Friday, January 29, 2010

Island Home Comfort

Food and comfort for me go hand in hand. It can be a slippery slope, but comforting and 'flavorful memories' are always good and calorie free. I was eleven when my family and I immigrated to the United States from the island of Jamaica. It was a particularly turbulent and politically violent period in the nation's history and, though we could carry only so much from our life there in our hands, our hearts were full of rich and sustaining memories. The best of these generally have very distinct and delicious scents, tastes and flavors.

Our house in Kingston was surrounded by tropical fruit trees and with overhanging fruit from neighboring homes. A walk in the garden brought scents of lovely ripening and ready to be eaten fruit from varieties of mango trees, coconut trees, an almond tree, a sour sop tree, a star apple tree, a breadfruit tree, an ackee tree and others. Inside our home, gatherings would often center around the kitchen and food. Like many Caribbean families, our home was blessed with extended family. My mother's mom and aunt (Auntie) lived with us, and Auntie was, in my mind and heart, a master chef. Throughout the day our noses would tickle with tasty scents from foods being lovingly prepared in her kitchen, and I was often her little helper.

Mornings might bring simple favorites of eggs and toast with butter and guava jam, or she might let us help make pancakes on the stove's large griddle, but my favorite breakfast is traditionally Jamaican: ackee and salt fish. It is cooked with ripe tomatoes, scallions, onions and spices, and served with dumplings, boiled green banana, root vegetables, avocado, baked or fried breadfruit and Jamaican Hardo bread - yum! During the day my mother ran a school (K-6) in a large garage attached to our house, and so until High School I was able to run from the classroom to my Auntie's kitchen for my lunches. She’d often prepare a savory soup and sandwich with some sliced mango or orange for dessert. I did sometimes envy the kids with the cute lunch boxes that they’d bring from home, until my mother got me one of my own that I then rarely used. Dinner in Jamaica was early and Auntie would pull from her repertoire of Jamaican delicacies -assorted bean stews with white rice, rice and peas (with red beans or pigeon/gungo peas), Jamaican curry, Escovitch fish, and more - and the dishes were always accompanied by fried or baked plantain and healthy vegetables. The coconut for the dishes would come fresh from the tree and I would on occasion pick peas from garden vines for her rice dishes. Supper was the last official meal of the day and would often be a hearty porridge with nutmeg, or an especially fragrant rice, chicken and ginger soup (though my little brother's favorite seemed to be white rice and ketchup - yuck!). Supper was fun because we were allowed to have it in the living room in front of the television that carried Jamaica's single television station (JBC) in those days.

My mother didn't do the day to day cooking when we lived in Jamaica, but would treat us to special requests like her fantastic fried rice. She is a fabulous cook in her own right, and ran a restaurant before she opened her school. But my mother always regretted not having learned more from her father - who from all reports cooked scrumptious dishes from his homeland of China. He died when she was in High School, but it really would have been quite something to have a record of his creations.

Today my family members and I live in different states across the country, so when we can get together there is a feast at my mother's beautifully prepared table. She whips up multiple courses with remarkable speed and seeming ease, and our gatherings always include at least one traditional ackee breakfast with all the trimmings and extra Johnnycakes - always a favorite - (and were in fact my grandmother's specialty). My younger brother (who used to like rice and ketchup suppers) ended up working for some time as an Assistant Editor at Martha Stewart's 'Everyday FOOD' magazine and my mother's Johnnycake recipe made it into one of the editions (see: ). Thankfully, my mother adapts many of her Jamaican and other dishes to suit my largely vegetarian (sometimes pescatarian) lifestyle. I try to watch as she cooks but it can be difficult to document without a camera's eye - it all happens so quickly, with measures in her head and the dishes seasoned to taste. In all of these remembrances, I recognize that there is a wonderful cooking tradition in my family that I have yet to fully embrace (and memorialize), but I find myself more and more inspired to try.

Cheryl C

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sauerkraut Strudel

This is a story about sauerkraut strudel which was a standard in my husband John’s family. They made it for all the holidays, along with potato strudel and kasha strudel. When John’s sister Violet got married, she married a man who was immediately conscripted into the army. She was settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was holiday time and she phoned her mother in upstate New York for the sauerkraut strudel recipe. Violet went to work on it and she worked on it but she never could get it to come out right. Once the dough even ended up on the ceiling! One year her mother came to visit and Violet said that she wanted to make the strudel. Her mother put her hand into the flour to start the dough and told her no wonder it never works, “this flour is too damp”. Her mother was such an experienced cook that she could tell just by the feel of the flour that it would never work for this recipe.

