Create food memories
What are your first food memories? You have them. We all do.
Childhood flashbacks of great or not so great meals. Memories of discovery. Remembrances of meals or particular foods past. Of mothers or fathers cooking, nonna or auntie food, holiday feasts or summer barbecues.
One of my earliest food memories is sitting in the unfinished basement of a relative on Christmas Eve. There were two bowls of snails. One with a thin garlicky tomato sauce, the other with olive oil and garlic. I remember my dad teaching me how to get the snails out of the shell.
There were oysters, clams, squid, and octopus. Small glasses of home made wine. Yes, children drank wine. None of us turned into monsters, serial killers, or bums.
I remember my mother’s cream puffs stuffed with cannoli filling. Her chocolate cake is still the best I ever had. It came from the recipe on the back of the can of Hershey’s Chocolate. She would frost and top it with shredded coconut. Over years she tweaked the recipe until it was something divine.
My dad would cook calf brains with onions, garlic, and scrambled eggs. Another favorite was broiled mackerel basted with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Simple, savory, oily, delicious. Fried smelts was another great food memory. My mother would cook calf or lamb kidneys.
Fried smelts was another great food memory.
My mother would cook calf or lamb kidneys.
Chicken gizzards and livers fried with onions and scrambled eggs made a great lunch for a little boy.
Liver and onions in a rich semi-thick sweet and sour sauce studded with olives was another favorite.
Mrs. Amendola, who lived across the street, made bread three or four times a week. She would bring some over, hot out of the oven. She fried some of the dough and sprinkled it with sugar, zeppoles.
Pigs feet, tails, and neck bones in tomato sauce was another childhood treat. So were pickled pigs feet and pickled herring.
There were artichokes. The leaves stuffed meticulously by my mother with thinly sliced garlic, cheese, parsley, and bread crumbs.
Cardone (Burdock). Boiled until tender then battered and fried.
Cucuzza, Italian for big f***ing squash, cooked in tomato sauce.
Fried eggplant topped with Parmesan made great sandwiches.
Everything was not Italian. There were Polish stuffed cabbage, pierogi, Chinese food, latkes, and other ethnic dishes my mother and father cooked.
Food was never boring in my home. From early childhood, I learned to try everything and develop a healthy respect for food of all kinds.
One of my favorite adult memories is sitting with my dad, eating bread, cheese, olives and salami for lunch. Sipping wine and talking.
Those memories come back to haunt me sometimes. I relish them. I wish I could relive them. They left me with an insatiable curiosity about food.
If my parents were alive today, they would be creating Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, or other cuisines.
I read an anthology of food writing. Much of it contains the childhood food memories of the contributors. Their memories, recreations, and interpretations of childhood foods similar to my own.
Food was a way for ethnic people to hold onto their identity in America. They would speak English, act like good Americans, be good Americans, red, white, and blue.
At home or in lunch bags and boxes, they were Italian, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Polish, or whatever group that came from someplace else.
You could walk through neighborhoods on warm days and know the ethnicity of people living in homes from the food odors emanating out of open windows.
In the kitchens or dining rooms, in the safety and security of their homes, they were the other, the outsider, the foreigner. They were eating good simple food.
There are great places to eat and shop in most major cities. Places run by people who were never told they could not be what they are. They keep their ethnic and local foodways alive.
Transportation and technology make it possible to import the foods and flavors from homelands far away. People no longer have to travel back home to smuggle ingredients here.
There are ethnic markets selling food, especially fruits, vegetables, and herbs unheard of a few years ago. People are growing some of those foods here. Others are imported daily.
I look at food with my child’s eye. Those memories are important. I am always asking why and trying new things.
My dad had a saying, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to try it”. That is my mantra.
You will not get sick or die if the ethnic restaurant is no frills, no table cloth, no ambiance or dining experience. If the booths are hard or there is no air conditioning. You will be surprised and delighted.
You will not die if the food served is not organic, free range or the menu does not have the names of the animals who provided the meat. You will be pleasantly surprised with the love, care, and talent handed down through generations in its preparation.
Your children will be the food writers of the future. Do you really want them sharing childhood food memories of franchise mung and dreck, kids meals, frozen pizza, delivery or carryout bags, fake ethnic chain restaurants, like Chipolte or Olive Garden, or frozen nuked delicacies you prepared?
With a modicum of skill, learning how to make the grocery store your friend, and the power of the internet for instruction, you can prepare wonderful meals for your family. Memories that will make them want to replicate those memories into meals to share with others.
I am an heir to great food memories. Those memories are more valuable than money or property.
Create food memories for your family. Food is life. We all have to eat. Cooking and sharing food is sharing life. There is no greater love.