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

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

My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin, Cal, who turns 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 on this website, she wrote and said, “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. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”

I have never eaten 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 food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, or happiness can trigger a taste memory–of longing or loathing.

Cousin Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into the same adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.

Cal is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime, something special; Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered with nuts. Somehow, this is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Just trying to visualize, I’m almost certain I couldn’t 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.

In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over processed canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many meals spent spitting vegetables quietly into a paper napkin, hoping not to get caught.

Thankfully, my food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas, to Singapore, in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.

Life became an eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls because of the heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.

As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition” expressed by some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. Nor was she much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans with cubes of pork fat.  She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. Everything was baked for an indeterminate time, then served. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it. Possibly adults, too.

Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left, and later sent an email, “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 sweets are offered.

I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the normal gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures, and my Latvian daughter-in-law, offered more variety in their comfort food desires.

But it was our friend, Alec, who gave the most graphic comfort food descriptor. “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.

Food and people are subjects for great stories. Because our life paths diverged, cousin Cal and I will never share similar food preferences. Nor should we. What is important is that we are linked by the way our food choices make us feel–nourished, content, and loved.

Two recipes, one sweet and bland and one very well seasoned.

CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING COMFORT FOOD

  • 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.

WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE COMFORT FOOD

  • 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well. Link to easiest rice cooking: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
  • Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes if desired.
  • Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Toward the end of cooking, turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
  • Slide eggs and any remaining butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With edge of spatula or knife, cut into eggs so yolk melts into rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped tomatoes.
  • Eat with a spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
IMG_3451
ginger and garlic garnish

For the less spicy version, leave out red pepper, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

former location of cal and wendy’s grandfather’s feed store, kirkwood, missouri