…I Scream…

James and I got out of the car on Tuesday morning and stood on the patio, our faces to the sun.

“Seventy-five degrees!” he said.

I, of course, was thinking about eating.

“Let’s surprise your dad, and have picnic food for lunch,” I said. I ran in and got the little quilted tablecloth that Sharon made for me one year; I cleaned off the patio table and wiped down three metal chairs. I spread the cloth and anchored it with an old citronella candle. The wind lifted its edges; it luffed and rippled.

I went inside to break out some burgers and fire up the little electric grill. Jim read the instructions for his new air fryer and set it to preheat. I opened the freezer to get the crinkle-cut fries out for him, and there was the big plastic tub of vanilla ice cream. The angels sang a suggestion in my mind’s ear, and, “Hey!” I said. “HEY! We could have MILK SHAKES.”

O-kay!” said Jim, and I dug in a bottom drawer for my little stick blender.

By the time Mark came home, the burgers were sizzling and the fries were golden brown and crisp, and two chocolate milkshakes waited in the tall red plastic glasses we bought for the Fourth of July one year. I was mixing up a third—this one was salted caramel, using a shake of sea salt and the last of a jar of dulce con leche. (I’d given up chocolate, of course—hence, a salted caramel milk shake: oh, the sacrifices I make during Lent.)

The wind had picked up, and the skies had turned a roiling gray, so we ate inside after all. But even inside, we could feel that current of fresh warmth in the unheated-by-furnace-gusts air. And the food was so good: juicy burgers dripping cheese, salty, crisp fries. And piquant pickles, crackling lettuce, and slices of tomato as the eater decreed.

And ice cream thickly whipped with milk and flavors, technically a shake, but requiring a spoon to eat.

The image of Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives pops into my head; he is gesturing broadly with his arms, saying, in response to a chef’s question:

“LIKE chicharrons?? Buddy, this is body by chicharrons!”

I paraphrase: Do I like ice cream? Honey, this is body by ice cream.

People may connect and depart; fashions may flare and flicker. I’ve made homes and left them, snagged jobs and moved on. But in the constant change and quirky chaos of life, there’s always been a constant.

From my earliest days, ice cream has been there, delighting, tantalizing, refreshing.

*********

So, just for a minute, let me remember ice cream. Let me remember…

…a weekend when I was very young, young enough that my brother Sean was still in a stroller. Dad was taking the big boys somewhere—a Cleveland Indians game, I think—and Mom was walking us, the two little ones, to Hunter’s. It was a long walk, with many streets to cross, and it was not something we often did. This was a special occasion.

Hunter’s smelled like roasting nuts. We sat on spinning stools at the counter, and I ordered a sundae. The man (I think it was Mr. Hunter) wore a paper hat and he smiled at my mother and made faces at Sean. He twirled a tulip glass off the shelf, and scooped thick, hot fudge sauce from a square metal box. Then he scooped big orbs of yellow ice cream from a vast cardboard tub, smushing them to fit into the glass. More hot fudge. The shizzzzzing noise as he spiraled whipped cream on top. A sprinkle of nuts. A cherry.

Sean had a miniature sundae and Mom had a huge cherry cone. She ate the cherry from the top of my sundae, but I ate all of the rest myself.

(It was the best thing I had ever eaten, and I didn’t have to share with anyone.)

and I remember a family trip in the car to a dairy that was thirty miles away, high in the rolling hills of western New York. The dairy advertised itself as “The Pig’s Inn.” And they had a monumental ice cream dish called “The Pig’s Dinner.” Several flavors of ice cream, several kinds of topping, whipped cream, pineapple, bananas: the Pig’s Dinner was a LOT of food. It was served in a wooden contraption that looked like a mini-pig’s trough.

The Dinner was pricey, but those who successfully ate the entire thing didn’t have to pay.

Memory tells me the whole family—all seven of us—and Bobby, one of my oldest brother Dennis’s friends, crammed into the family sedan for the long trip. It could have worked; in those days, before car seat safety laws, Sean may have sat on my mother’s lap, and I may have been wedged between my parents on the undivided front seat. That would have left the four big boys, three brothers, one friend, crammed into the back.

It was a nice night, I remember, and there was an air of excitement: Dennis and Bobby were going to try the Pig’s Dinner. Dennis was tall and rangy, but he had an appetite for food that belied his thin frame.

