We’d been dating for only a short month and already cohabitating on Seneca Street in Tucson, when Leslie, my future wife, invited me to her family’s home, 120 miles north in Tempe, to meet her parents and to subject me to a Lutheran Christmas Eve dinner in the desert. On the approach to her house, while popping a breath mint, I noticed a sort of Arizona nativity scene on the neighbor’s roof: an inflated Santa in flowered shorts and sunglasses falling-down drunk into a fake chimney. It was very anti-Norman Rockwell-esque.
Leslie’s family’s home was one of the many tract houses that were slapped up as fast as possible when Tempe was becoming a city. Gravel instead of grass. A cactus in the front yard with a blooming Bird of Paradise. When I walked into the house, I was struck by how clean it was—it was so immaculate one could literally eat off the floor. After I passed her father’s comprehensive, methodical inquisition, we sat down for dinner. The table, of course, was pristine: the polished utensils were silver, the bone china was inherited, and the tablecloth was a tasteful off-white lace. We sat on antique chairs. The food—a Scandinavian supper—was colorless or beige: lutefisk swimming in a translucent whale-sperm sauce, white fish balls, whipped potatoes in hand-churned butter and some esoteric eggshell-white dumplings. As a gesture of recognition to her father’s side of the family, the English half, there was hard sauce, a blob of teeth-chattering, molar-cracking white frosting served atop a mountain of butter plum pudding. The real desserts were marvelous, exquisite, and elaborate: a Christmas tree pastry made of cascading cream puffs, cookie plates geometrically stacked with Berlinerkranser and aebleskiver and some even more difficult to pronounce traditional treats, all of which were constructed with sweet uncultured hand-churned (yes, hand-churned) butter, freshly-grated, imported vanilla, and pearl sugar.
There was a sense of polite formality and decorum at the table. Her father wore a jacket and tie, the women in the family sported modest dresses with hose, and everyone wore polished shoes. Dressing up for dinner was unheard of in my family as people wanted to be comfortable. Her father said grace and I peeked at Leslie who, along with her sisters, bowed her head in reverence. I was hoping my wine glass would be filled quickly as the flask I smuggled into the house and hid under my guest cot had already been drained.
I had commited something beyond a faux pas, sitting down to dinner dressed in holey jeans and shoeless in my discolored socks—they were, at least, matching. Leslie didn’t know me well then and hadn’t anticipated how uncouthly I could dress or else she would have counseled me as she had concerning the Christmas gift I purchased for her mother.. I had asked Leslie what her mother liked and she said candles, knowing that it was an affordable choice for a destitute college student and one that would be difficult to screw up. But I did. When I showed Leslie the bright red, exotic jungle bird-shaped candle, crasser than a velvet painting of Elvis one could purchase in our border town, Nogales, Mexico.
Nobody “dug in” until everyone had been served. After everyone gushed about the exquisite beauty of the table setting and how wonderful the meal looked, we ate. Over dinner, only one person spoke at a time (Leslie had warned me that anything to do with politics, religion, sex, vulgarity or anything controversial was taboo), which was in stark contrast to my family who simply shouted over one another about anything that randomly crossed their minds. We had a sort of secret competition to not allow anyone to finish his or her sentence. And nobody ever listened; we simply plotted what we were going to say next. Instead of conversations, we engaged in loud, boorish monologues. Only by accident did two people even intersect on the same subject. Usually, they would end up arguing, and the way to win one of these chance arguments was to simply talk louder than your opponent, food spewing from your mouth. Shout and duck to avoid your opponent’s spittles of food. Duck, then talk some more. In fact, it was considered impolite to talk without your mouth being full as that suggested the food wasn’t scrumptious enough (or as my family so elegantly stated: Fuck-Ing Delicious) if you had the patience to wait until you were done chewing before making your point. It was also the highest compliment to the cook if you swallowed without chewing, an art in and of itself.
