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