Inside, the dairy was a broad, long, open room. There was a snack bar on a finished floor, and a borderline where the vinyl floor gave way to cement. My parents propped my baby brother Sean on a tall bar stool and went to order for all of us.

I don’t remember the ice cream I ate that night, although it was made on premises, from cows, I imagine, owned by the dairy. I know it must have been very good. I DO remember Sean falling backward off the stool; his head cracked resoundingly on the edge of the concrete floor, and he sobbed and sobbed. A frantic boy, a soda jerk, I guess, kept bringing cloths full of ice and apologizing.

I remember my mother saying, “Oh, Lord. He’s got a goose egg,” and wondering how big a goose egg might be.

And I remember Dennis and Bobby, ignoring the brouhaha, unsympathetic to Sean’s plight, applying themselves to their ice cream troughs. They were diligent and strategic; they approached the chore methodically. But after 30 minutes, they had both begun to flag, and at the end of an hour, it was clear the prize was not within their reach.

Tearstricken, overstuffed, quiet, a chastened group shoved back into the car to drive down the hills to home.

Dad gunned the car and we rollicked up and down hills, until we reached a bridge over a small, sparkling river, maybe ten minutes out of town.

“Let me out!” Dennis begged.

“Let me OUT!” Bobby echoed.

Dad pulled over, and Dennis and Bobby, each, by dint of seniority, having a door seat, burst out of opposite sides of the car and ran to opposite sides of the road. Clinging to the railing, they each tossed their Pig’s Dinner into the  laughing waters.

There was a shocked silence in the car, and then, “Shut the damned doors,” said my father. Michael and John, in the back seat, did as they were told, and my father pulled away.

“Jim!” my mother wailed. “You can’t just leave them there.”

“They’re not ralphing in MY car,” my father said grimly.

(He did eventually go back to get them, but he gave them plenty of time to get their Pig’s Dinners out of their systems.)

…And that dairy reminds me of another dairy in my home town that made their own ice cream: Aldrich’s. Aldrich’s employed generations of high schoolers at their restaurant, where you could sit and eat looking at cows in the fields, wondering if Bossy’s brother had died to make your juicy burger, knowing that the ice cream in your sundae—and oh, what sundaes they were!—came from Aldrich cows’ cream.

But Aldrich’s had another claim to fame: their April Fool’s Day concoctions. It started as a joke, I think—one year, one of the Aldrich kids, maybe, suggested putting spaghetti into the ice cream on April Fool’s Day, and people loved it. It grew into a long tradition: weird flavored ice cream on the first of April. They had April Fool’s pastrami ice cream one year, and bacon and egg ice cream another. During the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, they whipped up gallons and gallons of “peach-mint” ice cream. People would travel from miles around to sample their outrageous offerings; NPR and Johnny Carson and other prestigious media outlets sent their runners every year to see what the flavor, a closely kept secret, would be.

The last year, I believe, the Aldriches whipped up a batch of Buffalo chicken wing ice cream. Buffalo was fifty miles northeast; Aldrich’s little village of Fredonia boasted some of the best Buffalo wings in the region.

And then the dairy, to the community’s deep sadness, closed their doors forever.

At least two of my nieces and nephews earned their high school cash as servers at Aldrich’s. When my son James was a toddler, he loved their burgers and fries and would spend hours looking through their wonderful collection of plush animal puppets. I met friends there to devour sundaes and drink endless cups of coffee.

But, perhaps remembering Dennis and Bobby retching on that lonely bridge, I was never tempted to sample their April Fool’s Day offerings.

(http://news.wbfo.org/post/fredonia-dairy-offers-chicken-wing-ice-cream)

…And it could be said that ice cream paid my way through college. For three summers, my friends and I worked the midnight shift at Dunkirk Ice Cream, or D.I.C.—the Big DIC, as some referred to the factory. Think Luci and Ethel and the chocolates assembly line: we packed thousands of twin pops and fudgesicles, which flew at us with amazing speed and precision down specialized, intricate, massive machines called Vitalines.

We were heroes to our families because we could buy all the ice cream products at cost. We filled out request forms once a week; the cost was charged back to our paychecks, and for less than ten dollars, we would lug home novelties and half gallon bricks, sherbet and freezer pops—all the cold confections our families’ freezers would bear.

