My Favorite Kind of Teenager

My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one.  –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter

Prune Restaurant, 54 E. 1st St, New York, NY

Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.

The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.

waiting for train on NYC day

The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in New York balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching a favorite TV series.

Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.

On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.

It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!

When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.

Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.

In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”

I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.

The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in italics:

m.f.k. fisher, 1908-1992

“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”

Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look  at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.

“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’” 

Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”

“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.

It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’

I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.

 ‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’

I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too. 

 And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **

It doesn’t necessarily matter when  a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way. 

showtime!

That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique, fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered. 

where we sat

Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. [“Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!]

Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.

But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, mixed with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.” 


**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.

Comfort Food for Cal

IMG_2090 - Version 2

what comforts cal

IMG_3428 - Version 2

what comforts wendy

comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

My father was the fourth born of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew, my cousin Cal, is 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food, or by his appetites.

Shortly after my first story was published, she wrote to say, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. The bar is not high. Cal also enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are “pork”. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”

I have no desire to eat creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of “comfort food”. There is no single explanation for how our taste preferences arise or even change. It must be tied to our senses, our experiences, and certainly to our emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, grief, punishment, or contentment can trigger a taste memory–by longing or loathing.

Cousin Cal is truly a comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood tastes that matured into strong adult preferences. His eating experiences are limited to the USA Midwest, highlighted by cuisine of a certain generation.

th-3

Joan says he is obsessed with Jell-O. th Jell-O with crushed pineapple and nuts, Jell-O with strawberries, bananas and nuts, and, at Christmastime, Jell-O made by rolling cream cheese into balls covered with nuts somehow meant to resemble snow balls in red gelatin. I’m trying to visualize what this looks like. Less certain I could eat it.

Cal also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.”

IMG_2090

In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over-processed vegetables from cans. Uncountable family meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and then [hopefully] into the garbage without being caught. Now, thankfully, my food preferences cut a wider swath simply because we moved overseas in the 1980s. Spices, particularly fresh chilies, in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds, and more.

Life became an eating adventure that changed my definition of comfort food forever. It should awaken my senses with spicy flavors, stirring memories of literally sweating my way through an Asian food stall.

th-1

th-2

fresh or dried, equally good

Cal and I are as opposite as any two people could be in what excites us at the table. He eats his vegetables “well cooked”, his fried egg sandwich only on white toast, and of course the Jell-O thing.

As Joan and I talked about Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family eating lore tumbled out. She told of my father’s second sister, Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition”, outlived two husbands, and never had children. She had some peculiar phobias and was not much of a cook either.  To family potluck gatherings she always brought her signature Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans containing cubes of pork fat.  Then she added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The whole mess was baked for awhile in the oven. The onions were always “crunchy” and hated by small children. Perhaps everyone else too.

We lost track of time as I took notes and enjoyed being with cousins I don’t see very often. Cal called Joan’s phone to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. Later that day she sent an email with a few more thoughts ending with, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” You have to love a man who softens when favorite sweets are offered.

I asked extended family members to talk of their comfort foods when we were at a reunion last summer. Choices ran the gamut of American food tastes. Friends from other cultures, including my daughter-in-law who is Russian/Latvian, offered a more varied palate. But it is this quote, from an overseas American friend, that provided the most surprisingly unique definition:

“My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”

It seems unlikely that Cal and I will ever share similar food tastes, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we are linked by the way our choices make us feel. Satisfyingly nourished, emotionally content, warmly loved.

Two recipes; one sweetly bland and one very well seasoned.

IMG_3420

lineup of opposing food ingredients, cousin versus cousin

CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING

  • 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
  • 3 T. minute tapioca
  • 2 ¾ C. milk
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 t. vanilla extract

Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.

IMG_1825

tapioca undressed

IMG_1826

casually dressed

th-7

well dressed

WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well.
  • 1 or 2 eggs cooked in butter, turned over easy for a few seconds at the end.
  • Sprinkle eggs liberally with red pepper flakes or fresh chopped chilies. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Slide eggs and any remaining oil from cooking on top of rice. Take two knives and cut eggs into pieces so yolks run into the rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped cherry tomatoes.
  • Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.

IMG_3451

ginger and garlic garnish, optional but deliciously optimal

For a blander, easy to digest version, simply leave out the chilies, garlic and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

IMG_3445 IMG_3446