Before I get started with the individual recipes, I’m going to try and put my relationship with food into context.
I grew up in the Catskills in upstate New York; a town of 700 called Eldred. Although we were deep in the country, there were, oddly enough, not many thriving local farms. Mostly dairy farms and apple orchards. The produce at the local IGA was what we came to expect in the 70s and 80s: iceberg lettuce, brown potatoes, yellow onions. (In fact, I didn't know there were different kinds of lettuce or onions or potatoes for a long time.) Even with these limited resources, my mother was (is) a terrific cook. Maybe a little safe with the seasonings, but there was always a tasty four-square meal in our home. We always set the table and sat down to eat.
My dad had his signature dishes, as well. He was a cook in the Army and knew his way around a kitchen. He made great pizza and his famous stuffed clams (which will be featured in this blog, without a doubt!). He also made perfect scrambled eggs and omelets. To this day, I can only eat breakfast eggs the way my dad made them: slightly creamy, not shiny, not brown.
When I was thirteen a summer theatre opened in the area and I got a job babysitting the theatre owner's four-year-old son. They cooked in a communal kitchen, which was the center of the social universe so far as I was concerned. Most of the actors came up from NYC, some even from LA. Some had unusual diets. This is where I first heard the word “vegan.” I had my first run-in with soy bacon (fakin' bacon, I believe was the brand name), unrefined grains and fresh garlic. Garlic to me was always in powder or salt form. And my father has an unusual sensitivity to the smell of garlic, so it was always used sparingly around our house. I remember watching as one of the thespians took apart the papery bulb, crushed it with the side of a knife, trimmed a clove, chopped it fine and added it to some oil and balsamic vinegar (another first encounter) to create a salad dressing. It was like magic. Salad dressing that you didn't buy at the store in a bottle! Wow! Another frequent visitor to the theatre was a restauranteur named Billy Durkin. We celebrated the closing of a play with a grand lobster feast complete with corn on the cob, prepared on the grill with lobster infused butter. From there on, my relationship with food started to change. (But I still love my mom’s cooking best.)
Eldred, NY is in a National Park Service area. Zoning limitations meant that there would be no fast food restaurants within a half hour of our town. Everything was mom and pop joint. And sure there were great places that had delicious greasy foods, but no McDonalds or Pizza Hut. Ethnic foods were also very rare. Chinese food was the height of the exotic. It wasn't until I went to college in Boston that I sampled more exciting cuisine. For this, I thank my Aunt Eileen who lived in Boston at the time. She would pick me up at my dorm just about every other weekend and take me somewhere new. It was with her that I had my first Japanese, Indian and Thai food. It was with her that I fell in love with sushi somewhere in Harvard Square. We took a few road trips out to Amherst in the autumn and attended farmer's markets where I took photos of the bounty in lieu of being able to purchase anything. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it yet, anyway. But it was inspiring. With Eileen, dining out became more of an adventure.
Let me also say that, with all due respect to my grandparents, my parents did not have the best culinary role models: I'm 75% Irish and 25% Czech. Meats were to be fried or boiled and prepared with nothing more than a little salt or pepper. Vegetables were boiled within an inch of their nutritional value. My mother reports enjoying many of my grandmother's dishes, including the fantastic STUFFED CABAGE recipe that will eventually be featured here. My paternal grandmother would make meatballs so big that they were raw in the middle and burned on the outside. Liver would be pan-fried, curling up in a U shape, tough as nails. With not much money and a lot of kids to feed, she did her best.
There were the good moments, too. Grammy Marrinan's Irish soda bread, for instance. On St. Patrick's Day, she would make soda bread for all, wrapped in tin foil with a green yarn bow. When she came to visit the rest of the year, she would bring a loaf of Jewish rye bread from Shelvin's bakery in the Bronx. The bread was so ubiquitous that my sister, at a very young age, distinguished our grandmothers by naming them "Gramma" and "Grammy-with-the-bread."
I hope my many aunts, uncles and cousins will pitch in here with more details.
So, that’s me. I want to hear about you.