It sounds idyllic, working in an ice cream factory in the hot days of summer, having all the frozen treats one could want at our disposal. But the factory, unlike its output, was steaming hot, floors slippery with melted product, and the machines, with chomping, guillotine-like cutters that turned long strips of twin pops into individual frozen treats, were frightening. One of the mechanics had lost the better part of his thumb to one of those choppers, and the rumor said that it was never recovered. Probably, the lifers told us, some poor customer opened up a popsicle one day and there, stuck to the side of the refreshing cherry treat, was Charley’s digit.

Those lifers knew how to party, knew where the bars were that opened at 7:00 AM to cash our paychecks and serve us rounds of beers as the sun rose. They knew where  to buy a quarter keg at 7:30 AM, and they knew the public parks that would turn a blind eye to people in fudge-stained whites quaffing plastic cups of beer first thing on a hot summer day.

I worked long weeks without a day off during the hot summer seasons at D.I.C., when supermarkets up and down the east coast and in the Midwest needed their frozen treats NOW. I cemented friendships at Dunkirk Ice Cream that are still solidly in place today, but I never learned how to hold my beer, or how to shut my mouth when its effects kicked in. Trial by ice cream, one could call it; that other side of the educational experience one gets when one’s in college.

“Lordie,” people would say to me, “you must be SO SICK of ice cream.” But, oddly, that was never true. I could dream of quiescently frozen confections marching toward me, and the chunka chunka chunka of the gleaming blade slicing stick treats into individual packages. And I would wake up and think, “There are English toffee bars in the freezer! Yum!”

The work got old, and the culture did, too, maybe, but the ice cream always remained a treat.

****************

And all that was good preparation for life in Ohio, which some call “The State of Presidents.” And it’s true; eight United States presidents hailed from Ohio. But I believe an equally apt name would be, “Ohio: The Ice Cream State.” Graeter’s, which hails from Cincinnati, has been churning out ice cream for over 140 years, winning awards and expanding its reach. Dietsch Brothers, in Findlay, Ohio, captivated us during the law school days, and when we go back to visit Terri and Ott, we always stop at Dietsch’s for a sundae. There’s Velvet Ice Cream and its wonderful Olde Mill, where barbershop quartets trill in the park on summer days, and one can browse the museum of ice cream history with a cram-packed waffle cone full of amazing goodness.

There are a growing number of Whit’s locations, where frozen custard morphs a muggy summer night into a spectacular shared memory.

And there is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which planted its seeds in Columbus, Ohio, and has grown to fame in other states and through best-selling recipe books. At first, Jeni’s flavors reminded me of Aldrich’s April Fool’s Day batches: sweet potato ice cream with torched marshmallows? Really? There was another creamy concoction that included kernels of corn, and, Oh, this can’t be right, I thought.

But then I tasted their Midwestern Whiskey and Pecan blend, and I realized Jeni’s was no joke. Made with locally sourced products, made with outrageous imagination, Jeni’s is just good, if unconventional, Ohio ice cream.

When visitors come to Ohio, we take them for ice cream. They can come twenty times, and we’ll find a different place to go each visit.

**********

Ice cream! Have you ever been there for a baby’s first taste, for the surprise, the widened eyes, and the slow-coming, gummy grin?

Think of birthday parties and the aunties or the mamas scooping out ice cream onto wobbling paper plates with homemade cake slices.

Think of home-grown ice cream socials with homemade toppings—caramel sauce dense with cream and butter, strawberries floating in their own thick, rich, sugar-laden syrup.

Ice cream was there.

These days, the treats I keep in my freezer are often frozen yogurt, or low-fat, double-churned ice cream. I might make my milkshakes with skim milk and fat-free chocolate syrup, but the taste of ice cream buoys me nonetheless.

I’ve had to unload other erstwhile treats and leave them by the roadside as the journey lengthened and my pack grew heavy. Six packs of beer and vast plates of roaring hot wings and steaming pots of highly caffeinated brew, popcorn and individually-wrapped caramels and certain kinds of cookies and sweet treats: all left on the berm, forlorn litter from an overly indulgent life.

But ice cream—a milkshake, a cone, a dish while watching TV—ice cream stays with me. It’s blended into my history, there in good times and in bad, to celebrate and commiserate.

I raise a stick; I hoist a waffle cone. I turn the blender on.

