Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dear Father

People on my dad's side of the family don't get senile-- they get mean. Or so the family lore goes. My mom's side is a different story. She had a great-great uncle who used to bicycle around Crystal Lake in Illinois singing Methodist hymns at top volume, until the family took him to the asylum in Elgin and he got a lobotomy. He died when he fell out of an apple tree- apparently, people were picking apples in a local orchard, he got startled, and he fell. 

That's the way to go, I think, sometimes. 

My father is going into a nursing home. My father, a man of huge brain, passionate interests, and an outsize personality, left us a long time ago. A geriatric psychiatrist by trade, my mom recalls waiting to pick him up at Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick, and hearing him bellow at his patients, "WHADDAYA MEAN YOU DON'T CARE? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF ANSWER IS THAT?" He worked at the Veterans Administration in Boston and had at least one mercenary as a patient. He worked for the Archdiocese of Boston and used to come home with tons of edibles from the North End.  He worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield, which he loathed-- one time, a patient drove through the plate glass window of a restaurant, and Blue Cross didn't want to pay for hospitalization; that summed up that job. 

Secretaries and nurses loved my dad. Other doctors and administrators wanted to kill him, because my dad was smart and he knew it. He did things his own way. When he had finished his work for the day, he left, regardless of what time it was. He took long, rambling lunches. He would take three hour walks and my mother would try not to worry. 

My father was brave. He married outside of the faith and my grandfather, who never left the Bronx, showed up in his apartment and told him that if he married my Methodist mother, Grandfather would wear a sandwich board that said, "My Son Has Shamed Me." My dad was not impressed, and he and my mom got hitched at the Harvard Club, where they ate tuna sandwiches and drank champagne, and only ten people attended. 

My father instilled in me a love of classical music, Woody Allen, good food, and above all, reading. He gave me a biography of Sigmund Freud when I was ten, and I read it. He also taught me the value of a grand gesture. One summer, when we rented a house in Chatham, he gave my brother and me a garbage bag each, filled to breaking with toys and books, just because it was summertime and he loved us. 

My father accidentally packed two left shoes for my graduation and had to wear Birkenstocks instead. Good thing I went to Wesleyan. 

When I had a genteel nervous breakdown junior year in Ireland and came home, my father told me, "Home is where your head is."

Now he is silent-- a man defined by talk-- now just sits. He doesn't look miserable. He smiles slightly. He moves his hands, but the nails are long, the fingers are beginning to look fleshless. His dark eyebrows jut over his face in a vaguely James Mason-ish way-- he's lost his round Yeshiva boy face. He still gives me huge hugs, and my mother tells me that he reads this blog and it makes him laugh, which is amazing because as far as I can tell, he doesn't really read any more. That makes my heart break, because above all else, my childhood was filled with bizarre books my father would leave around the house. A history of philosophy, a Georges Simenon mystery, the Michelin guides, the poetry of Kenneth Koch-- you name it, it was somewhere in our house.

And the cookbooks! My mom is a dynamite cook, but my dad was a dynamite reader of cookbooks. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Indian Cookery Simple Cooking. Noshing is Sacred. From My Mother's Kitchen

He keeps on falling.  Years ago, he suddenly couldn't walk without falling, and despite batteries of tests at various snooty Harvard hospitals, no one could determine why, and has gotten worse with each passing year. He also, somewhere along the way, stopped talking. My mother has to carry him from place to place, essentially, and cannot lift him herself-- she is a tough broad, with a huge amount of patience, but she also has pins in one of her legs and it cannot be easy to lug an inert person to any sort of upright position. She cannot keep on calling the fire department every time he falls and my brother isn't home-- yesterday he fell three times, and after years of this, she realizes that he needs to be safe, and she can't guarantee his safety any more. My brother asks my father, "Well, Dr. Merowitz, what do you think?" "I should go," he says, in a rare sentence. 

They are in Massachusetts, and I am here, in New Jersey, alternately feeling nothing and then feeling crashing waves of sorrow. Not sadness- I feel like sorrow is a deeper word, something that tugs at your roots with an inexorable pull until you cannot breathe, until, mercifully, it recedes. 

For the past year, there has not been a single hour where I do not think of my father or see his face. But if you ask me how I feel about it, I don't know. Or maybe I do know, but the effort of articulating it is something I don't want to think about. There is a feeling that once those gates open, they cannot be closed, and I will be swept in the wake of giant, messy, unresolvable tears. 

 But I am grateful for the long time I had when my dad was, well, dad. Did I want to kill him sometimes? Hell yes. Was he unfair and nuts about stuff? Oh my GOD YES. But he was a good dad, and I love him. I wish that he had not experienced this strange, glacial descent into the madness of old age. Are you gone, Dad? Because if you aren't, you need to know, you did so good by me, I can't even tell you. Thank you for being. 

Dear Father- Colin Hay

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Guest Post-- Of Soup and Storms

Stacy’s “Souper Sundays” are legendary. That all changed when Superstorm Sandy came to town. With her home destroyed and her family packed into her dad’s house, she had a lot of time to think about the connections between food, family, and home. She will have her first Souper Sunday since the storm next month.

