Lifestyle | Life Stages

Food Is Life: Potluck Series (Intro)

Our Potluck Series is where we celebrate the meaning of food in our lives and culture – finding the joy again, or for the first time.
We’d love to hear your stories about what food has meant to you.
The good, the hard, the painful, the joyful. We all have something to share…so bring your story to our Potluck and share with all of us. Directions here.

My offering for the table…………….

The Most Coveted Invitation

Growing up, a dinner invitation to my home was a highly coveted invitation by our friends. Both of my parents were exceptional cooks. My father, a second-generation Russian/Polish Jewish New Yorker and my mother, raised Catholic from a family of nine who emigrated on her own from Glasgow, Scotland at the age of 20 – both very different backgrounds when it came to food. But they both excelled in their own unique way.

Mom and Dad in the kitchen. 1980's
Mom and Dad in the 1980’s before a dinner party. The plates piled up behind them ready for food.

Until I left home I never ate a canned vegetable or frozen dinner – or a PB&J for that matter- unless it was at someone else’s home. My father had a huge always changing pile of the latest cookbooks on his bedside table instead of novels. Years of issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine Magazine lined the shelves in our den. When my parents renovated our family home kitchen after my brother and I left- one entire 8 foot-wide floor to ceiling cabinet was dedicated to well-worn cook books of every culture and style and sticky picture book albums filled with recipes cut from articles, or handwritten from their own experimenting.

Weekend Food Foraging…New York Style

I spent my Saturdays in my early youth with my younger brother trying to keep up with my father and not get lost among the throng of people shopping for fresh mozzarella, savory buttery prosciutto bread, or fresh pasta along Arthur Avenue in the South Bronx. We were given a taste of everything you could imagine while we stood behind him at the counters in each of these stores- many of them dedicated to a single ingredient… butchers, bakeries, cheese mongers, pasta makers.

Collage of images of Arthur Avenue shops.
Most of the stores of my youth remain on Arthur Avenue in the South Bronx today- continuing to feed the bodies and souls of generations of grateful shoppers. Thank you to Richard Haskel for sharing these great photos he took recently.

The flavors of Briny olives, slices of cured ham, small chunks of parmesan hand carved off the wheel, buttery cookies all tumbling around in our mouths as we went from store to store…Sometimes he’d double park, and leave us in the car with it running (yes, you could actually safely do that then!) – and say he’ll be right back- and he’d run into a store down the street and return with an Italian sausage sub for each of us… dripping with fresh marinara sauce and the grease from the sausage. It made all the hard work of keeping up with him worth it.

Zabar’s

The following weekend it would be Chinatown or Little Italy or Zabar’s – where it all started for me – as we lived two blocks away from this iconic New York City deli and gourmet food store in the early 60’s before we moved to Scarsdale, when it was a normal size store – not the full block long store it is now.

As soon as you walked in the pickle barrels were right at the door- full of vinegary floating dills or the milder half sour dills. The manager would dip his tongs in and grab a half sour and slice it in two and give one to me and one to my brother. We’d suck and chew on those as my Dad ordered smoked fish… and we watched in awe as the smoked fish guy thinly sliced the Nova or Lox or Sable Fish into paper thin slices.

Years later when I was opening a deli/bakery/gourmet food store with some friends here in Amherst I went back to learn from one of these men how to handle a fish knife and slide it along the fish into paper-thin slices- I was never as proud as I was then when I got his nod of approval.

Zabar's Fish Cutters By Nate Steiner from Atlanta, GA, USA - Flickr.com
Zabar’s Fish Cutters                                                                                            By Nate Steiner from Atlanta, GA, USA – Flickr.com

We’d always grab a pumpernickel raisin bread sliced on the big bread machine and slipped into waxed paper bags, along with a loaf of freshly baked rye bread and a dozen bialys. I loved the pumpernickel raisin…that mix of chewy dark bread with the sweet of the raisin in each bite- I’d beg for a slice or two as we walked back to the apartment or in later years, the car to drive home.

Again, years later when we opened our store here in Amherst we stocked it with many of the same foods from the same bakeries, fish suppliers, and pickle suppliers as Zabar’s in an effort to reclaim some of those very same experiences. A visceral connection to our past brought forward into our present.

Next stop was Chinatown….

Where it felt as if you landed in another country altogether. We ate at Chinese restaurants all over the city- my parents had their favorites for Dim Sum and others for Szechuan or Cantonese. My father used to joke that I was born sucking on a spare-rib – that is what they would give me when I was an infant and they wanted peace and quiet during their dinner out. I’d sit in my little baby seat happily sucking on a sweet and salty spare rib bone.

In Chinatown I was most afraid of getting lost- my father walked in long purposeful strides- three strides and he was 10 steps ahead of me. So I would hang on to his pinky and run…. And would look up when he stopped and often found myself staring at cooked whole ducks or pigs hanging in a store window- or tea-colored eggs bobbing in a barrel- and colorful packages of noodles and bottles of sauces all with labels I could not read.

By The original uploader was Uris at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [BSD (http://opensource.org/licenses/bsd-license.php), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chinatown, NYC- Cooks Taking a Break – The original uploader was Uris at English Wikipedia
The voices around me were speaking in a language I didn’t understand which in some way allowed me to focus entirely on the visual and energetic feel of the place. My father would suddenly take a sharp right into a narrow doorway and he would be standing next to some Chinese man pointing and asking what he was cooking- the sounds of the pots and pans and the staccato of the kitchen crew yelling back and forth in Mandarin to the dining room we could not see.

