Neatly tied into a dress with bows, anklet socks precisely  turned, Mary Jane’s patented and shining.  Lifted to my seat in the restaurant I  am perched on a pedestal of telephone books.  A tiny empress, surveying the gleaming forks and knives and spoons. What is the right thing to do?   I have no idea. Terrified, I sit so still. 

A single question, “Do I like tuna fish?”   I nod carefully. Is “yes” the right answer?  Lunch is ordered.   In a blur a black jacketed waiter flourishes a plate in front of me with the insouciant panache of a bullfighter flicking his red cape. Is this my lunch?  My sandwich is sliced into into beautiful little triangles and stacked three stories high on a mountain of potato chips.  Do I eat it or stare at it?  I don’t know.  Then I spot it at the edge of the plate.   A tiny paper cup filled with mashed potatoes.  At last, something I recognize!  In a rush all at once I squeeze the whole thing into my mouth.

And my eyes brim with tears.

Alas.  Horseradish!

***

MITCH’S

Growing up in the Motor City one’s life is simply guided by cars. We Motor City folk cruise Woodward, glide up and down the hills of Maple, bump over the potholes of Orchard Lake.   We don’t just drive to get places. We drive to drive. We drive the rippling  highways and byways of our state, The Big Mitten, but in truth we are always dreaming of skimming by the shore. It’s not hard to do. Wherever you are in Michigan you are no more than six miles from a lake and no more than 85 miles from one of the Great Ones.   We Michiganders are happily waterlogged.

If the salty Atlantic imparts a certain tang to Eastern Clam Chowder than I’ll argue that being squeezed between Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Erie and Superior impart a certain freshness to our foodstuffs.

So after lazy Sunday afternoon car rides we invariably would end at Mitch’s on the lake.  Which lake?  I never knew.  But my Dad would slide the gigantic Oldsmobile into parking lot, crank down the windows for those of us sweltering in the back seat, and then disappear into the vast and bustling restaurant.  After a few minutes he would emerge with a wonderfully greasy bag of Mitch’s special soft breadsticks, hot from the oven, dripping with butter,  sprinkled liberally with salt. They were gone by the time we reached our front door.   At the table we ate plate after plate of Mitch’s special salad.  The recipe for the dressing is still a mystery.  But no matter.

Seven o’clock and  time for The Wonderful World of Disney!

***

HOWARD JOHNSON’S

Skip breakfast.  Skip lunch.  Skip dinner. 

Crowd into the hand me down Pinto, the Gremlin, or the Opal Manta. Careen down Lone Pine on the way to the corner of Telegraph and Maple. Spot that gleaming orange roof from a mile away!

Scoot into a booth. Squeeze in tight.  The waitress taps her pencil on her pad. “What’ll it be?”

“FUDGE RIPPLE  with strawberry sauce, extra whipped cream!”

“BUTTERCRUNCH  with butterscotch topping, marshmallow, double cherries!”

PEPPERMINT with hot fudge, pistachios,  pineapple and sprinkles!”

Enormous goblets filled with ice cream and sauce overflowing are placed before each of us. A conspiratorial click of silver spoons and we begin!

Afterwards a plate (or two) of french fries, the perfect palate cleanser,  for all to share. 

***

STEVE’S LUNCH

Really it’s  little more than a slice of a place.  Just enough room to squeeze through the door and pull yourself up to a red counter stool.  Twirl meditatively while checking the menu but really for naught. The order is always going to be the same. 

“Cheese and bean sprout omelet, please.”

The order is taken with a swift nod. Then the counterman swirls the eggs in a bowl and gently spreads them on the grill.   A shovel of hash browns fills the whole of an oblong platter and with a few quick flicks of his wrist the omelet is filled then folded with an origami like precision and placed delicately on top.

Since nothing could possibly ever match this for perfection, no need to eat for a week.

***

CAMMERARI’S BAKERY

You could almost eat the smell. But that isn’t nearly enough.  Walking down the streets of Carroll Gardens, if you are lucky enough to catch the scent, your nose starts twitching like a pup who had caught the aroma of a grilled steak.  Breathe and breathe in deep.  It is invigorating, exhilarating, blissful.   I am swept along the streets of Brooklyn bleary and floating,  then joyously flying through  air like a girl in a Chagall.   And suddenly I am there. Right on Henry Street at the window of Cammerari’s Bakery. 

I press my nose to the glass.  Living paycheck to paycheck, I have only two dollars. But here at Cammerari’s  that’s more than enough. In a moment, crinkled bills are on the counter and soon a whole loaf of warm bread is cradled in my arms.

I sigh happily. Once again,  I will be full.

