September 13, 2005
Five Foodie Memories (and the one that got away)

It has been over a month since the kind author of the Cook's Cottage tapped me for the Childhood memories meme. I had hoped (fittingly enough) to write this up while home visiting family. However, my family is large and there was so much to do. Parties and days at the pool and museums, somehow the blog was left by the wayside and poor Barrett had to pick up the slack. Anyway, here we are back safe and sound and some of the laundry is done and I'm starting to feel like we are back to normal. So for the last week I've been mulling over my choices. It seems to me that the idea is to come up with specific food moments, rather than general memories and so that is what I'm trying to bring to mind.

Summer, 1975: I remember sitting in a plum tree in our back yard in West Chicago, IL (population 13,400). My best friend Ginger and her two sisters are with me and we are in the two trees nearest our neighbors on the right side of our house: those bad boys the Welsh brothers. Johnny and Brian. They are taunting us about something. We girls are eating the delicious Italian prune plums straight from the tree. Warm and soft and full of juice, they are the best fruit I have ever or will ever taste. I can't remember if it was Ginger or myself who had the brilliant idea of throwing unripe plums at Johnny and Brian but we all four throw ourselves into it. And it's great: we have ammunition and they don't! Until they start throwing the plums back, that is. With bites out of them. EWWWWWWWWWW!!! We run screaming from the trees.

1971: A big old American car pulls up in front of our house and the horn honks. It's my Austrian grandparents! I run from the house shouting and give them hugs and kisses and then dance to the back of the car, where bags and bags of groceries from Thompson's grocery store in Park Ridge are lined up. My mother and father divorced when I was about nine months old and in my early childhood our family was very poor, as my mother worked and put herself through college. She wouldn't accept money from her former in-laws. But how could she turn down bags of groceries, especiallly when it was obviously more food than the generous old couple could eat themselves in a month of Sundays? And especially as her four year old youngest daughter was dancing around, plucking out fruits and cheese and glistening packages of meat? My grandmother, who was the best cook I have ever known, could not bear the thought of her grandchildren going hungry, or even eating sub-par food. "Eat, eat" I can still hear her say in her soft German accent, her beautiful blue eyes cloudy at the thought of our imminent collapse from starvation.

Fastforward to 1992: I had been dumped by my boyfriend of six years for my (former) best friend. I didn't eat for two weeks, aside from strong coffee, beer (does that count?) and a hard boiled egg that I forced down somewhere in the middle of the period. Mutual friends, tired of watching me abuse myself, came back from the market with a perfectly ripe, dripping red mango. I smelled the sweet sharp flavor and my mouth started to water. My morbid self-destructive self fought with my sane food-loving self. And I accepted, grudgingly, a few bites of mango from the kind friends. It sticks out in my mind as one of the tastiest bites of mango in the world and one of the kindest of moments.

Around 1976: My maternal Irish-American grandmother agreed to teach me how to set a yeast dough. This was my grandmother's specialty. She told us that when she was an adolescent her brothers used to tease her mercilessly until she got angry enough to slam the doors and close herself in the kitchen. Where she would proceed to bake away her anger and frustration. (I'm a lot like her in some ways.) Anyway, one day I suddenly realized that it would be fun to learn to make my own coffee cakes and cranberry rolls and maybe even bread. And so my mom dropped me off at my grandmother's on the other side of town and we spent an afternoon in her beautiful yellow kitchen making cranberry rolls and apple coffeecake. I loved the smell of the yeast and reading the instructions off the recipe card in her slanting precise handwriting. The soft, warm dough, elastic in our hands. Her kitchen was in an old farmhouse, with a huge dining table that only allowed careful negotiating around the edges. But it was a perfect spacious work space for setting yeast dough. And we rolled out the warm dough and slathered it with butter and sprinkled it with cinnamon, sugar, apples and plump raisins and baked the horse-shoe shaped loaves into perfect coffee cakes. It's a memory I will always treasure.

1977: Meg the Mooch. My sister, who is six years older than me, began cooking before me. When I was about ten and she 16, she went through a phase of wanting to show off for her current boyfriend. She made cookies. Later, she allowed some lobsters to die in the fresh water of our bathtub (oops). But it's the cookies I remember. Because as soon as the smell wafter my way, I was in the kitchen sniffing and begging for scraps. I wanted the cookies. I wanted to lick the bowl. But my cruel sister said, "That's the cooks perogative. You want to lick the bowl, you make your own cookes." And so I started to bake my own cookies. And one of my memories is of being too impatient to wait for the cookie sheet to cool and ending up with one, big, melted chocolate cookie. I chipped and chipped away at it in frustration and her boyfriend of the moment tried to console me that it was still tasty. But I was mortified.

And the one that got away? To my great and eternal regret, I never made apfel strudel with my Austrian grandmother. I have my mother's stories of how her mother-in-law used to stretch out the dough, gently teasing it across the kitchen table until it was "so thin you could read a newspaper through it". None of the recipes I've ever seen follow this method, but according to my mother it's what she did. I wish I could have learned to do it myself with her. She taught me how to make lentil soup and made the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted. I've been trying to reproduce her stuffing (despite her showing me how to make it) for nearly 20 years. But I'll never get to see her make apfel strudel and I have only my own youthful arrogance to thank for it. That and the stupid assumption of the young that their grandmothers will be around forever. I miss both of mine all the time and regret that my son will never know what special ladies they were.