Here’s to ice cream, I say. May its cold, creamy flavors bear us on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(My) Life of Pi(e)

Pie

 

Randy sends, in our CSA basket, a fat baggie of plump blueberries.  Hmmm. Muffins?  I ponder.  There are not enough berries for a whole pie.

Then we have dinner with our old friends from Mount Vernon, and wonderful Larry hands me a gift bag as we are leaving.  When we get home, I unpack it and discover a quart of sweet cherries.

Oh, that’s cool, I think: we can make a patriotic pie like the one I just saw on Facebook.  One fourth of the pie has blueberry filling; the other is red fruit.  On top, there are sugared pastry stars and stripes.

The cherries prove too tempting for Mark, though. By the time Friday–and baking leisure–rolls around, only a cup or so is left.  We have blueberries, we have cherries, and we have a couple of apples.

Let’s, suggests Mark, put them ALL in a pie.  So, aided and abetted by Joy of Cooking, which supports all kinds of adventurous fruity filling combinations [and inspired by our friend Wendy, a renowned pie-baker: Wendy visits each summer, scouts the farmers’ market and combines what’s ripe–peaches, maybe? Blueberries, perhaps?–into one glorious and unforgettable pastry-baked treat], we do.  There’s actually enough filling for TWO pies, once all the mixing and seasoning is done,–two smallish pies in pie tins saved from store-bought pie experiences.  The cherry-berry-apple pie is GOOD.

Mark takes one to work to share, and people like him for it.  Debbie, who works in his office, says the pie is fine, but she really likes the crust.  Tell Pam, she says, to try making pinwheels sometime…to pat the crust and butter it and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar…

See there, I think.  Pie is not just a dessert; it’s a theme and it’s a thread.  It’s past and present all rolled up and hog-tied into one. Mark, too, has fond memories of leftover crust, buttered and cinnamon-sugared, and baked until it’s crisp…sweet crunch of innocence and youth…

We all, I think,  have a story, we all have a LIFE, of pie.

***********************

The crust was the thing for my mother; she couldn’t get the knack of a rich, flaky crust.  Hers were sodden and heavy, though the fillings were wonderful.  We each had favorites.  My father [insert groans and gagging noises] cherished minced meat pie, which he generally only got at Christmas–that must have had childhood connotations for him.

My skinny, bespectacled brother Dennis was renowned for his pie-eating ability, but he was especially partial to cherry.  And he was known, too, for finding the one lone pit left in a cherry pie.  He became so well known, in fact, for crunching on the cherry stone that a friend’s mother–the kind of freckled, outdoorsy woman who wore one piece gym suits to energetically clean house, grocery shop, and herd children–decided to make a joke.  She put a cherry pit into a cream pie and marked the piece.  When serving time came, she made sure Dennis got the pitted piece.

To her horror, he broke a tooth. But his cherry pit legend grew and grew.

Some of my brothers liked apple pie, and others liked chocolate pudding pie.  I was partial to lemon meringue.  If my mother didn’t have the knack for crusts, she certainly mastered meringues–hers were high and fluffy, dewed with sweet drops and limned in golden brown.

Often we would eat the filling and leave the crust, as if it were a cozy, inedible, legless chaise lounge on which the filling had sat.

*****************************
Pondering all this all got me wondering about how long pie has been around, and I went to a site called What’s Cooking (whatscookingamerica.net) to gather some background.  I found there that the concept of a pastry crust as food container has deep historical roots.  I discovered that, for hundreds of years, the pastry was just the thing that held the filling–more of a dish or a carrying case than a tasty part of a pie.  In fact, the author tells me, early pies in England were called ‘coffins’ after the pastry encasement (‘Coffin,’ the author points out, meant box or basket at that time, not a repository for a carcass. Although, now that I think about it, if we’re talking about a meat pie, maybe ‘coffin’ is not so far off.)

A pie without a top crust was known as a trap.

Crusts were thick and pretty unappetizing–made to stand up to hours of baking, and to travel and time.  Crusts were, originally, basically just disposable baking pans. (I don’t know if that knowledge would have comforted my mother.)

What’s Cooking tells me that the making of pies goes back, far back, in human history–back, at least, to Egyptian cuisine in 9500 BC. In early United States days, it was pretty common for pioneer housewives to serve some sort of pie at every meal—think of those hard-working farmers devouring a big slice of apple pie with their bacon and eggs before heading out to hitch up the mule and plow the back forty.