The Kitchen

Then we’d head home with bags and bags full of fresh, delicious ingredients – where we would unpack everything on the counters and tables all to my mother’s look of “where am I going to put all of this food?”

But my father always had a plan by the time we got home…And out would come one of his cookbooks…and my role would shift to “kitchen assistant”- this is where I learned to handle a knife, and develop my taste buds and understanding about the joy and immense gratification one can have when creating a meal with fresh quality ingredients. And where I bonded with my father and developed a part of our relationship that connected us deeply throughout our journey together.

Eventually, I’d wander off to go play outside with friends – poking our heads in to see if we could be given something to taste- or so we could see what the incredible smell was coming from the kitchen. When it came time for dinner – if my folks had invited friends over, or if my friends were asked, or if it was just the 4 of us – you could count on the fact that the meal put on the table could easily feed 2-3 times as many people. Left-overs were a goal in my family. Sunday afternoon was often just an afternoon of noshing on parts of meals from the week before.

Mom
Mom making faces in the kitchen- 1960.
Funny kitchen faces! All of those pans hanging from the ceiling are copper bottom pans! That she kept shiny for 4 decades.

My mother was no less of a creative and talented cook than my father – but the job of feeding us almost every other meal of the week fell to her- even after she returned to work when we were in Jr. High School. This meant she had to develop a repertoire – that she could shop for and know in advance how long something would take her to cook.

Every single morning of my life growing up in her house and all the way until her death at 87 she prepared a full breakfast for all of us. Any combination of egg dishes of all kinds, toast, French toast, bacon, sausage, Cream of Wheat or Wheatina, pancakes, corn beef hash, bialy’s well toasted with cream cheese and lox or sablefish, fresh tomatoes with capers and red onions, herring in sour cream….everything was prepared to perfection and generously presented. Our bellies were always full when we went off to school or to go play.

Not a Day Would Go By

Lunch was no less of a full meal…I’d go to a friend’s house and they would be given a PB and J on thin slices of bread. Or some frozen food heated up by the housekeeper. Not in my home. My mother made sure she was home and a full lunch…. A bowl of soup, a towering sandwich with freshly sliced roast beef or her famous tuna salad chock full of unexpected condiments and vegetables on “well toasted” rye, or sliced sourdough, a large glass of milk or iced tea in the summer- or if we were lucky, iced coffee with cream and sugar. And we were off again – fully satiated.

Her dinners were her denouement…She perfected the form of being able to instill in all of us the sense of continuity, connection, and memory through her meals. Her Swedish Pot Roast served with Orzo and darkly roasted carrots on the side remain one of my absolute favorite meals- synonymous with the word “comfort” for me. For birthday’s she would make our favorites – for me, it was her Duck L’Orange- where the duck skin was so crispy, the L’orange sauce just the right balance of sweet and tart- served with wild rice and a fresh vegetable. My brother was a “Roast Leg of Lamb” guy….. again, the meal prepared perfectly- juicy rare-medium rare lamb slices served alongside crispy roast potatoes and homemade creamed spinach (another of my brother’s favorites).

She perfected the art of frying chicken from scratch…Using Tempura instead of traditional batter. Served with homemade coleslaw, mashed potatoes and green beans. Thick cut bone-in pork chops- served with sweet potatoes and some fresh vegetables. Nobody made a juicier hamburger.

In the summer she was a regular at the only farm left in our community- picking out the most delicious juicy beefsteak tomatoes or perfect ears of corn for our dinner. Every night something different and equally amazing.

The Dinner Parties
Dinner in the backyard- 1970's
Every other weekend my parents had friends and family over for fabulous meals and long evenings of talk and laughter.

My parents were the masters of the dinner party! We loved when they had dinner parties which happened at least two times a month if not more. The day of shopping, the day of preparing the huge menu, the setting of the dining room table or big outdoor tables we always had at the ready with our choice of their collection of gorgeous dinnerware and good silver, the making and setting out of hors-d’oeuvres gorgeously arrayed about- always within easy reach of a guest’s hand,  the setup of the bar- all of it so much positive productive energy! We have always been a family of “doers” and we loved to do food and friends! This is where we shined.

Food is where my family came together, it was where our stories tumbled forth, where our biggest family fights erupted or were healed, where our greatest joys exchanged… regardless of the pull and the tensions of marriage, growing kids, economic pressures, aging…. The kitchen is where we all gravitated and the act of planning a meal, gathering the ingredients, preparing the meal and then eating it together is the core positive image I have of my family growing up. And the thing I miss the most about my parents having both died a couple of years ago. To me, food means love.

The Next Generation

Both my brother and I carry forward their deep abiding love and interest in food- we are both good cooks who are very comfortable in the kitchen. He has surpassed my father in the grill department! My daughter is an exceptional baker, jam maker, and all around cook…equally comfortable in the kitchen as is my niece- who loves to experiment with recipes she finds.

I went on to create, manage and own several retail food stores and catering businesses before I was 40. And now I am returning to my roots- both literally and figuratively- I have a small home farm where I grow a lot of my own fresh vegetables and fruits that I use fresh, and can and freeze. It is such a privilege to be able to eat food I have grown myself. And I get to share my love of food with you here!

We’d love to hear your stories…see you at the table!

Abbondanza – Robin

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