|Dinner in 1963|
I had limited culinary exposure as a kid even though my Dad owned a restaurant in our small New Hampshire town. He was better at giving directions to his cooks than donning a chef's toque himself. I'm not sure why Greeks are known for running restaurants. Maybe it's a cultural thing, in the same way Koreans own dry cleaners, Sikhs drive Taxis and Vietnamese women do nails. He didn't go to business school, but the restaurant business was in his blood. Credit goes to Daddy for distinguishing different cuts of meat and knowing which ones were tender and could be broiled versus those that were tough and needed to be braised. He made friends with all his suppliers and drank shots of whiskey with his favorites.
This is a true story. At the time of a severe potato shortage in the late 1940s, my father was able to procure several bushels of Idaho potatoes the size of oranges to sell at his restaurant called the White Mountain Cafe. Knowing that people always want what they can't have, he came up with a clever idea. On the front window of his restaurant, an artist painted a picture of a steaming potato smothered in melting butter under which was written: BAKED POTATO $1.99, T-BONE STEAK FREE. Somehow this bit of creativity was picked up by the Associated Press, and for years after, my Dad proudly showed off the clippings he'd collected from newspapers around the country.
At home my mother created a nuts and bolts menu that was hard to screw up -- spaghetti with tomato sauce, broiled chicken, and roast lamb for special occasions like Greek Easter. We ate butter and sugar sandwiches on Wonder bread while other kids ate peanut butter and jelly on Pepperidge Farm. My mother's idea of cooking a steak was to put it under the broiler and call my father because he could tell by poking the piece of meat with a fork that it was perfectly done, just the way we liked it -- medium rare.
When I moved to California in the mid 60s, I joined the student wives' club at the university where my husband was getting a graduate degree. There were many activities offered. You could learn to play bridge, find a tennis partner or go on day hikes in the coastal hills. I chose to join the international cooking group because the wife of a Peruvian student promised to teach me how to make the most delicious appetizer I'd ever tasted -- pitted prunes filled with caramel made from sweetened condensed milk, wrapped in bacon and put under the broilder. Many of the young wives represented nationalities that were very exotic to a New England jejune like me -- India, Spain, and China, just to name a few. There were Jewish girls from New York who excelled at making matzoh ball soup and big-haired gals from Dallas who cooked Tex-Mex. Before I left New Hampshire, my mother-in-law taught me how to make New England baked beans, so I had a traditional dish to contribute as well.
|New England Baked Beans|
|Ravi Shankar and his sitar|
|Moroccan ladies showing off their home-made bastilla|
Still cooking together a year later, my Indian friend's Hungarian husband taught me how to bone a whole chicken, stuff the cavity with a filling made with Roquefort cheese and flame it with brandy at the table as a spectacular finale. After a delicious dinner at Marrakech, a famous 1970s Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco, we mastered a recipe for bastilla, a traditional dish painstakingly made with shredded layers of chicken, an egg mixture, and ground almonds, wrapped and baked in phyllo dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
My fettucini in gorgonzola sauce was so delicious that my freshly- departed husband of twenty years had the nerve to ask me to share the recipe with the woman he left me for, but I knew better than to comply. Without a man to cook for and in my despair, I resorted to eating canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches until I found a boyfriend who loved my boneless pork roast simmered with sliced apples and served in a calvados cream sauce.
Several years later my new husband (not to be confused with my current one) proclaimed himself a vegetarian grazer and announced that the elaborate meals I enjoyed making were no longer on his diet. This meant that after our breakup, I could resurrect my beloved cookbooks and eat a real meal with real food (and with a real man) again.
When I read Bruce's ad on Match.com and saw a relationship developing around our mutual love of good food and exotic travel, I knew I had met the man of my dreams. The first time he came to my house, he brought imported pate from a gourmet shop and complimented me on my dishes. This was the beginning of a life that dreams are made of.
But here in 2012, people don't seem to cook or entertain the way we used to, spending hours researching a menu and cooking for days. Friends are more inclined to spontaneously invite you to a potluck dinner and ask you to bring something simple. Meals are more informal and focus on eating healthy with fewer calories and no fussy desserts. Organic vegetables from Farmers' Market sauteed in extra virgin olive oil to accompany wild fish or free-range chicken are what I typically serve. Salads made with right-out-of-the ground red butter lettuce, California avocados, and just-picked heirloom tomatoes are my specialty. Non-fat Greek-style yoghurt from Straus Family Creamery in Sonoma County replaces sour cream and two percent milk works just as well as half and half without the extra calories. I prefer to spend more time outside riding my bike than being stuck in my one-butt kitchen. The diversity of where I live offers a plethora of high quality ethnic restaurants, and the delicious Indian food I used to make at home is now available at a Zagat-rated restaurant we can walk to. Just a few miles from our house is a main shopping street where there are a dozen or more outstanding Asian, Italian, and tapas-style eateries. Regardless of where I am on the cooking spectrum, I will always keep the two volumes of Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in my cookbook collection, but have made a prominent place for Alice Waters Simple Cooking on my kitchen shelf. These days I've been known to have cold cereal for supper, but I add a handful of fresh berries and leave the beer in the refrigerator.