A childhood of food
Where other people have a spice cabinet, or grew up in a house with a spice cabinet, or a spice drawer, or a spice shelf, or at least some salt and pepper on the counter, I grew up in a house with a spice closet.
I grew up in what I now realize was a veritable mansion, and in the little anteroom off the kitchen, at the top of the back stairs, was a yellow-painted door with a white porcelain door knob. When you pulled the door open, you were greeted by a shallow wall lined with mini-shelves filled with dozens of matching Spice Island jars. You were assailed by the rich aroma of a plethora of spices, the most pungent being curry, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, mace…
This closet was magic to me. A bizarre little space that also happened to be the cleanest part of the house. The yellow paint on the door and the white paint inside was pristine. The shoulder-to-shoulder march of little bottles inside with tan labels and old-fashioned writing calmed me.
Nearby, in the adjacent kitchen, past the trash compactor and the bulletin board, was a built-in bookshelf that ran floor to ceiling in between wainscoted, beadboard walls on which hung a multitude of antique cooking implements — pestles, mallets, a half-moon blade with a wooden handle that you apparently rocked back and forth to do the job.
In the evenings, I heard my mother using her beloved “blitzhopper,” an orange plastic device with blades that she’d load with peeled onion halves and push aggressively and quickly up and down on the spring-loaded knob over and over again to chop the onions in a kind of food processor pre-curser. I remember the terrific noise the thing made.
My dad called it the blitzhopper. I’m not sure what its real name was.
My mom always cried when she chopped onions. Whether with the blitzhopper or not. It distressed me. As a child, I’d go to the bathroom, wad up some toilet paper, get it wet, and bring it to her to soothe her eyes. Black tears ran down her face, colored by melting mascara. It scared me. I wanted to fix it.
It scared me almost as much as watching her curl her eyelashes in the bathroom. She’d look at me in the mirror as she got ready for parties, her blue eye trapped in this weird metal cage. I look at her surreptitiously, hold my breath, wait for her to free her eye.
I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen much, especially as the years passed.
When the four of us were very little, maybe we were allowed in more.
I’ve seen pictures of us lined up on the black vinyl-seated barstools at the counter having oatmeal for breakfast.
As the years passed, the kitchen became my mother’s favored drinking den. She’d tuck her glass slightly behind the fruit bowl.
The fruit bowl was also a thing of endless fascination.
It was always harboring creatures of all kinds, amid hands of shriveled black bananas. Clouds of fruit flies were common.
Why did we ignore the fruit?
That bothers me now. The fact that my mom always had what I’m sure was the best fruit she could find, and did we ever eat it?
I do remember plucking hard, round grapes from stems at times, the satisfying pop as the grape came free. My mom hated when we pulled the grapes from the bunch. She taught us to break off a cluster, so the grapes would stay pretty.
I hope she saw me enjoying the grapes.
As a small child, I remember entering the kitchen, pushing the swinging kitchen door open, and asking if I could help my mother cook. I was always a little afraid to ask. She never accepted my offer. She’d bustle me out. Or simply say no. Go away.
She liked to have the kitchen to herself. It was her time. Maybe in the early days, it was simply her time to be quiet, focus on cooking, reflect. But, I doubt it. The drinking started early. My dad related once that he’d come home shortly after they’d married and found my mother in the shower in the afternoon, fully dressed.
I don’t remember if he said she was drunk.
But what else could it have been?
My mother loved cooking, and on that built-in, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, she had dozens of cookbooks. She had every Julia Child book possible. Julia was her heroine. Also, Craig Claiborne. And many, many cookbooks of foods from around the world. India, China, Japan, Vietnam. The Vincent Price cookbook was one of her favorites.
I have that book now, of course, and I treasure the insanely stained page for the Dark Mocha Cake that she made for every birthday, several times a year. It’s still a hit, that cake. I make it, and people swoon. Many have requested the recipe (after laughing, “Vincent Price? You’re kidding.”)
The potato cellar was also a place of intense fascination. It had an incredible musty, acrid smell, first of all. I’d open the little cabinet close to the floor, beside the fridge, in the far corner of the narrow galley kitchen, past the black aquarium. I’d be on my belly, or crouching down, or kneeling. I’d reach in and pull out the most incredible specimens. Creatures that were supposedly once potatoes had become labyrinthine mazes of fat, tubrous roots popping aggressively from wizened, deflated little cores. Sometimes my finger would burst through skin into a soft, goopy mess.
The refrigerator was a world unto itself, of course, and the butt of many of my father’s jokes.
Once or twice a year, he’d venture toward it.
He’d make a big show of it.
He’d drag in the giant plastic trash can that usually lived in the driveway. He’d make a lot of noise, announcing that the task was at hand. Hear ye, hear ye, the semi-annual cleaning of the fridge was to take place.
