When I was a child, my parents insisted on at least one daily meal being a sit-down affair, complete with napkins, goblets, and candles. They weren’t old school, nor was the food always as dramatic as one might think; sometimes it was just a fluffy omelet or soup. What mattered was being in each other’s company and telling stories from our day—and what better time to do that than while eating with the family?
Most of our larger family gatherings were similar, with lots of “toasting and boasting,” but the foods—because of our Czech heritage—were elaborate, definitely old-world delicious, and cholesterol-rich: the obligatory Christmas goose, sausages, dumplings, gravies, and pastries.
Growing up, I always thought people came together for the occasions, not for the regional specialties my mother, aunts, and grandmother would serve. My grandmother especially could manufacture culinary wonders in her little kitchen, all the while doing laundry, setting the table, cleaning another room in the house, and weeding the flower beds out front.
As I got older and moved away from home, I attempted to re-create some of these comforting environments, sitting down for dinner (no TV) in my own house, with napkin, by candlelight. But it wasn’t the same, even if I made my mother’s fluffy stuffed omelets. And then it dawned on me, now that many of these dear women and behind-the-scenes chefs are no longer among us: The women themselves were the very mesh that held us together, not the occasion or the food. Under the pretense of a date on the calendar, they would summon everyone to come and gather in their homes, luring us with memorable and inimitable dishes. And we obliged.
In essence, though, what remains are the memories created around these meals—memories that will sustain all of us into the next generations. Memories are made of life and all the people in it. But food and these precious folks who prepared our meals, and who worked ceaselessly to please everyone, were the tools that created these memories.
—Anne Klein, New Orleans
Caleb is a great entertainer with a charismatic personality and a lot of ambition, which made Caleb’s Café a great success. Caleb personally handed out invitations to people in town to come check out his new business.
We booked a supper for my husband’s family of 20. Caleb met us at the door with a great smile and welcomed us. He seated us at a long table adorned with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. At each table was a special gift for making memories: A fake mustache, funny glasses, and a camera for taking pictures. We laughed and had a great time.
Caleb greeted, seated, took orders, served us, and spread laughter to all with his great conversation and wit. The meal was superb. The menu included a choice of iced tea, Coke, lemonade, or coffee; chicken Tetrazzini, salad, and garlic bread; a hamburger or hot dog and french fries; and plain or to-die-for chocolate cheesecake. It was a night to remember, and we all wanted to come back soon.
When it was time to go, we tipped him very nicely. When asked what he might do with his large tip, Caleb cleverly said: “Well, actually, that is a very hard decision. Do I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s or Toys ‘R’ Us?” We all laughed as we bid our farewells with many hugs and kisses.
Whether Caleb stays in the restaurant business or chooses another career, he has time to think it over. Our little chef was our grandson … only 6 years old!
—Bridget Watkins, Decatur, Illinois
Ethnic nights break the ice
When our newlywed daughter suggested that my husband and I get together with them for monthly “ethnic nights,” we jumped at the chance. Our new son-in-law lifts weights and eats lots of animal protein. We have been vegetarians for 30 years. We have a lot to learn about each other.
For our first ethnic night, we met at their home for a delicious Chinese stir-fry. They cracked up when my husband, Rich, and I arrived topped with Chinese hats. Any remaining tensions eased after a game of Chinese checkers.
The next month it was our turn to host Mexican. We used it as a time to introduce vegan and raw foods. Rich penciled on a fake mustache and wore a sombrero and Mexican blanket. I wore flowers in my hair and colorful scarves.
Heaping platters of fresh fruits and vegetables reflected in the flickering candlelight. Empanadas made with veggie burgers, quesadillas, and marinated portobello mushrooms were served with tortilla chips and freshly made salsa.
The young couple surprised us with a piñata filled with fruit and teas. We discovered many treasures of Mexico as we shared our researched information.
The meals have helped us to get better acquainted as we learn and laugh together, while seeing who can be the most creative.