John then learned to make the sauerkraut strudel. He would roll the strudel dough out six feet in diameter–the size of a table. It became our family tradition that he would make sauerkraut strudel for the holidays.

Svea S.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I Didn't Know You Could Do That!

Actually, my earliest memory of cooking is when my kindergarten teacher, Miss Umholtz, made some applesauce, cooking it in a little metal watercolor dish in a clay kiln in the classroom. I remember being dumbfounded that anyone could do that. Up to that point I had differentiated between bought food and made food and never realized that the categories overlapped.

Dick W.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Treats and Traditions, Part 2

Another memorable treat from my childhood was Sunday lunch at a kosher deli in Nashville, TN. When I was five, Dad’s work as an engineer for DuPont took us to Columbia, TN, a small town south of Nashville. After a couple of years, I told Mom and Dad of my friends’ efforts to get me to attend their Baptist church on Sunday. Because of this, my parents, who were basically non-religious, decided to take me to the Unitarian church in Nashville to attend Sunday school. The Unitarians they had met seemed as open and liberal as they were, and this would give me a religious education. So every Sunday morning we drove the 50 miles to the church in Nashville, and every Sunday afternoon we drove the 50 miles back to Columbia. But for lunch, we always stopped at Mr. Ken’s delicatessen for a hot pastrami sandwich with a dill pickle. Looking forward to that delicious lunch always made sitting through the Unitarian Sunday school at least bearable.

My Dad did some of the cooking for our family but mostly for weekend breakfasts. He established a tradition in our family of always cooking pancakes or waffles on Saturday morning and matzo brie on Sunday mornings. For those who are not familiar with this staple of Jewish cuisine, matzo brie is made with matzo softened with boiling water and then fried with scrambled eggs and lots of salt and pepper. He would even make this for Sunday breakfast when we went camping using his pocket handkerchief to strain the matzo. (The tradition of pancakes or waffles and matzo brie is one that tradition I continued in my family for a while until the matzo brie began to taste like soggy cardboard, at which point we moved on to other breakfast traditions.)

One other tradition we had in my family was an open-face onion sandwich we would share, usually when we were watching television at night. If we had a rye bread in the house (and I mean a real rye bread from a bakery, not the prepackaged kind), Dad would slice a couple of thin slices and slather them with butter. Then, he’d slice some very thin slices of regular yellow onions to put on the buttered rye bread. Finally a sprinkle of salt and, viola, a delicious snack guaranteed to give you heartburn.

There was the occasional culinary tragedy in our family as well, aside from Mom’s experimenting with James Beard and other chef’s cookbooks. One Thanksgiving when I was a teenager, we traveled from our home outside of Philadelphia to Bethesda, Maryland, to have dinner with my Uncle Milton’s family. Mom had been asked to bring some pies for desert, so she brought her famous apple pie, along with a pecan pie and a cherry pie. Most of the family chose the apple pie and some chose the pecan pie, but I was the first to have a big slice of the cherry pie. With my first big bite, I almost choked and had to spit out the mouthful. It was horrible. Others tasted it and agreed. But we couldn’t understand what could have caused it. We found out later that it was because Mom kept the sugar, flour, and salt in the kitchen in similar glass containers on the counter. In her haste to make the pies, she had used a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar for the cherry pie. I didn’t use salt on my food for quite a while after that.

Despite the occasional mistake, Mom was a wonderful cook, and I am indebted to her for teaching me to cook. When I finally had my own apartment in college, she typed up and sent me the recipes for my favorite of her dishes as well as some other staples. Those recipes served me well for the many years that I lived by myself.

Paul W.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Treats and Traditions, Part 1

My food memories have their origins in my parents’ cultures, as they do for most people. Both of my parents are from Buffalo, NY, where my Mom was raised in a German Catholic family, and my Dad was raised in a Polish Jewish family. Their mixed marriage in the early 1940s caused quite a stir in the two families, who never really associated with each other. So I grew up shuttling between the two cultures, especially at the holidays. And when it came to food, the two cultures had their own special treats and traditions.

My Mom was an excellent cook and did most of the cooking for our family. Some of the meals she served my Dad and me were based on the traditional German cuisine that she learned from her mother such as pork loin with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. Most meals were based around meat, such as pork, beef, chicken, and lamb. Her lamb chops were also famous in our family. Occasionally, when she was cooking a beef roast, Mom would give us a treat and get a couple of marrow bones from the store and cook those with the roast. We then enjoyed the delicacy of the bone marrow on toast before dinner.