Regardless of my mood or mental state, I can say with certainty that I truly love my family, not just the crazy blood relatives, but my extended family of neighbors and friends that prove time after time they are the stuff that holds my head on my shoulders. There was no truer test of this than the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. While my husband and I shifted through the rubble that was now our life, trying to pick up the pieces and make things normal again, my entire family was knee deep in the literal muck with us, clearing out our house and holding our lives together. As the new normal set in, it became important to me to re-establish old traditions, making whatever house we landed in a home. Being from a huge Italian family, those traditions all include food. Massive amounts of food.

When I have a gathering, it is never small. I mean, who do you cut out? The simple solution is to invite them all. And, when you are not a gazillionaire and you want to actually socialize with your guests, what the heck do you serve that doesn’t have you glued to a stove or grill? Well, for me, the answer became soup. And, so began a few years ago Souper Sunday. I make several different kinds of soup, cut up some bread, throw some bowls on the counter and we have a no frills hell of a time. And, I am pretty damn good at it, If I do say so myself. My soups are YUMMY.

Nearly a year after the storm, I unpacked a nice big green soup pot a friend gave to me and decided it was time to soup again. As a small thank you for the tremendous show of love, support, gift cards, baked goods, holiday ornaments and shoulders to cry on, I had some of the office ladies over to my house last weekend for our first Souper Sunday of 2014. Sometimes there is nothing better than having an all female crowd pack the house and this was no exception. I gotta say, I truly love these women. Regardless of career path, home town, fashion sense or marital status, we just gel. Souper Sunday was a prime example. And, while we bitched and drank and laughed and yelled, we ate soup. A LOT of soup.

I am going to try my best to spell out for you my favorite recipe of the day, maybe even give it a name. You see, I am not one for the order and precision required for baking and complicated meals. Cooking for me is a giant experiment that can always be fixed with the right amount of seasoning. Here is the way I made this particular soup it most recently, cannot say it was the same the time before. Be daring, throw away the measuring cups and check this out:

Super awesome chicken soup with coconut milk:

·         2 cups-ish of cooked chicken (I cannot stand looking at raw meat)
·         veggie broth (or chicken broth) – one of those giant cans should do it
·         1 can of coconut milk – whatever the standard size is they come in, similar to a can of veggies
·         2 sweet potatos  - I don’t peel any vegetables but you may want to
·         Normal size onion – white or yellow, never tried red
·         A big can of diced tomatoes – I used fire roasted this time
·         A bag of frozen corn
·         Some little grape/cherry tomatoes. I prefer the yellow ones and I like the number 12 so that is how many I halved and threw it
·         Curry power
·         Cumin
·         Fresh Cilantro
·         Lime
·         Olive Oil

I don’t measure so first step, get a decent size soup pot and coat bottom with olive oil. Dump in about a teaspoon of curry or chili powder and the same amount of dried cumin and let it simmer for a few minutes. Then add the veggies all diced – onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes and let them cook for a few minutes. Shred chicken and throw it in with the corn, diced tomatoes and broth and let it simmer/boil under fresh veggies are edibly soft. Lower heat and add coconut milk. Do not let boil. If you are a messy cook like me, you should probably just do this before you are ready to serve.  Ladle into bowls and top with some cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice. Yeah I said squeeze. Isn’t that “Souper?”

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Some Things Not to Cook and One Bitchin' Cake

On Sunday, while my husband went to a weirdly elaborate party for a one-year old with our son, I cooked. And regrettably, two of the three things I cooked SUCKED. So, gentle reader, take my advice: the Food Network's recipe for Mushroom Barley Risotto smells and tastes like a foot. Maybe it's the vegetable broth. Maybe it's the barley. Either way, the smell reminded me of Grandmother Merowitz's apartment in the Bronx, which smelled like extremely terrible Jewish cooking. I do not have good luck with slow cooker recipes. My husband, who simply uses the recipe on the back of a  McCormick's Pulled Pork Seasoning packet, makes a great pulled pork, but otherwise, I feel I could use our slow cooker as a decorative planter and my life would not be greatly impacted. 

I also made-- and this is probably going to distress people-- the Marcella Hazan tomato sauce recipe that has been floating around in the wake of her death. My mom used to cook from her cookbooks all the time, and the stuff was GOOD. Also, I liked the simplicity of the recipe. I like butter. I like onions. I like tomatoes. Maybe it was because I used canned tomatoes (although I did use the fancy San Marzano tomatoes all you young people seem to like), but it tasted like-- dare I say it?--Campbell's cream of tomato soup. I just discussed this with my mom on the phone, and she informs me that Marcella's recipes are hit or miss, so I feel less bad. Unless of course, she's lying to me because I am her fragile lil dumplin'. 

That said, I will say the one recipe that came out well was a roaring success. It's from this month's issue of Bon Appetit and it is one of the best things I have ever eaten. Gateau Breton Aux Pommes (ie Breton apple cake for all you peasants) is not particularly hard to make, although it takes a while-- and the salted caramel sauce is SERIOUS, people. It calls for creme fraiche, but since this is not 1980 (my childhood seems full of stuff cooked from The Silver Palate Cookbook that always involved creme fraiche) I used whipped cream. From a freaking can. Although it was Extra Creamy, so maybe that makes it classier.  Anyhow. It's only Wednesday and with solely my husband and I eating this thing, there's less than half of it left. I want to eat it all the time. In fact, at work, I contemplate telling people I am going to the bathroom and then actually quietly driving to my house, getting a piece, hiding it on my person, and then eating it in my office with the blinds down and the door closed, because I am not going to share, not even a little bit.