***

The memory of these—and so many other—wonderful places are still sweet and rich on my tongue.  I savor them. With love especially to all who’ve broken bread or shared a scoop with me.

photograph copyright Edible East Bay Magazine

“Your One Wild and Precious Life”

FullSizeRender (3)It was really no big deal. Except it was. One heavy, sluggish afternoon I was at home. Alone in the empty kitchen. Alone in the house. Alone. Like an aproned conductor poised on the podium I really knew this melody to my very soul, I’ve played it so many times before. I pulled ingredients from the cupboards, pots and pans from the shelves. Oh please! I could do this with my eyes closed. But I didn’t. When I was finished things were different. There was a plate full of cookies. But not the usual blondie squares. Not the standard oatmeal chocolate chip. Not the ubiquitous rice crispie treats.   I had made poppy seed cookies. No one’s favorite. Except mine.

.***

Before I was born my Great-grandmother Rachel Leah made taiglach, hot honeyed pastry mounded into tiny hills, my mother’s memory so powerful that decades later even I could taste the sweetness on my tongue.

***

With the pride and bearing of a queen, my Grandma “Anne with an e” presided over her kingdom. Her edible coffers emptied upon the white tablecloth and spread before us with the glory of a cornucopia, should a cornucopia be filled with platters of sliced meats and bowls of whipped potatoes. At the end we were awarded tins crammed full of Mandelbrot. Chocolate chip for us. Walnut for her boy, my Dad.

***

“It’s nothing,” my little Gram demurred, “it’s not even baking really!” but still she would casually toss ingredients up into to a bowl. Then with the coiled strength of a Billie Jean King backhand she would use her whisk to serve up perfect Lemon Meringue pies. Love all.

***

Every Sunday morning The Egg Master reverently unwrapped his iron skillet. Do you want your eggs scrambled or boiled, stuffed or shirred? Guaranteed delicious, guaranteed perfectly done, guaranteed done exactly the way he wants them for you.

Later he would pile everyone into the car for a long ride for big scoops of ice cream. We could never finish. And no matter the flavor, be it Bubble Gum or Butter Crunch or Blue Moon, The Egg Master would manfully lick down the excess, no complaints.

***

Tureens of soup from my mother, thick with vegetables and anchored with chunks of flanken bobbing like buoys in a thick pea green ocean. Endless bowls from a never-ending tureen of serve yourself. Full of warmth.

***

My husband is stretched like a long pull of salt-water taffy, all six feet of him. When we walk together he holds my hand and I am practically horizontal as I’m pulled along. Like Miss Clavel rushing to Madeleine, I run fast faster fastest to keep up, my legs in a whirl.

But when I walk by myself I can move more slowly, keep my feet right on the ground. Then there is time then to see. Then there is time to think. So I do.

As I walk, Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” floats into my mind. That last imploring line sticks fast: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I barely take a breath before I blurt out “anything I want!”

Then I realize that is precisely what I’m doing. That’s just what all the others did. Caring for those they love most. I hope too, like me, they learned to sometimes make their own kind of poppy seed cookies and care for themselves as well. Because the combination, mixed up all  together, is simply sublime.

 

 

FOOD DREAMS

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In my dreams I can flip pancakes onto a platter with one hand while zip cracking eggs onto a sizzling griddle with the other. Toast pops into midair and is covered with jam before it hits the plate. Piles of burgers are stacked up high and sigh into their buns. I spin, pivot, staccato two-step and then arc a perfect stream of hot coffee into half a dozen waiting cups. There isn’t even a spot on my clean white apron.

I sometimes think I would cook like this if I could. But I can’t.

So instead I slow down. I pour a glass of wine, I turn up Radio Dismuke. I chop and I knead and I stir to a far more sedate beat.  Here it is.

*A handful of Raisinettes melting in one hand and a fistful of Tam Tam Crackers crumbling in the other. The dancing lady and the dancing man statues are poised on the buffet. The big cousins are jumping on the furniture, hiding under the table, they are everywhere all at once but they are still watching out for me. My first treats in the dining room at my grandmother’s house on Northlawn.

*Platters of brisket and corned beef and pastrami, trays of roast chicken, and sliced turkey and beef tongue. Mustard and coleslaw and pickles and rye. One tiny, lukewarm bowl of Birdseye mixed vegetables. My grandfather holds court from his armchair and knocks back a tumbler of buttermilk as he nibbles the core of the iceberg lettuce that was saved just for him. While he’s occupied, my grandmother silently beckons my sisters and me to the kitchen. She gives us Faygo Red Pop to drink right from the bottle. A disliked, discarded creamsicle melting on a plate is instantly replaced by an icy fresh Eskimo Pie. A tin of Mandelbrot is pressed into our hands. A tunnel of elm trees shades the way home. Sunday dinner at Grandma and Poppa’s on Lauder.