And so there you have it. A short trip down foodie memory lane. It was hard to choose just five memories as there so many when I sit down to think of it. All the times my sister and I waddled from Grandma Liebezeit's dining table (now in my apartment) to collapse on the mattresses on the living room floor where we would eventually sleep. And we'd argue: it's your turn to help Grandma with the dishes, no it's yours. The time my cousin Maureen and I had a contest to see who could eat more cranberry rolls. (We got in trouble for that.) Picking mulberries behind Ginger's house, coming home with our bellies full and our pails holding just barely a cup of fruit. In a recent post I mentioned the lunches at the Berhoff with the grandparents, Grandpa sitting stiff and formal and Grandma nodding benevolently. The Berghoff was (just about) good enough for their standards.

If you are tagged, here's what you do: Remove the blog at #1 from the following list and bump every one up one place; add your blog’s name in the #5 spot; link to each of the other blogs for the desired cross-pollination effect.

1. BeautyJoyFood
2. Farmgirl Fare
3. Becks & Posh
4. TheCooksCottage
5. Too Many Chefs

Next: select new friends to tag and add to the pollen count. Then create a post listing your own five food memories.

I'd like to tag:
1. The Food Whore
2. Ladygoat
3. Adam, a.k.a. The Amateur Gourmet
4. Viv of Seattle Bon Vivant

Posted by Meg in Sussex at September 13, 2005 11:53 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Great stuff. I really get a feeling for how close you were to your grandmother.

Who fed you the mango, if you don't mind my asking?

Posted by barrett on September 13, 2005 at 10:29 AM

Evil boyfriend's old best friend Steve from Seattle and his then-girlfriend Chole. They were really sweet to me in a troubled times.

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 13, 2005 at 11:20 AM

Some time ago - months, years?? - I saw an Italian woman on TV stretch strudel dough exactly the way your grandmother did. She stretched and stretched it til it was insanely thin. I'm sorry. I don't remember the name of the woman but as I recall, she was Italian and made her dough with olive oil. (I'm pretty sure it was Lidia Bastianich....) It was amazing to watch the dough being stretched and stretched and stretched.


Posted by ejm on September 13, 2005 at 3:23 PM

Thanks for that very readable and vivid post. The amazing thing is how I find so many things in common....

Posted by deccanheffalump on September 14, 2005 at 3:16 AM

Elizabeth, thanks for the confirmation! I Googled the chef but her web site (not surprisingly) didn't have anything about it. Maybe I'll have to check out her cookbooks next time I'm in the US, as I'd love to see the explanation!

Deccanheffalump, thanks for tagging me! I felt the same way reading your post (allowing for completely different cultures and continents)!

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 16, 2005 at 1:52 AM

I too googled and couldn't find anything about it either, Meg. I double-checked with my husband and after looking at her photograph on the net, he confirmed that it was Lidia Bastianich. But neither of us can remember what TVshow it was on or exactly when it was. It may well have been on PBS before the food network was even launched.


Posted by ejm on September 16, 2005 at 9:03 AM

Bingo! (well, not really) This strudel recipe describes a similar dough stretching method:


Posted by ejm on September 16, 2005 at 9:12 AM

WOW. Elizabeth, that is fantastic!! Thank you so much - I'm definitely going to try that!!

Maybe I can somehow channel my grandma's spirit if I play songs from The Sound of Music over and over...? : )

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 16, 2005 at 3:57 PM

Well... Grandma didn't make much >apfel

Grandma did tutor me once on the strudel, when we were living in Oberlin and she came to visit (in her mid-eighties!). What I remember most about the dough was:

a) it was very difficult to get the consistency that she desired - not too wet, not too dry, not too stiff. What was funny was that she used darn near EXACTLY the same recipe as the other grandmother, but the dough feel was very different.
b) part of the secret was the flour that she used. Here my memory fails me a bit, but I think that it might have been something unusual like cake flour.

Grandma also starred in a home video that cousin Joanie made of her and Eleanor making strudel. When I was in Colorado fifteen years ago I left blank tapes for them to make me a copy, but apparently they never got around to it.

Brother Kurt

Posted by Kurt on September 16, 2005 at 10:36 PM

Well, that's the last time I use brackets for emphasis in comments... part of my first paragraph got whacked off. It should have read:

Grandma didn't make much apfel strudel. She made poppy seed/dark raisin strudels and walnut/golden raisin strudels almost exclusively. The only time that I recall seeing apfel strudel around her house was when somebody like niece-in-law Stephanie (who was truly German, not Austrian like Grandma) had brought one as a gift.

Posted by Kurt on September 16, 2005 at 10:39 PM

Wow, I would just about kill for that video. I'll have to see if Mom has her address!

Thanks for the input Kurt! It's true that what I mostly remember is the poppyseed coffeecakes, but I thought that was just because grandma was so old by the time I was born. Mom always implied she had stopped making apple strudels because they were too much work.

Either way, I seem very early to have regarded the Irish-American grandmother as the source for dessert recipes and the Austrian one as the source for savory dishes. Funny, isn't it?

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 17, 2005 at 3:31 AM

I'll be really interested to hear if it works. (I don't know about playing The Sound of Music over and over though. You don't want to get queasy from all that sweetness. ;^))

Posted by ejm on September 17, 2005 at 7:47 AM
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