My mother would be nearby, fretting, her hands about her head. She’d try to be angry and annoyed, but was unable to suppress her giggles as my dad made a big show of opening the door and exclaiming in horror at the multitude of jars, colors, smells, heaps and heaps of food and foodstuffs stacked precariously like warren-like dens in the slums of Rio, Bombay, Caracas.
Holding his nose and shrieking in mock terror, my dad would peer into the fridge which was so full it was dark. The light was completely covered. The stench was incredible.
He’d begin pulling items from the fridge.
“What could this be?” he’d ask.
We’d gather around, holding our breath, as he gingerly peeled saran wrap from the top of a bowl, and display the contents for all to see. More often than not, we’d find incredible mold specimens: orange and green and pestilent. Or furry grey, black, and white entities with delicate stems and drooping heads.
“YUCK!” my dad would say, with great fanfare and mirth.
“Argh!” he’d yell, as he turned his head and dumped the contents into the garbage can, shaking his arm and flicking his wrist firmly to get the thing to release its hold on the sides of the bowl or container.
My mother would perch on the barstool nearby, laugh weakly, and say, “Oh, Gordon S. Stop.”
She loved to cook, my mom, and she rarely served the same thing twice.
She also carefully safeguarded leftovers and never used them. Obviously.
Every single night, every meal on the weekend, was — of course — home-made. And no simple affair either.
It was common, normal, to have vichyssoise as a first course on a weeknight. Lamb chops, Beef Bourguignon, elaborate curries accompanied by fifteen or twenty condiments. We always had lit candles on the table. Flowers in spring, knobby, shiny little squashes in the fall, sugar eggs with little scenes inside at Easter.
The food was great. Buttered, fat pappardelle noodles. Fresh bread (where did she find it, in the 70s?). Sometimes, we’d pile into the car after dinner and visit Grand Ice Cream, where a flamboyant man with a waxed mustache greeted us and served us incredible rich, hand-made ice cream. I’ve been looking for that ice cream ever since. And these were the days when deluxe or gourmet or homemade or handmade were not a thing. Rather, it was in and hip to eat from a can.
Incredibly, because kids are stupid, I was jealous, insanely jealous, of my friends that got to have Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes for breakfast (not allowed at my house), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread (which stuck marvelously to the roof of my mouth just like a communion wafer, as I discovered when friends offered me bites of their coveted sandwiches, after I’d tossed my liverwurst or egg salad sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes on wheat bread into the trash), Chef Boyardee Spagettios.
I had a complicated relationship with my friend’s parents though. Very young, in third or fourth grade, I was both jealous of the parents my friend’s had and extremely pitying. I “knew” my mother was better.
One friend’s mom used to lock herself in the bathroom for hours and read Harlequin romances. I scoffed at that. Even then.
My mother worked, first of all. She not only worked, but she was a famous journalist.
And she made real food.
And she lit candles at the dinner table.
And we ate late, around 9 p.m., as the Europeans did, when my friends ate at 5:30, with bright sunshine pouring into the room. It was just wrong.
I knew how uncouth that was. How inelegant.
My mother was elegant, you see.
It didn’t matter that she was also a terrifying drunk.
I could ignore that. For years, it wasn’t a matter of ignoring it, it was a matter of not comprehending, of course.
No one told me it was what she was drinking that made her get so scary.
Who would tell a child that?
A child has to figure that out.
As a child of five (I wish I was exaggerating), I commonly put my mother to bed.
My father was a merchant marine and gone for eight to ten months at a time, shipping out to Japan, delivering Christmas trees to Hawaii.
I’d hear the TV go fuzzy, making that terrible noise late at night. I’d slip out of bed, the eldest of four, and tiptoe into my mother’s bedroom. She’d be sitting up in bed with her glasses on, her eyes closed, and a glass in her hand, water condensed in rivulets on the outside.
It took me a long time to put her to bed because I made absolutely sure I didn’t wake her up.
Somehow I knew if I accidentally woke her, it would be bad. We’d look at each other and be ashamed. I was afraid to present the mirror to her. How can that be, at that age? I didn’t know what I was afraid of. But, I knew instinctively it would not make her happy to discover her young child removing a drink from her hand, removing the spectacles from her face.
So, it took a long time. I worked in minute increments of movement.
I always got her to bed successfully. She never woke up. I’d turn off the TV, remove the glass, remove the glasses from her nose and ears (a delicate operation), switch off the light (carefully, in degrees), pull up the covers — and tiptoe back to bed.
That was my job. I didn’t question it.