Pie has global roots, but the United States has embraced pie, has made it a national icon; we jealously guard it as a national treat.  Mark Twain–and one doesn’t get much more American, quirks and all, than Twain–was a dab hand for eating US pie, and a scathing critic of European versions. (He once wrote a recipe for English pie; the last step, he said, was to seal it up and let it petrify, then serve it to one’s enemy.)

(Perhaps it was Twain who coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.”  I am pretty sure, though, that exquisitely wonderful pies exist outside these red-white-and-blue borders, Twain’s opinion or no.)

********************************
As I grew into cooking age, I found I longed to master the art of flaky pastry.  It would be a score for me in that mother-daughter cooking competition. Our first friendly battlefield was the art of the chocolate chip cookie.  The second could be the pie crust. Later, I was motivated by the fact that my significant other’s ex had a pie-baking reputation.  I vowed, vain young person that I was, to equal or surpass her mark.

I learned about using ice water and about chilling your shortening.  There were decided schools of thought about lard versus butter versus plain old shortening. Advice bounced and conflicted on what sort of mixing tool to use–forks or knives or wooden spoons, or maybe, even fingers. I found a wire pastry cutter in a bin at a second hand emporium; that proved to be the perfect mixing tool for me (and it was so well-made that I still cut the fat into the flour with that very same tool today).

But every pastry recipe would adjure me: handle lightly.  Dough becomes tough with excess handling.  There was something that went against my grain in not kneading a dough into a smooth, firm ball.  I suspect my mother had the same challenge.  I just HAD to work the dough excessively.  And it was always tough.

And then came the day I poured out my plight to a lovely friend, Gretchen.  And Gretchen shared a recipe she’d gotten from her friend Karen. This recipe incorporated a splash of vinegar and  an egg, and one batch made enough crust for FIVE pie crusts.  This crust was flaky and good no matter how long I man-handled it.

This recipe (shared at the end of this post) remains my go to crust recipe today.

****************
So, I had a crust method that worked, and I went through long pie-baking phases.  I saw a photo in Country Living magazine thirty years ago; it showed a pie with the top crust decorated with pastry roses.  For a long time, I topped my pies with sculpted pastry glued to the crust with eggwash, shining with sugar.

I had a lattice crust phase.

I had my crumb topping era.

After a gentleman at a church potluck commented that no one made it from scratch anymore, I went through a militant meringue period.

But I calmed down eventually.

*****************

Today, I try to keep a batch of Gretchen’s pie dough on hand, in the freezer.  Just in case, say, there are leftovers enough to make a chicken pot pie, lush with tiny onions and plump peas.  Just in case sweet friends send over a variety of fruits and berries.

 My friend, this summer, I hope crusts are flaky and fillings satisfy. This summer, I wish you all the happiness of pie.

********************

Pie Crust Recipe Shared by Generations of Women (from Gretchen, who got it from Karen, who learned it from her grandmother…)

Mix with a fork:

1-3/4 cups shortening, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour.

In a separate bowl, use the fork to stir together  1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup of water.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into a ball. Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into five portions. Each will make a top or bottom crust for a standard pie. It can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen. It’s always tender, even with excess handling…

 

 

 

Cherry/Nut/Cherry; Caraway and Salt: The Foods That Take Us Home

Some foods grab us, hold us firmly, speak directly to our fondest memories.

l

Image from http://www.yelp.com

*********
The recipe was in a sort of foodie magazine, a slender volume that talked about best recipes from different regions.  I did a double-take when I saw the cover: there, in all its splendid glory, was a beef on ‘weck sandwich.

Beef on ‘weck is western New York State food,–thinly sliced roast beef, tender in au jus, piled onto a kaisery bun (officially called a kummelweck roll) that has coarse salt and caraway seeds baked onto its lid.  Many aficionados slather the sandwich with horseradish for even more of a zesty kick.

There was a place, in my hometown of Fredonia, called the Park Pub; there, they served up beef on ‘wecks the size of small pizzas.  Six of us would cram into a booth and order one of the Pub’s giant ‘weck sandwiches and one of their enormous shrimp cocktails.  We’d get a pitcher of beer and a stack of plates and reach across and over and in front of each other, talking, laughing, debating, suggesting. That would take us through a fine portion of Friday night, the food fueling the camaraderie.

