Saturday, December 17, 2011


My fascination with food began fairly early...

Recently while watching an episode of AMC’s hit series Mad Men, I came to a strange and somewhat unsettling realization.  I was Sally Draper.  Or she was me.  The life this little girl on the television was living was an eerie parallel of my own.  Her struggles were much like mine, her experiences with family, certainly the history that was shaping her childhood.  All mine.  That got me to thinking about what it meant to grow up in the time period from the late fifties through Woodstock.   The fifties were a time defined by a strong iconography, particularly in advertising.  It is no wonder that a television show has now been crafted around those vivid images.  Reflecting back on that decade of glossy ads in bright, primary colors, they spoke of a simpler time.  Photos of a poised and smiling wife and mother beaming over her stove in crisp white apron, her lipstick and coiffure perfectly in order, seemingly belied the reality we know must have existed for those women.  Yet the facade of perfection perpetuated for some time.  We wanted to believe life could be effortless, so we told ourselves it was.  Mother continued to effortlessly deliver her flawless roast beef dinner to the bread-winning master of the house.

That veneer soon began to crack, as veneers unfailingly do.  The illustrated perfection fed us by Madison Avenue eventually gave way to a generation unbound, as the early sixties brought with them societal turmoil.  The pill brought a new freedom for women.  Great leaders inspired our young people to hope for a better world.  The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the year of my birth, as a soft-spoken, exhausted and profoundly courageous Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.  Events began to tumble and plummet, as we were carried forward by time throughout the next decade and a half.  The times they were a-changin’ — suddenly Mother had a voice.

But back to Little Sally. She was six or seven when her parents parted ways, I was not quite three.  My father might have been Don Draper, the handsome roué with a gorgeous head of black-brown hair and piercing blue eyes.  My mother might easily have stepped into the role of Betty: she was likewise bright and beautiful, and may also have felt a little smothered by the role of  housewife and mother thrust upon women of her time. Lucky for me, if she was, she never let on.  It was against this complex and tumultuous backdrop that we all experienced Camelot; together we “had a dream.”  We flew to the moon together, only to come crashing back to earth as our inspirational leaders were murdered one after another.  1955 to 1970 was a decade and a half of hope and assassination.  Turbulent, magical and heartbreaking.

So how does any of this apply to eating, you ask?

People share joy and cope with tragedy by coming together  and that almost universally takes the form of also sharing a meal. The picture-perfect fifties were moving from an unattainable ideal to a more accurate reality.  The apron Mother wore was stained and greasy, and as she removed a roast from the oven, she was wiping real sweat off her brow.  Suddenly the way we saw ourselves was in conflict with who we were becoming.  Change is a recipe for the instinctive return to the comfort of traditions.  When we feel threatened, we come even closer together.   We celebrate our rituals.  Inevitably, we eat.

In these times when families were still regularly observing the formal family dinner, it was customary to expand that gathering to larger groups for the holidays. Though I was perhaps at least as restless as the next kid —  maybe even more so —  I cannot recall ever wanting to get away from the family table during a holiday meal.  It might be because there was no playmate waiting patiently outside for me to join her, or maybe it was because it was a special occasion, with all of my extended family gathered together.   At Grandpa Johnny’s, it might have been because I was with my father, an event that did not happen as often as I might have liked in the post-divorce years.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was because on these occasions even the adults were genuinely happy.

Being gathered around that table in the bosom of my family for a holiday dinner was a joy I anticipated all year long.  Though we spent most holidays with my mother’s people after my parent’s divorce —  the somewhat fractured holiday schedule usually allowed for Christmas dinner to be spent with my Father’s large and boisterous Italian family, particularly when I was very little.  Ours was typically a fairly robust gathering, at any given time there might have been fifteen of us all seated around my Grandmother’s table to share the feast.  Italian relationships most definitely revolve around the culture of eating.  I can hear him now once we were all seated and the food had been placed on the table.  “Mangia(re)!  Mangia(re)!” he would exclaim.

