“What keeps me motivated is not the food itself but all the bonds and memories the food represents.”
- Michael Chiarello
When Clotilde tagged me for the Childhood Food Memories meme, I thought "Aha! This meme I can do!" I've been tagged for other memes before, but never managed to complete any of them, due to all sorts of excuses, especially a tendency to over-agonize about such things.
Memory in general is something of a Pandora's Box -- but even more so in the case of food memories. Think of Nigel Slater and Toast. Despite the tendency to mourn a bit for places and people that are no more, this particular stroll has held more sweet for me than bitter. So although I've already written quite a lot about my food memories, and although I (and everyone else, I'm sure) could come up with dozens if not hundreds more, here are Five Childhood Food Memories.
1) Penny Candy
In the town where I grew up, there was a wonderful ice-cream parlor called Daddy Michael's. It had marble-topped counter and tables, wrought iron chairs with a sweetheart back, Tutti-Frutti ice-cream, and Daddy Michael himself, a charming, black-haired, mustachioed fellow who always wore a striped shirt and suspenders. My brother and I were taken there after movies or when we'd given a speech or been in a play or a concert at school. We might have had an ice-cream cone, or for a special occasion, a sundae or an ice-cream soda. And if it were a very special occasion, we could choose some penny candy out of the big glass jars, each holding a different kind. Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls, chocolate kisses, peppermints, taffy....oh the joy of filling one's own little sack with goodies to hoard and dole out, one at a time, so as to make them last longer. I hate to tip my hand here, but let's just say that I can almost remember when each of these tiny treats actually cost a penny.
2) Homemade Applesauce
My mother made wonderful applesauce from scratch, and she made it throughout the year, since apples are more or less always available. It was a staple food in our house, accompanying meals and much of the time serving as our dessert as well. My mother believed in fruit for dessert, saving more opulent sweeets for special occasions (although we were sometimes served a cookie alongside our applesauce or fruitcup). I have a vivid memory of a friend of mine at our house for a sleep-over, making her goodnight call to her mother: "And mommy -- we made homemade applesauce! Real applesauce -- and it was so good!" I was struck by this because she was so thrilled to make and eat something that seemed fairly routine to me. How lucky I was -- and am.
My favorite of my mother's applesauce variations was a fall version. When new apples were in but there were still plenty of fall plums, especially the little Italian prune plums, she would make a marvellous apple-plum sauce. I won't go into more detail, since I plan to do a real post about this in the fall, when all the delicious apple varieties arrive in the farmers' markets.
3) Schav, aka Cold Sorrel Soup
This was and probably still is my absolute favorite cold summer soup. My mother made it often during hot weather, because it's one of the most refreshing things you can imagine. In Russian-Jewish cuisine, this soup is called schav, but it's basically a cold sorrel soup served with sour cream, chopped cucumber and scallions. You can add cold boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs or other vegetables, but I like it best in its simpler form. It's easy to make if you have access to fresh sorrel or "sour grass" as it's also known. The green is simply chopped and boiled in water; then a liaison of eggs or egg yolks is introduced. It's chilled and garnishes are added later. Or you can find a jar of schav in the Jewish food section of most supermarkets, which will also require the addition of at least scallion and sour cream or yogurt, and optimally cucumber. The kosher bottle of Gold's Schav I picked up the other day has a subscript that says "Sorrel Soup -- A French Delicacy".
Nowadays I make it just for my mean selfish self, since G hates it (how could anyone hate this?). I prepare it with Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, and I'll sometimes do it as schav/cucumber-yogurt soup, whirling the cold cooked sorrel in its liquid in the blender along with a few trimmed scallions, some peeled cucumbers and yogurt. It's wonderful with buttered rye or pumpernickel bread
We had a family friend who had something of a reputation in my parents' social circle for her cooking. Her name was Liesel, and she was a very proper German lady. Truthfully, I didn't much like her stollen or plum cake, which was a bit cardboardy. But she made another confection which I craved. Each Christmas she'd bake masses of her own version of Elisen Lebkuchen, a nutty, spicy little cake. She called them Lisettes both in honor of her own name and because it sounded like "Elisen" too. Instead of flat thick biscuits, she baked them in upstanding little round hemispheres, each on its own tiny circle of edible wafer paper. She glazed them in vanilla and coffee and chocolate, and they either had colored nonpareil sprinkles or half an almond on top. I was wild for them, and to this day, I search for something that approximates the flavor, the chewy, melting texture thick with ground nuts and minced candied fruit and some inimitable spice blend. True confession: when I was an overweight teenager, I stole an entire pound box of these little cakes (Liesel's family Christmas gift to ALL of us) out of my mother's freezer and stashed them in my room, eating them a few at a time. I couldn't help myself, and feigned ignorance when questioned about the missing Lisettes. Long after, I asked my mother if she thought Liesel would give us the recipe for Lisettes. "Oh no," she said. "Liesel doesn't share recipes." "Will anyone ever get the recipe, do you think?" I asked. "I doubt it," replied my mother. "Liesel has only sons, and she's the sort who'd never give something like that to a daughter-in-law. " As far as I know, the recipe went with Liesel to her grave.
5) Waffle-Iron Grilled Cheese
As a special treat, my mother would occasionally pull out the waffle iron and make grilled cheese sandwiches in it. They might have had bacon and/or tomatoes as well, but they were almost always made with sturdy cheese, most likely cheddar, on a good white loaf bread. We had the sort of rectangular iron with small holes, not the big Belgian-waffle indentations, so it worked beautifully for sandwiches. The waffle texture made the sandwiches extra-crunchy, and the cheese ran out, dripping down the sides...note to self: get out the waffle iron (I have almost exactly the same one as my mother's, which she found for me at a yard sale in Vermont) and make some grilled cheese...
Here's my chain of links -- when it's your turn, simply move down the list, dropping number one from the top spot, moving the numbers down, and placing yourself in the number five spot:
May all your food memories be ever-so-delicious!