Outside of western New York, though, people looked puzzled when I mentioned the sandwich.  Even German bakers had never heard of kummelweck rolls, so beef on ‘weck became, like a real Lake Erie fish fry, something we looked forward to enjoying on our visits back home–and a dish we didn’t think about otherwise.

Until I saw that magazine and realized, Hey!  I could make these!

******

I have a new office in a new building with new colleagues down the hall, and these new colleagues have instituted a Thursday lunch club.  One Thursday in the semester is mine, and on that day, it’s my responsibility to bring lunch for the whole crew.  (The rest of the Thursdays, I get to eat wonderful things brought by other people.  I like this concept very much.)

My Thursday popped up last week. Because I discovered that our new Provost is from Jamestown, the western New York city where our Matthew lives (and where Lucille Ball is from), I thought I’d try making beef on ‘wecks, and I invited the Provost over to eat and to meet people on an informal basis.

It was no problem finding the beef to roast (I even stumbled on a buy one/get one sale), and I had the caraway seeds and kosher salt in my cupboard.  But the slicing of the beef became an unexpected challenge.

*****

Years ago, when I was what my very funny boyfriend called a ‘supermarket deli wench,’ people would buy their beef and take it home and roast it in a big covered casserole. Then they’d bring that heavy lidded pot back into the store and tote it to the deli.  One of us would heft it over the stainless steel display case and pull off the lid, and we’d be overcome by the lovely scent of the juicy roasted meat.

The customer would laugh. “Go ahead and have a nibble when you’re done!” he or she would [usually] say, and we’d wrestle the meat onto the slicer and carefully shave off tender slices until only a tiny nubbin was left.  We’d hold it up inquiringly to the customer, who [usually] nodded, and then we would slap it onto the work surface, grab up one of our sharp deli knives and slice that little end into pieces.  The first one always went to the customer, the founder of the feast, who proudly popped it into her [or his] mouth, nodding and smiling, and then the deli clerks clustered tightly.  When we separated, there was not a trace of that roast beef nubbin left.

Everyone sighed, a gentle exhalation: “Ooooh; that was GOOD.”

The slices went deftly back into the roasting pan, covered with a big sheet of plastic wrap. The top went back on.  The customer took that bounty home to simmer it in its own beef juices.  They’d serve it with a pile of kummelweck rolls, bowls of horseradish right nearby. They’d offer an enormous casserole full of brown-sugary baked beans, always with bacon, and sometimes with ground beef mixed in, too.  There would be baked pasta and big bowls of potato and macaroni salad. There’d be green salads, tossed in Italian dressing.

That was dinner for graduations, showers, anniversaries, special birthdays.  It was a welcome wedding menu, in which case, of course, dessert would be a lovely tiered cake slathered in buttercream frosting with a googly-eyed plastic bride and groom sliding around on the top.  For all other events, sheet cakes crowned the meal, sometimes adorned with a festive message.

****

So. Last week, I rang the bell at two supermarket meat rooms and inquired if I could roast my beefs and bring them back to have them sliced.

‘Uh, no,’ both meat room clerks told me, giving me kind of an odd look.  Once a product leaves the store, they said, it is not welcome to return. They revealed that there are health and safety regulations involved that weren’t in force way back in 1975.

It made me a little huffy. And a little concerned.  How was I going to get my beef sliced thin enough to simmer in the juices, to stack the way it’s supposed to stack, so thin and tender it would fall apart on first bite?

Mark and I pondered and we decided: We will buy a meat slicer.

Which we did.

*******

The new Provost came to the lunch, and my intrepid colleagues tried the meat on the salty buns and deemed them surprisingly good.  We ate all the salad I made with spuds grown by our coworker Randy, and the tray of apple pie bars was three-fourths gone by day’s end.

And then that weekend, I gathered up my stuff and hopped onto a plane for Fort Lauderdale to spend a birthday weekend with my darling niece and godchild, Shayne. When I told her about the luncheon, her eyes truly lit up.

“Beck on ‘weck is my FAVORITE,” she said.  “Can we make that for my birthday?”

We could.

And it was good. Again.

In fact, on Monday, my last day at Shaynie’s, we got up and I hugged kids and we drove the youngest, Miss Maddie, to her elementary school and went back and had beef on ‘weck sandwiches for second breakfast.  And when I texted Shaynie that I was home and safe, she texted back: Had another one for lunch!