These early gatherings are vividly recalled whenever I think on them.  Recently, I ran across a photo taken of this beloved Italian menagerie at Christmas dinner circa 1957 or so.  Of the multitude seated at that table, only my mother remains alive.  The table itself had been decked out in Louise’s finest linens, sterling and china — elegant — the way she’d learned to do things in America.  The menu for the evening was however, uniquely Italian, resplendent with our shared Genovese heritage.  The food of Northern Italy.

First to be brought out of that kitchen were Lou’s depression-glass plates, all piled high with a rustic, vegetable-rich frittata, a moist, savory concoction that to this day is an unfailing delight.  Next would come a steaming platter of hand-made ravioli, generously slathered with Johnny’s mouth-watering mushroom sauce, each toothsome pillow generously sprinkled with fresh grated parmesan cheese.  Another platter would soon follow that one, perhaps containing hot linguini with clams and garlic, again layered with a gentle yellow snow of the precious cheese.  Sometimes one of the women would make a Cima, an old country staple that was eaten sliced and cold.  It is essentially a pistachio-stuffed veal breast, the preparation of which involves a week or more of stuffing, aging and pressing.  Food just kept coming until no one could possibly eat any more.

(Both my grandparents were marvelous cooks, and both of them had me working in their kitchens the moment I could steadily hold a chopping blade.  I will never forget my first successful solo attempt at browning an onion for the evening’s meal.  The look of pride on my Grandmother’s face when I showed her how nicely I had caramelized the onions was one of my proudest moments.  To win her approval was the ultimate reward.)

After the classic Italian dishes came our nod to the New Country.  Usually a fat roast turkey, but occasionally for a slightly smaller gathering Lou might offer her guests a beautifully prepared roast beef.  To my three-year old self, it all seemed limitless.  After the turkey came more platters, these with side dishes—  potatoes and salads.  There was wine in abundance, and with dessert came coffee and Galliano.  My grandmother believed there should always be more than enough food for company.  If the guest list was eight, she cooked enough for 14, nearly doubling every recipe.  If anyone were to have left her table remotely unsatisfied, that would have for her, been a fate worse than death.

Dining with a large, boisterous crowd of friends and family is at the heart of all that is best about life.  These gatherings are potent, marvelous, enchanting.  They are so rife with sensory and emotional pleasures we can become intoxicated by the event itself.  The palate is intrigued by the smells of the abundant meal as soon as you enter the home.  The heart is warmed with the sounds of beloved family gathered in every room happily chatting in anticipation.  There is an excited electricity as parents reunite with busy adult children they don’t see as often as they might like; youngsters of various ages scramble for a coveted position on a beloved grandparent’s lap; teen cousins bond over shared perceptions of the  adults in the room.  There are new babies to enjoy.  There are faces missing, as beloved elders are lost and new members to the family join the throng.  Some changes are inevitable as babies turn to teens and loved ones are lost, but at the root of the holidays is that thrill, the knowledge that for a little while, on this occasion and in this moment, we are safe.  We are together.  We are united in one another’s glorious company.

There is nothing more natural than dining—  and thus bonding— with immediate family.  Certainly those of us who belong to the Mad Men generation are seeking a route back to those simpler times — before the shattering of family food rituals began to shatter our connections to family.  We are beginning to realize that the preparation of food, and nurturing of a home, can all be liberating.  There is something to be said for the way June Cleaver rocked those pearls while tossing a salad.  When Mother discovered the TV dinner, it was a mixed bag.  Though the convenience of these instant meals represented a form of rescue for the newly working parent at the end of a busy day, the self contained meals began to erode the ritual of a formal family meal.  Decades later, we are coming full circle as people begin to rediscover the pleasures of dining together.  They are realizing that the act of breaking bread with others is as critical to human nourishment as the food itself.  Today’s foodies (and foomies) are seeking a return to a time when we were united at family dinners, celebratory get togethers and holiday tables a good deal more often.

For this holiday season, the recipe for Peace on Earth is a simple one.  Find a friend. Share  a meal.  Make a memory.

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