When I was in my teens in the 1960s, Mom began to experiment quite a bit with different types of food that lead to some interesting reactions from both my father and me. She would have us try out Tigers Milk protein drink, some soy-based products, and yogurt before they were widely accepted. I remember her first attempt a cooking a quiche, which I think was a mushroom quiche made from a recipe in a cookbook by James Beard. When she served the quiche for dinner, Dad took a few bites and asked where she had learned to cook this new dish. When Mom said it was from Beard’s cookbook, Dad silently got up from the table, went to the kitchen and picked up the cookbook from the counter, then went to the garbage can and forcefully threw the book in to the garbage. Then, without a word, he returned to the table and returned to picking at his meal. (We didn’t discuss things much in my family as I was growing up.)

My Mom also picked up some of the recipes from Dad’s (Jewish) side of the family from my Aunts Tess and Sylvia, who had the reputation as the best cooks in the family. Mom made a delicious beef brisket that she learned from Dad’s sister Tess. However, when she made chicken (or turkey at Thanksgiving) for dinner, she would always make some other meat dish for Dad since he did not eat poultry. He tells the story that when he was young, he was often sent to the butcher to pick up a chicken for his mother Rose to cook. There he had to watch as the live chicken was killed and koshered before taking it back to his mother. He remembers having to always eat the “part that goes over the fence last”, and now as a result he never willingly eats any poultry. I remember once when we visited Grandma Rose in Brooklyn when I was a kid, she served us chicken soup, and because Dad was her “special boy” he got the bowl with the chicken foot in it, claw and all. He was not amused.

Paul W.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Reluctant Sous Chef

I grew up in India and till I was ten years old lived in large “joint” family. My mom, although born and brought up in the same city as my dad, was from a different community and spoke a different language and was used to a very different cuisine from my dad’s family with whom we shared the house. My mother loved her food but was a very strict vegetarian but, whereas all the others in the family were used to a non- vegetarian diet (except for my dad who was not that fond of it). My grandmother was an excellent cook and I still treasure her recipes but my mom had to adjust to eating food cooked their way. My grandmother would supervise the menu but we had a cook to execute her recipes. There was a set menu for everyday of the week. If it was Monday then it had to be sprouted moong curry, and on Tuesday it had to be a lentil dish, Wednesday was vegetable stew etc. My mom would dread Sundays when invariably fish was served for lunch. Those afternoons when the fishy aroma of pomfret or mackerel cooked in coconut milk and spices assailed her nostrils, it was more than my mom could handle. Sometimes she would plan visits to her mother on these non-veg days.

My parents and I along with my brother moved to our own apartment when I was around 11. This is when I first realized that my mom could cook. All the time that we had lived together she had not had an opportunity to use her culinary talents. Her dishes had a very different flavor. She used diverse spices and herbs. For the first time in my life we didn’t have a cook to help make our meals.. From the very first day that we moved to our apartment, my mom got me involved in the kitchen. I was her reluctant sous chef. I remember wishing that I could play outside or be hanging out with my friends rather than chopping vegetables or loading the pressure cooker. But her persistence stands me in good stead today. I can make a perfectly round chapatti and I don’t hear too many complaints from my husband and children when there is a full meal on the table. I have in the years under her tutelage picked up a fair amount of her recipes. In the last few months of her life, as cancer raged through her body it was extremely disturbing to watch her unable to digest the very foods that she had loved to eat. Although my mother is no more, her flavorful memories will reside my heart.

Suneeta T.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sweet Memories

Hmmm, a story to share about food... I guess it would have to be about how I fell in love with sugar and baking, and grew up to be affectionately called a "sugar spinner". When I was a young girl, I went with my girl scout troop to a local company who had a commercial kitchen. Two women there taught us some of the basic 'how tos' for making cookies. I can still remember how pretty the golden yellow eggs looked cracked into their own bowl and what a pretty soft yellow they became as they were mixed together with the white sugar and the butter.

During junior high school, I took home economics (boy does that date me), and had an assignment to make brownies from scratch. I had made brownies 'out of the box' many times, but never from scratch. What a revelation that was, to know the ingredients to make brownies were in my mother's kitchen all the time! Oh how my sweet tooth craved chocolate mixed in with the sugar, and adding nuts just made it that much better. Nuts count as protein right?

One of my favorite recipes to make in high school was an April Fools Cake that had 12 ozs of bakers chocolate in it. Sadly, this recipe has been lost and I can no longer make this decadent, moist chocolate cake, with the secret ingredient of sauerkraut, which tasted like coconut baked into the cake. Oh that was such a great cake! I also became a big fan of making zucchini bread with walnuts. Who knew vegetables could taste so good.