In the early years, when I was a child, my parents had a lot of parties. My mother was society editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Part of her job was to entertain the rich and famous. As the immigrant daughter of two Irish parents, one of whom was an alcoholic and pill-popper (my grandmother) and the other a train track switchman, my mother must have had complicated feelings about these “friends” she’d entertain. She was a journalist, a democrat, a liberal, a believer in the underdog (as so many Irish are) and a staunch union supporter.
I remember weaving my way through a sea of dark-suited legs (the men), spangled or bare legs (the women). Frequently on my peregrinations, I’d be stopped by a giant hand which would land on my head to rumple my hair. For some reason, these adults always thought that was funny. Occasionally, I’d be displayed as folks peered at me, commenting on my face or blonde ringlets, passing glances among them. Sometimes men pulled me onto their laps, or grabbed me and hung me upside down.
It was safe to watch from the landing on the stairs, where me and my brother (my sisters were too little and maybe in cribs) crouched down and peered through white-painted slats at an undulating sea of people and rode waves of incredible decibels of noise and raucous laughter.
My father manned the bar, a separate room off the living room decorated in an Africa theme, with zebra cushions and a glass cabinet of African art, sculpture, and curios.
One man had an impressive scar on his forehead. He was a famous football player and had been injured during a game. He was tall and strong with a big laugh. I had a crush on him. I had a crush on a man called Sheldon too. He had longish, strawberry-blonde hair, a russet mustache, twinkly blue eyes and a lanky frame.
One man scared me. He had a short, squashed, lined face, beefy cheeks and fleshy lips. He might have been the same man who lured me into his car years later, when I was in eighth grade. He asked me about music, asked me if I’d like to get stoned. I pretended everything was fine and normal, of course. I was casual and breezy. When he lunged for me, I bolted, my hand ready on the door latch.
In the mornings after these parties, my brother and I got up early, roaming the dining and living room for treats. We’d find the half-finished cups of coffee that didn’t have cigarette butts floating in them and doctor them up with plenty of sugar and cream from the sugar bowl and silver creamer. We’d eat dregs and bits of leftover cakes and custards. Sometimes, we’d find boxes of See’s candy. We’d mow through those with great delight, taking a single bite out of each one till we found our favorites, as dust motes brightened by the rising sun spun all around us.
I love to cook now, but when I left my mother’s house at 17, I knew nothing about it. I couldn’t boil an egg.
When I was 19, I tried to make my boyfriend “veal paupiettes.” That’s what the sign said these things were at the meat counter. They’d already been prepared; they were stuffed. I just had to cook them.
When I got them home, I realized I didn’t have the faintest idea how to prepare them. On the stove? In a pan? In a pot? In the oven? Covered? Uncovered? In water? At what temperature? For how long?
I think I put them on a baking sheet in the oven, but when they started sizzling, I got scared. I pulled the pan out, placed it on the tile floor, turned off the oven, sat on the floor, and cried.
When my boyfriend got home, I just pointed at the pan.
He laughed, made rice, finished cooking the veal paupiettes, served them, pulled me onto his lap, and held me.
I loved the rice he made, buttery, white, and fluffy. I’d finish it off in the saucepan, scraping the sides and bottom with my spoon.
I didn’t know how to cook. I had to teach myself.
But what I did get from my mother was a love of cooking and an even greater love — and recognition of — real food, real cooking. Good food, well-made.
And that has made all the difference, as they say.
And I am confident I have passed that on to my children, to their delight and dismay.
My son can’t tolerate fast-food burgers. But he wants to. He wants to be like everyone else and enjoy the lowest common denominator of food, just as I longed for the communion wafer bread that bunched up on the roof of my mouth.
But, he can’t. It makes him sick.
Because he knows good food. And his body knows good food.
It took me a while, and I’m always learning, but I know how to cook, and I know good food, and I have little patience or tolerance for restaurants that charge heaps of money and deliver poorly prepared or poor quality meals, or laughably small portions, or just food that reflects a complete lack of care or attention.
Food is love. Cooking is love. Caring for those we love by nourishing their bodies and souls is paramount. It’s the basic parlance of care — it’s essential. Connecting with our friends and neighbors over food is imperative.
I have one neighbor I realize I don’t trust, and it’s because I’ve never eaten with her. I’m beginning to suspect she’s an android. She’s never accepted food in my home. She’s never invited us to dinner. She thinks we’re friends, but because she’s never accepted even a snack at my table, I don’t trust her. It’s true. Unfair, perhaps, but true.
My mom died of cirrhosis when I was 26. She was 59. She had switched to straight vodka long before. She wanted to die, and she succeeded.
But on the way, she taught me to love food and cooking and Julia Child and other cultures and candles at the table. She showed us her love, in her own way. By spending hours and hours shopping, chopping, stirring, baking, roasting, and presenting. By making sure we were at least physically nourished. By holding the line hard when we begged for the junk food we saw in our friends’ houses.
These are gifts, and I have passed them on.