Our holiday meals were either take-out Chinese or Jewish deli cold cuts like: pastrami, tongue, corned beef—anything reddish and salty— and some pickled herring and smoked fish. These meals were served on paper plates, only purchased on sale after a holiday, so it was not strange for us to use Halloween plates for Hanukkah. Why dirty dishes and risk falling off a rickety chair while putting my parents’ wedding Five and Ten china set back into the cabinet? Why waste an hour cleaning and arguing whose turn it was to wash and dry when you could circle the table with a large black plastic garbage bag, then sprawl on the couch with your pants unbuckled and groan inarticulately about how disgusting you felt because you ate too much like “a fat suckling pig?” However, there was some holiday decorum: the television could be on, but the sound had to be off. Farts and belches, too, we designated to silent mode.
Everyone in my family was always on, breaking, or a day before starting a diet. Our motto: tomorrow I’ll be perfect. The first time Leslie met my mother, my mother had just lost a considerable amount of weight withWeight Watchers. She pulled down her stretchy slacks to show off her “new skinny ass.” My wife was horrified but she managed to indicate in a Lutheran sort of way how nice my mother’s derriere seemed, though she hadn’t seen it before. My mother assured her it was once very fat.
Our families also had different gift exchange rituals. At Leslie’s house, we politely sat around the symmetrically decorated tree while each person, one by one, would select a gift for another and we would all watch that person slowly unwrap the gift. We’d ooh about how wonderful and thoughtful and perfect that gift was. More impressive to me was how every gift was wrapped meticulously with exquisite ribbons and little personal embellishments, each completely different from the others. When I received my first gift from her older sister, Andrea, I was almost too nervous to unwrap it. Andrea’s gifts were artfully wrapped in a paper with a design of flying marzipan pigs linked with invisible thread. The paper itself was a color I had never seen before. Belgium lace bows with whimsical hand-blown glass pears held them together. I was so mesmerized by the wrapping I have no recollection of the actual gift.
My family, if we gave gifts, wrapped them with the same cheap whatever-we-had paper purchased the previous year for 75% off. Nobody knew the proper way to gift wrap anything so all the presents were overly scotch taped in the shape of a dinosaur with tumors all over its body. Over the years, my family developed our own wonderful ritual. We’d call each other before the holidays and ask, “How much were you planning to spend on me?” And no matter what anyone said, the inquirer would exclaim: “that is exactly what I was planning to spend on you!” Then, “Let’s save each other the trouble and call it a wash. No need to exchange anything. Let’s just write out checks for each other and simply rip them up.” And, as an afterthought: “In fact, let’s not even waste any time writing the checks.”
When I was a kid, my Orthodox Jewish paternal grandparents explained the philosophical notions behind the kosher laws to me. These dietary laws were created for pragmatic, moral, and spiritual reasons. One could not wash down meat with the mother’s milk, one could not ingest pork as pigs lived in swill and were unclean and slaughtered in an unsanitary, inhumane way with flies buzzing around the carcasses, and so on. In a nutshell, it was stuff one wasn’t allowed to eat or eat in tandem. Yet, I’m the kind of person who can and will consume anything. In fact, I’ve always sought out the most exotic, interesting foodstuff. I watch Bizarre Foods with envy. I have eaten mysterious tacos from unrefrigerated food stalls in sleazy back alleys in Mexico, slurped organ meat of unknown origin, tasted mushrooms on our hikes, and licked the unrecognizable from undated Tupperware containers—all to Leslie’s utter disgust and unheeded warnings. After decades of marriage and three kids, Leslie will still not share a soda bottle with me, afraid of the potential germ-infested backwash and general yuckiness.
My grandmother, Tessie, believed strictly in these kosher laws and was well-versed in every nuance, although we suspected she was simply making shit up. She explained illogically how crustaceans were un-kosher because they had no hearts or eyelids. According to Tessie, one had to wait three hours to digest boiled beef before one could brain freeze with an ice cream cone.
Her kitchen cabinets were labeled for two sets of plates: dairy and meat. She performed all the appropriate rituals that appeased God after an unintentional violation, or, if confused about the practice, invited the Rabbi over for coffee and Danish. “So long as you’re already here, would you mind blessing something to make sure it was Kosher?” she would ask. Once, I accidently made a tongue sandwich on a dairy plate and she swooped it from my grasp and made my grandfather bury the dish in some park in the Bronx, for seven years I think. I imagined the thousands of religiously contaminated plates, buried and forgotten, that would be discovered by head-scratching archeologists after New York had seen its apocalyptic end. Every few years, my grandfather had to buy her a new set of dishes, hence, a possible explanation for our reliance on paper plates during my parents’ generation. To this day, there are no clear-cut theories behind our use of plastic utensils.