*It was the most amazing thing in the world. Drop in a nickel and a small brown container of chocolate milk tumbled into the slot. It worked every time. Except for that one time it didn’t. Somebody turned the dial and a container of white milk came out instead. I couldn’t figure out who would ever want to drink white milk when you could get chocolate. It was the worst. I drank it anyway. I had to. Everyone drank his or her milk because that was the rule at Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

*Three crisp one-dollar bills. Every Saturday afternoon. Tracy and me. Grilled cheese for her and tuna for me sitting at the Kresge’s Lunch counter. We drank Vernors served in paper cones that were nestled in silver holders. You could blow the paper off the straw if no one was looking. Then a walk all by ourselves around Birmingham. We each had 50 cents left to spend. So many choices but we still always chose the same.  A tiny bag of pistachios for her. A tiny bag of jellybeans for me. Every single Saturday.

*The lines snaked in and around the Continental Market. In the doors and out again. Such a miniscule little shop. It was right next to the place where they sold clogs. And near the other place they sold scented candles. Olga’s Souvlakis. Hot sliced lamb with yogurt, onion and tomato wrapped in warm, flat bread. It wasn’t spaghetti and it wasn’t chop suey. But it was a miracle secured with a toothpick and placed in a red and white container.

*We were all three belted into the backseat. Which was worse: being stuck in the middle or being stuck in a window seat and having the middle sister fall asleep on you, turning you into the human armrest? But a drive west to Chicago for the weekend meant a box of Frango mints from Marshall Field. A drive north to Toronto it meant a bag of Coffee Crisp candy bars. No complaining.

*We never knew when it might happen. We never knew exactly where we were going. Just “get in the car” please. So we did. The windows would be open; the summer air was warm and sweet. A lucky sister might get the coveted seat between Mom and Dad in the front. We would drive and drive, anywhere and everywhere as the summer sun set into twilight. It didn’t matter where we went because at the end there was always ice cream. Small was three scoops. Medium was six. You can guess the size of the large. I am not making this up. Dad would eat his and then have to lick down my little sister’s cone of something weird like Blue Moon or Bubblegum or Superman. He always made a face as he licked the cone flat for her. But he always did it, every time.

*The plastic bowl was as almost as big at the table. You could guess the seasons just by looking in the bowl. My mother filled it over and over. Masses of cherries and strawberries, mounds of peaches and apples and pears. On summer weekends, when my dad was out grilling hot dogs “that snapped when you bit them,” my mom was inside quietly filling and refilling the big bowl with delicious salads that both crunched and dripped. Smart people at some of each.

*We snuck it in. We had to. Everybody else in our cabin bought normal things like chips and gum and candy bars on that overnight. Not us. We pooled our money and bought a whole salami. Best idea ever and it was yours, Ruth. You kept it hidden under your t-shirts in your corner top bunk. You were in charge of after hours slicing, reverentially doling it out after lights out. I couldn’t really be trusted not to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I still don’t know where you stashed the knife.

*I was so afraid. I moved through the cafeteria line alone. What was everyone else eating? I didn’t care what I ate; I just wanted to eat the right thing.   Macaroni and cheese. I hated it. I chose it. The tables in the Kingswood dining hall were round. I was told this was to “invite conviviality”. They actually used the word conviviality. But it was only convivial if there was someone to talk to. I sat down with my plate of macaroni and cheese and looked up. There was.

*Really there was only one way to do it. It didn’t matter the flavor. Look whoever it was right in the eye, grab your knife. Flip the plastic container over and stab the bottom and twist. Squeeze the contents into the bowl. Slide the bowl nonchalantly over the glass. Rules were rules. No one could leave the dining hall with an extra yogurt. You done your job. You done good. As soon as you were done, money in your pocket, you got out of there. As fast as you could made your way to a counter stool at Pizza Bob’s for a chiapati or to a hard backed booth at Drake’s for a grilled cinnamon roll with Russian Caravan Tea. You deserved it.

*Jamie’s brownstone apartment was down the street from Bloomingdales, five spindly flights up to the top floor. The whole building had settled so the floors were uneven, almost buckling. The kitchen was somehow crammed into a closet, shoved in so tightly that the oven door only opened halfway. It didn’t matter. We didn’t cook. Winter Saturdays we ate pizza curled up by the fireplace.   Summer Saturdays we ate pizza baking ourselves on the blacktop roof. Always always double cheese.

*Valentine’s Day. A corner table at La Tulipe. Twin Kir Royals. Twin chocolate soufflés. You didn’t propose that night. But I proposed that someday soon you might. You did.

*Mango sorbet pressed into waffles. The room was dark save for the glow of the TV screen. The channel was always turned to Food Network, the quiet rhythms of Sarah Moulton, the Two Hot Tamales, Emeril before the “Bam!” lulling us to sleep. We would lay with piles of pillows and blankets on the floor. Waffles finished, sticky hands were pressed into mine. One in each.

*Chocolate was always his favorite. Of course it was. He always chose it; he always said this was so. Until the day he said that he always loved vanilla too. I had been there all the time and I didn’t know? But I didn’t know. At the movies he bought things like Buncha Crunch or Sour Patch kids. But then one day he bought a box of Raisinettes. My own favorite, Raisinettes? I had never seen him eat them before. But he said he’d always loved them. Didn’t I know?

I did not. But now I do.