When I was away from home for college, my mom would make me cookies and mail them to me to get me through finals. When I graduated from college my mom and I carried on this tradition for my cousins. Some years we would make 20 plus different kinds of cookies to send out or give to friends and family at the holidays.

When I moved away from home, my new friends quickly learned that I liked to bake and they started calling me the sugar spinner. It didn't matter if we were gathering for brunch or dinner I was to bring something homemade and sweet.

Many years have passed since I was a young girl scout, but my fascination with sugar and baking has not left me. I look forward to the change of seasons; fresh strawberries to make pie, or fresh blueberries to make a sour cream coffee cake, fall apples for applesauce cake, or pecans to make chocolate pecan bars. And of course the holiday favorites … molasses cakes for Christmas morning, and chocolate toffee, or tea breads to share with friends and family. Yummy!

Leesa W.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

There’s Always Room for Dessert

I just heard this short story from my hair stylist, Kerri. Kerri’s husband Chuck is a waiter at an upscale restaurant. When he asks diners if they would like dessert many times they say that they are full and don’t think they have room for it. He then tells them that his wife says there’s always room for dessert because it goes into a different compartment. They like that rationalization and often decide to enjoy a dessert. She just wishes he would stop saying that his wife gave him these words of wisdom.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Day My Cooking Career was Put on the Back Burner

When I was a senior in high school trying to decide what to study in college the following year, my parents sat me down around our kitchen table. My dad had a pen and large notebook in front of him; my mom had a cup of tea; and I had only my hands, folded on the wooden surface of the round antique table, one foot wrapped around one of the clawfoot legs below, and the other foot tapping the linoleum floor, wondering how long this serious meeting would last.

"So what is it you like to do?" my father, the executive, asked me, approaching the college search in the way he ran meetings at work.

"Well, I like to cook and I like to sew, so how about I study home economics in college?" I began.

My mother turned sideways to glance at my father, who returned the look, and although I knew they enjoyed the five-course meals I had cooked them every year on their anniversary since I'd learned at school how to make such things as Popovers and homemade clam chowder and sugar cookies in cool shapes, I could sense something amiss.

"Try again. How about something a bit more academic?" my mother asked, and she dragged out the word "academic" in such a way that I knew I could not argue for my future career as a chef or seamstress.

"I like to write and draw," I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

"How about studying advertising then?" my dad inquired.

"Sounds good!" I replied and, with that, I pushed back my chair back and fled from the table. And that was that. I applied to Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communication, got in, and my cooking and sewing career was put on the back burner, so to speak.

Now, nearly 40 years later and a successful health care public relations professional-turned journalist and creative writer (I dumped "advertising" after one semester of writing about toothpaste and desiring a more authentic writing field), I think about my brief brush with a home economics career and smile.

I have sewn a few of my kids' Halloween costumes and outfits for school plays they performed in, but other than that, my sewing machine sits dormant.

I have cooked dinner several nights a week for myself and my family for more than 30 years, and on occasion I've fed a houseful of guests. My specialities are my grandmother's chicken soup, the steaming broth and colorful carrots seeming to scream "healthy;" my lasagne, extra sauce and ricotta cheese, favored by my Italian husband who always has seconds--or thirds; my barbecued chicken in the crockpot--it's simple, yet makes the entire house smell like Redbones Restaurant in Somerville; and my mother's brisket, with ketchup, gingerale, carrots and onions. I've also cooked gourmet for guests--mushroom ravioli I rolled myself, homemade cucumber sorbet as a palate cleanser, scallops in cream sauce, and I once made my mother-in-law a tiramisu, and she wrapped the remaining pieces and brought it back to her nursing home for late night leftovers.

And much of that time, I enjoyed what I prepared and liked other's reactions to my savory delights.

However, my parents were correct: While I can sit at my computer and write stories 24/7--and although I don't draw anymore, I have exhibited and sold my photographs, the "art" part of my 17-year-old hobbies--the truth is that home economics never remained a passion and these days I cook more because I have to than because I love it. It was an early lover, but since then others have courted me and stolen my heart.

That old wooden table from my childhood home has long ago been replaced with a glass and metal upgrade, and my mother--who was an ordinary everyday cook but a master of French food that she prepared once a month for guests (and we kids got the leftovers)--no longer cooks, but, together, we made her brisket last Rosh Hashanah, a memory frozen in my mind, forever.

Time marches on, and I will always remember my one-time goal to major in home economics. It was a fleeting, but intriguing, idea.

Mindy F.

Monday, January 11, 2010

But the Recipe Doesn't Seem to Work

My grandmother, (Polish-Hungarian-Jewish) used chicken fat as shortening in many recipes. She seldom shared recipes for the simple reason that she cooked by the "a little of this, a bit of that, a pinch of some other thing" method. It was a bother for her to figure out how much of what she used.