My Uncle Philly, on my not-so-much-anti-religious-as-agnostic, Communist, mother’s side, had a very different sense of the rationale behind kosher laws, a social-anthropological view. He contended that since Jews were, through no fault of our own, (an idea beaten into my head) a nomadic people, wandering over the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for thousands of years, the tribal elders were concerned with maintaining culture, tradition, language, customs, stand-up comedy, and religious identity. Naturally, nothing frightened Jewish parents more than interfaith marriage, even more than articulating & boasting about good fortune, as our God is jealous and vindictive. If you’re lucky and fortunate, we contend, one should keep his mouth shut to avoid being struck by lightning. So, to combat the possibility of “cross-pollinated blood” the manipulative and neurotic Jews, according to my uncle, developed strange and peculiar dietary practices so their offspring wouldn’t mix with other cultures. You don’t marry someone you don’t eat with!
Most cultures boast that their cuisines are based upon what is local and fresh. Jews favor take-out. When I think about the concept of the “melting pot,” I noticed intermarriage and racial acceptance became more commonplace in my community as people began exploring other cuisines. My childhood Chinese pal, Stephen Liu, managed to drift over to my house on Sunday mornings for lox and bagels, and I always wanted to know if he was home on Friday nights, hoping to be invited over for his mother’s spicy-garlic squid with scallion pancakes. As French lawyer, politician, and gastronome Brillat-Savarin once stated, “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” Human understanding, and ultimately love, begins over the sharing of food, tasting what each culture can offer; it opens worlds and conversation and family stories and secret recipes, revealing how unique yet similar we all are. Name a cuisine that does not use water. Trying foregin cuisines can be a sensual experience, and aren’t we attracted to that which is both familiar and unfamiliar? Nothing makes me happier or feel more humanly included than when I prepare a complicated meal for my family and friends and everyone loves it, showering the cook—me—with compliments. I suspect the satisfaction from nourishing those we love is deeply embedded in our prehistoric DNA. Yet, I am always amazed and humbled when someone “goes to the trouble” of making a homemade meal for me. It seems like the ultimate gesture of human connection and generosity, a love beyond love. I know Leslie’s mother, Borgny, begins baking her Christmas cookies in August. Food makes people more inclusive. It combats bigotry. We share our hearts when we wine and dine together. The wine may bring about real, unedited conversations where we sometimes say things we wish we could take back and other times feel relieved to finally get off our chest something that has been weighing us down.
It was not my mother, a food-criminal and horrible cook, who argued that putting ketchup on spaghetti was the same as the homemade Italian “gravy” my pal Anthony Trimboli’s grandmother made every Sunday (“Nobody can tell the difference!”) who taught me my love for food. It was my father and our weekly Friday dinners that did. On Friday evenings when my mother was off doing the weekly grocery shopping with my sister, we’d go out to dinner, never the same place twice, always just the two of us. He seemed knowledgeable about every cuisine and described their properties in glorious detail. He knew how to order and knew every server, and often, the owner or chef came over to talk with us and sometimes slipped us small plates of special off-menu items. They all seemed to know my father,yet I never knew how.
I fell in love with this world of food: the generosity and human connections, the cheek-kissing of people just met, the new flavors, the nibbling off each other’s plate—the surprises beyond the life to which I was accustomed. Of course, we never told my mother about these dinners as we undoubtedly spent more money than we could afford. It was our time, a time to be two men, a time to be father and son, and it suggested a world out there that my father knew he’d never know, and one he wished for me to experience, in the same way that he encouraged me to read, even though he was not a reader himself. A brilliant but uneducated man, my father thought cuisine would lead me to a better understanding of the human condition and pleasure and to fully experience life. What more can anyone wish for his child?
