May 02, 2007
WHEN FOOD IS LOVE
If there is one thing that I love to do, it's cook.
We have a tradition in my family that, sadly, has only five more weeks to go. On Sunday nights I start to cook at 7:30 with the thought that the food has to be ready for the family to eat one minute before 9. That's when the family settles down in front of the television set with a bottle of red wine and some steaming hot plates of pasta and we watch "The Sopranos."
My designing daughter Jessie, who is supposed to be at school in Philadelphia, will call on a Friday and say, "I have so, so much homework; I have to write an 80-page paper over the weekend." Then she will say something that always touches my heart. "I won't be able to concentrate here at Penn in the library. I think I will come home where it's quiet."
It makes sense to me. Who would study in a quiet, boring library when you can sit in a house with your 18-year-old brother's friends ringing the bell while a dog is barking and going nuts every time the bell rings while two parents are screaming on the house intercom for everyone to shut up.
"Are you going to stay for 'The Sopranos'?" I always ask. She always says yes and I always smile on the other end of the phone.
This week I made penne with peas and onions and pancetta. It was delicious. Thank God we all had finished eating before the unfortunate shower scene with the late Vito's crazy son.
What you are about to read has been published before as the forward I wrote for my daughter Jodi's cookbook, Celebrity Dish. It will give you some idea of the origins of my lifelong love affair with food:
It wasn't until my family went from being dirt poor to scrambling up to the lowest rung of the middle-class ladder that we could afford to eat foods that were bad for us.
Up until then it had been nothing but nutritious, delicious, simple food that cost pennies to prepare. The recipes came from Italy. They had never been written down but had been passed on from generation to generation.
There was plenty of pasta covered with scrumptious sauces. The simplest, and my favorite, cost just about 15 cents per portion to prepare. It was 10 cloves of garlic that had been simmered in olive oil until they were a mahogany brown. The oil was not virgin olive oil, since Italian families of the day demanded virginity from their daughters, not their olive oil. One or two anchovies were added to the hot oil and stirred until they had melted and dissolved into tiny, little, salty, flakes. A pinch of hot red pepper flakes was tossed into the skillet at the last minute and then the cooked spaghetti was added to the garlic oil skillet until all the flavors were infused in the pasta. A family of four had this treat for less than a dollar.
In my old neighborhood, which was near Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, we always had plenty of fresh, just-caught fish, sold by the fisherman who pulled it from the ocean and then pushed in his pushcart from street to street. Chicken was bought in a chicken market where live chickens roamed at your feet as you picked them out. Their feed was corn without chemicals. The bread was hard-crusted wheat. Silvercup and TipTop were "American" breads and were too costly and too mushy. Our bread came warm from a bakery that had its ovens in the back.
Packaged foods were too expensive so the beans and lentils and vegetables that go into rich, tasty soups were all bought fresh and the soup started from scratch.
Recipes revolved around my grandmother's hand. The spoon was not part of her recipe formula – her fingers were.
"How much fresh parsley?" my mother would ask.
"You know, half a handful," my grandmother would reply.
In my house, food was love.
Good marks at school were greeted with a stone face and a mumbled, "Thassa nice." A clean plate at the end of a meal was treated as a great accomplishment, worthy of a compliment. I'm glad my grandmother wasn't alive to see the invention of the Ziploc bag; it would have killed her. Leftovers were unheard of in her world and no food was frozen. Sunday's leftover pasta became a frittata and was served cold and delicious as my school lunch the next day.
Ask anyone you know about his or her childhood and a favorite food experience will be remembered within the first few seconds. No one talks about food without smiling. Around the world, food is the great equalizer.
Those of us who have homes or rent places on the East End are lucky. We live among some great farms where corn and tomatoes and potatoes are the freshest, most incredible vegetables and grow in abundance. In the spring we pick ripe, red strawberries and in the fall we pick sweet, delicious apples. In the summer we drive past row upon row of some of the best corn grown anywhere in this country. Our ocean off Montauk yields tons of fish every day and there are many great restaurants and food stores to make every meal you eat this summer a great Hampton's memory.
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