Thursday, October 4, 2012

Our Origins

My sister and I are from two ends of a large family, but as can be in such families, we are still in pretty much the same generation. We're post-war baby boomers, both born in the 1950's and raised in Southern California, which in its day was one of the easiest places on earth to be a middle class human. Not so easy for some of my classmates, who were the children of migrant laborers, some of whom came to school still muddy from the strawberry and lettuce fields they must have worked in since dawn.

All around us, food was grown (before houses filled in the fields). Our mother would spend Saturday morning taking the family car (the one car) to a ranch market on the edge of a field. She could buy four fresh cantaloupes for less than a dollar. Things generally tasted quite good and fresh. It was easy to feed a big family. I always remember that huge bowl of various large pieces of fruit that she kept on the kitchen table. That was our snack food. We ate it up faster than she could replace it. Little did we know, this kept us in nice shape, along with the walk to school (one car, you see, necessitated a lot of walking if you wanted to go somewhere). Today my mom is still with us. She is 89 and her birthday was yesterday.

I had a German friend some years ago, when my husband and I were first married, who always made a beautiful variety of baked goods in early December, in anticipation of the holidays. She asked me what our family traditional foods were. I had to say I just didn't know. Stew, maybe. While her mother was trying to survive after the war (with a family of 8 kids, just as my mother also had), my mom was cutting recipes out of women's magazines like the Ladies Home Journal. So I remember things like meat-stuffed green peppers and Swiss steak. There was never any shortage of meat or eggs. Later, I would date a boy whose family lived in Scotland after the war. He said they used food ration books when he was growing up in the 50's. They sometimes were allowed only one egg per week. So between him and my German friend, both seemingly like myself in middle class status, there was an entirely different experience of the 1950's. We were rich, richer than we knew. And now that is changing. No, there is no rationing, but there is unemployment and financial stress. It isn't the same - and yet there are bigger houses and more cars. Still there is a cash flow problem. Even if you are a "have" you worry about the future. Today, the migrant worker children might worry about a parent being deported. The Germans might worry about the Euro holding up. The Scot I knew moved to Canada. He was going to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, and he made his move. I think he did just fine.

Reaching back into the family memories, I have to say that my favorite food was not my mother's. It was that of my Aunt Mary's cook Hattie. I was a picky eater with my parents, who had to coax me - sometimes both of them in concert, to get me to eat oatmeal or scrambled eggs for breakfast. Not so Hattie. I don't know what her secret was, but I have a few great memories of her table back in Maryland where I, though not my younger sister, was born (she is a native to California). And when I asked my mother, I heard about some of Hattie's triumphs which were new to me: damson jam, grape pie and other things. I just remember the deviled crab and the chocolate pudding. I remember the kitchen table and the feeling I was going to be happy whatever she served. What was it? Where had she learned her art? Why did I know she took it so seriously? Mystery. The past is shrouded in veils of mystery.

The founding father of my mother's family was born in New Orleans before the Civil War. That side of the family was Irish, although my mom claims some French ancestry too. A few years before Katrina, my husband and two children and I drove to California by way of New Orleans. We ate at a restaurant which both my parents had visited in the postwar years, but separately, before they knew each other. It was the Court of the Two Sisters on Rue Royale. Even though the sisters who owned the courtyard dealt in lace and various trimmings for ladies' gowns, the restauranteurs who bought the place thought their long lives should be celebrated by naming their establishment for them. There is something very touching about two sisters going through their lives together.

And so in that spirit, I honor the tradition of two sisters. We'll cook though, and not sell ostrich fans or jet bead headache bands. And this will be our virtual courtyard. Come in and enjoy a little bread pudding with a dash of whisky sauce. But definitely visit the other place if you are ever in New Orleans. It's a real kick.

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