I suspect everyone has a secret food obsession. There are common ones like the methodical deconstruction and their reconstruction of Oreos to erect one immensely tall cookie. Hot sauce on watermelon was a favorite of an obese friend who told me about the mandatory behavior modification class he had to attend before his stomach stapling procedure. He was asked to sit at a table facing a full-size mirror and instructed to eat the plate of healthy food—steamed cabbage, a little brown rice and an overcooked, unseasoned, skinless chicken breast—placed in front of him, putting his utensils down between each bite. What he noticed was that there was no joy or pleasure in the meal, and not because the food was tasteless, but because he was eating alone, so he began talking and cracking jokes with his mirror-twin. I have no problems dining alone. Being an antisocial introvert, there are times I get tired of people and must allow myself to indulge in my own secret pleasure: dining alone at a Pho restaurant, unabashedly slurping noodles. I remember my favorite writer, M. F. K. Fisher wrote in one of her essays that as a young woman in France, she’d taken the tiny sections of a tangerine, placed them on a steaming radiator, and watched the mini orange balloons swell. Just before they exploded,she would then pop them into her mouth, allowing the hot, citrusy sweetness to detonate in her mouth while her husband did tedious doctoral research at the library. Sometimes secret pleasures aligned: my mother adored the marshmallow portion of the Mallomar while I favored d the soft, chocolate-smothered cookie portions. She would rip the cookie into our preferred sections and we would eat the entire box, just us, sitting at the Saturday matinees while my father was at work at the dry cleaners. My mother traveled through movies in the way my father traveled through food and I suppose I inherited both their wanderlusts equally.
It was my wife, Leslie who made me want to cook.When we first moved in together, I intuitively wanted to serve her a meal, so I purchased a small hibachi and hunched over it in the backyard and grilled chicken slathered in bottled El Rancho barbeque sauce, my first specialty. Although I suspect I might be over-romanticizing, it was the most delicious chicken either of us ever tasted, and one that could never be replicated. Maybe it was the time, that magical period of falling in love, combined with the primitive activity of making a fire, squatting over it, and staring into the hypnotic flames, making sure the meat didn’t burn but was not underdone either that made that chicken so special. Maybe this was akin to the moment when civilization began, the taking care of someone outside of your family, the wanting them to become your family, the literal and metaphorical sharing of nourishment. I feel like I have spent my life trying to recapture that moment and yet that moment keeps me, somehow, grounded in my vision of life. It was and is my gravity. It simply made us happy and the rest of the world could not interfere. Although we have never been able to recreate that chicken, though I’ve tried, I’m somehow glad I couldn’t as there are moments too perfect to repeat and perhaps they’d be diminished if they were. We also loved our Friday night ritual that we looked so forward to, fat carnitas burritos from the Sanchez Burrito Factory that we paid for with salvaged sofa-cushion coins and skipped lunch money. We often nostalgically reminisce about those burritos when we visit Tucson. How lovely it was to be young and poor with your whole life ahead of you!
This past holiday, I gave my sons hand-forged Wusthof knives and cookbooks as they are starting to show an interest in cooking. They now live their own lives out of our house—though I still pay two of their cell phone bills (which is another essay). Since, I’ve received panicky phone calls which begin, as many do, with the phrase: Don’t tell Mom! Because the boys had never used an actual sharp knife before, they’ve sliced their fingers and needed advice about how to stop the profuse bleeding, how to tell if the cut requires a trip to the hospital for stitches or butterfly tape. I confessed that I, too, have a nasty scar on my thumb from one of my first cooking mishaps and arm-burn fraternal tattoos. I considered these proverbial badges of honor; it proves that you will sacrifice your body to feed yourself and others, and nothing is more human or compassionate than that. Maybe that is what it means to be a human being. As Brillat-Savarin said, “Whoever receives friends and does not participate in the preparation of their meal does not deserve to have friends.”
When you meet a man for the first time and shake hands, I’ve told the boys, look at his fingers. If he has scars and burn marks, he most likely cooks, which means he is a man who loves others more than he loves himself, and that’s a person you can trust.
Offer to buy him a drink and ask him to tell you the story of his life.
Photo Credit: Terry Cnudde from Pixabay