My aunt, her daughter-in-law, scorned anything chicken-fatty. So when Aunt Millie finally talked Grandmom into giving her a recipe--one that Aunt Millie never knew contained chicken fat--Grandmom had my mother watch her make it and write down the ingredients--including chicken fat. But knowing about Aunt Millie's aversion, they substituted butter or Crisco in the written version for the chicken fat used in cooking it.

Aunt Millie tried many times to make the recipe and would complain that it never came out tasting right.
This is probably happened in the 1940s.
Dick W.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Hungarian Roots Taste Delicious

My parents settled in Stamford, Connecticut in 1957 after escaping from Hungary during the revolution and spending their honeymoon in Austria, crossing the Atlantic for eleven days on a navy ship and finally officially being admitted into the U.S. at New Jersey’s Camp Kilmer. When they arrived my mother could speak English pretty well , as she had studied it in Hungary, but my father could not. He quickly learned by attending English classes and watching TV, especially American Bandstand and the Mickey Mouse Club (he had a crush on Annette) and was able to get a good job as an electrical engineer. During the next six years my brother, sister and I were born.

Although they often spoke Hungarian to each other, particularly when they were talking about any of us kids, my parents didn’t push us to learn the language. I’ve realized that almost all of the words I did pick up over the years have to do with food! Each day my mother, who is an excellent cook, would call my father to dinner saying “Gyuri, vacsora” (“George, dinner”). She would serve us delicious meals consisting of things like lecsó (simmered peppers and tomatoes), paprikás csirke (chicken paprikash), töltött paprika (stuffed peppers), tyukhusleves (chicken soup) and on special occasions, rakott krumpli (a casserole of layered potatoes, eggs, sour cream, and lots of butter) or töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls). Eventually my father took over the making of the körözött (a Hungarian cheese spread that we all love, made with cream cheese, paprika, caraway seeds and other little secrets) and now it’s become one of my sister’s specialities. I’m getting hungry now just thinking about it all.

More than 30 years ago my mother became a vegetarian and ten years later I followed in her footsteps. Lucky for me she’s been able to recreate many of our Hungarian favorites using meat substitutes and they’re equally delicious. Just the other day I asked if she could make me rakott káposzta (a Transylvanian layered sauerkraut dish) and she said she would the next time I come to Connecticut to visit. I can hardly wait!


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Old Country in My Home

My grandmother cooked fresh food for us every day, recipes learned in her village home in the mountains of Lebanon. Every day she showered us, meal after meal, with her skill and her love – dense and chewy round flat breads, creamy yoghurt with salt and cucumber, pans of ground meat with herbs and pine nuts (eaten both cooked and raw!). We had stuffed grape leaves, tomatoes and green beans with chunks of roasted meat, stuffed eggplant and zucchini, lamb chunks flavored with garlic, oregano and lemon cooked on skewers on burners on top of the gas stove, savory pastry triangles filled with ground meat or lemon-scented spinach and feta.

I can still see my grandmother picking from the clusters of mint and tomatoes that she grew right outside our back door, using her mortar and pestle to grind the spices that filled the air always. I see her surveying the kitchen tabletop filled with pans of baklava, the yield of hours and hours of work, now golden and redolent with the fragrance of crushed nuts, honey, rose and orange flower waters

When I was in college I would get selectively diligent and try to learn how to make some of these dishes that my grandmother brought so faithfully from her home in “the old country,” as a young bride in the early 1900s. But the school breaks were short, and I began to create my own life, away from home…

My grandmother has been gone for a long time now, and I wish I had been able to spend that time with her ~ to record even just a little of the information that was in her head and heart and hands. I so wish I could make that food today. And even if I had never learned how to make even one dish, it would mean the world to me just to feel like my grandmother was back, pouring her love and that humble mastery into the food we ate.

Diane J.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Welcome to the new Flavorful Memories blog! I've noticed these days that people are staying closer to home, looking for comfort and connection, with some even beginning to explore their roots and family heritage. Many of us find we can immerse ourselves in these things when we remember the food that has been a part of our lives -- recreating the meals and traditions that warmed or nourished us, made us feel good, or were sources of fun or joy in our lives. This blog is a place where I hope we can share all kinds of food memories and food-related stories from friends and family, as well as their friends and family -- from all over the world! I hope you enjoy reading the stories that will appear here, and hope you will consider sending in your own treasured food memories to I look forward to hearing from you!
-Leslie Wittman
Flavorful Memories