*******

Such a simple thing, to salt and caraway a sandwich bun, but the smell and taste take me–and Shayne–back to wonderful times, connect us to our earlier days, and connect us, too, to people we love and miss.

For another niece, Meg, it is the coffee cake my mother used to make that spells ‘connection.’  Early on, Mom discovered a recipe that involved 11-3/4 cups of flour, along with scalded milk, egg and sugar, yeast, and I don’t know what else; she made it at Easter time, a sweet, sticky dough that she’d shape, at first, into small sweet rolls laced with cinnamon and frosted, still warm, with butter cream.  Those took a long time to shape and bake and ice, but they disappeared at a rapid clip.  Mom decided to make coffee cakes instead; she would braid the dough into long, tender loaves that sprawled the length of a cookie sheet. (The cakes didn’t hang around any longer, but they took less time to shape and bake.)

When the braided loaves cooled slightly, Mom would frost them, and she would adorn the tops with candied fruit and nuts: cherry/nut/cherry.  Meg loved those cakes, and she loved the adornment, and woe to you if you switched it out.  Nut/cherry/nut was just not going to do.

I have made my mother’s coffee cake; I have washed the kitchen floor, white from the flour that foofs up in the first mixing and then floats gently on the house air currents to settle where it will. I have discovered that buying a bag of frozen bread dough, defrosting and shaping it, yields a yeasty cake that, when cinnamoned and frosted, tastes remarkably like Mom’s.  I have given up on cleaning floury floors, but not on coffee cake for Easter.

*********
In Mark’s family of birth, pasta was the meal of celebration. As a child he sat at the children’s table at his grandparents’ house, and piled into the sugo and pasta, bread and salad.  The Sicilian sun of his grandparents’ childhood flavored the sauce. Mark was surrounded by siblings and cousins and laughter.

Later, the feasts moved, with his grandmother’s table, to his parents’ home; as Mark and his siblings married, a new generation of cousins were relegated to the children’s table in the front parlor.  But the food was the same–tender pasta drenched in red sauce, platters of sauce-cooked meatballs and pork and sausage, the crusty bread, the fresh crisp salad–always enough, too, if a friend tagged along or an out-of-town cousin showed up at the door.

It wasn’t just the food–it was the warmth and the incredible smell that enveloped you as you stepped inside from the cold; it was the sounds of laughter and welcome pouring from the crowded kitchen.

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Mashed potatoes said ‘festive’ at my home port–big roasts of meat (although one year, Peppy, my first, special dog, stole the roast off the table while the family was in the kitchen gathering up the sides) with a giant bowl of fluffy white potatoes, butter melting on top.  There was an off-white lace cloth that fit the entire table, leaves and all; there was my mother’s special dinnerware with the pretty rustic scenes emblazoned on the plates.  Little pitchers of gravy, bowls of hot veggies, usually from a can. Stuffing if the meat was fowl. And tons of dessert–cookies frosted and sugared, pies with moisture beading on top, chocolate layer cakes with white icing between the layers and fudge frosting coating the outside. Cheap wine (my mother had a long Cold Duck period) and strong coffee.

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Merged, Mark and I favor both kinds of meals and some choices of our own—lasagna says ‘special’; so does crown roast of pork, and we can both feel festive digging into a cheesy, saucy plate of eggplant parmesan.  We haven’t so much given up our food roots as expanded them, although some things–his dad’s breaded burdock, my father’s vienna sausage,–we have agreed to leave behind.

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Oh, I know.  There are some reading this who think, “Gosh. Red meat on a seedy, salty bun. Ummm–no, thanks!” The strange sounding combination doesn’t say “childhood,” to those readers–doesn’t whisper, ‘Christmas’ or ‘Uncle Bill,‘Dennis’ or ‘Park Pub.’

But I bet there is a food that speaks to memories; don’t we all have a dish, a dessert, a stew, a treat, that calls us out of time and into childhood?  Isn’t there a steaming plate or a crunchy nosh that reconnects us to that patient child within?

There is food, and there are memories; sometimes they simmer long together.

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Last week I was the roast beef bringer, the wizard of ‘weck.  I am returned to the land of crisp lettuce and boneless chicken breast, but I am better for my journey, and happy that I went.

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Here’s a link for an easy Beef on ‘weck’ recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/162533/beef-on-weck/