—Kandy Light, Howard, Ohio
Thanksgiving 2002 was a turning point in my eating lifestyle. The setting was a historic vegetarian inn nestled in the North Carolina mountains. One of the chefs was my 19-year-old son. The meal included pumpkin soup, bread, salad, brioche stuffed with nuts and mushrooms, wild rice, homegrown green beans, and pecan pie—all made from scratch. The verdict? Truly the finest Thanksgiving dinner I had ever consumed (sorry, Mom). The result was an immediate conversion to vegetarianism, no regrets, no turning back.
Fast-forward to 2004. I am definitely healthier and more energetic, plus I possess a desire to cook constantly and more creatively and to share the vegetarian way with family and friends.
—Gail Masters, Boone, North Carolina
A simple apple
In late July 2002, my nephew was born. My husband and I were called to the hospital to witness his birth sometime in the afternoon, and we didn’t end up leaving until after 11 p.m. I was five months pregnant at the time and was completely caught up in the birthing experience, so much so that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten.
Heading toward the hospital’s elevator, the craving for a simple apple hit me like a ton of bricks. I insisted we go to the cafeteria and hunt for one. Naturally, none were to be found. Lucky for me, a sympathetic food-service worker found one and satisfied my hunger. That was the best $1.50 I’ve ever spent.
—Becky Kiefer, Grand Junction, Colorado
The engagement dinner
When my cousin’s son became engaged, his parents planned an engagement dinner to meet the in-laws-to-be. Wanting to make a good impression, they tried to make everything perfect—including serving wine, something they never did.
Unfortunately, when my cousin’s husband took the dinner ham out of the oven, the roaster fell upside down on the kitchen floor, sending grease the length of the room. At that very moment, their son walked into the kitchen with a tray of filled wineglasses. He slipped on the grease but fell flat on his back. The wine hit the ceiling and splashed all over him.
The guests broke up with laughter, but when my cousin told me about it later, she said, “It wasn’t one bit funny!”
—Betty Schumack, Hopkins, Minnesota
One turkey of a meal
The Jewish holidays are always a special time in our house. It is one of the few times of year when our family can get together. Since my husband and I moved into our house four years ago, we have taken on the tradition of hosting the annual Passover seder. Mom and I get together weeks in advance to prepare for the big meal that includes chicken soup with homemade matzo balls, potato latkes, and tzimmes.
Passover morning arrived, and I began to prepare for the big event. Everything was set to go except for the turkey. It was a huge bird—29 pounds to feed 16 people. We weren’t even sure if it would fit into the oven! I took the bird out of the refrigerator as the oven preheated. When I opened the bag that enclosed the turkey, I was confronted with a foul, rancid odor. My 29-pound investment was bad! Needless to say, I was devastated. Where was I to find another defrosted kosher turkey? The kosher butcher was closed, and all of the supermarkets were out of defrosted turkeys.
After I regained my composure, my husband went to the supermarket for another kosher turkey. We spent all day defrosting that bird. And we don’t have a microwave. Dinner was a bit late that night, but we did manage to serve everyone with a smaller, tasty, 13-pound turkey.
—Linda Romano, Huntington Station, New York
The way to his heart…
I was dating this finicky guy named Art who seemed to find things wrong with almost every restaurant we visited. Although I often agreed with him, I still enjoyed the meal, but I’m not so sure he did.
In spite of all this, my higher self practically ordered me to invite him over for dinner. The big day arrived, and I spent it fixing the apartment, fixing myself, and fixing the meal. The entrée I decided on was Chicken Piquante, which had always turned out great. And I was a good cook—or so I was told.
After some wine and pleasantries, Art seemed eager to sit down and dig in. In fact, he just about sampled my chicken en route from oven to table. I sat transfixed while he put the first forkful in his mouth and chewed it carefully, his face deadpan.
He scooped up a second forkful and again pushed it around every nook and cranny of his mouth, still not saying a word. Then, all of a sudden, he smashed his fork down on the table, slapped his right hand onto his heart—like he was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance—and looked heavenward. A smile snuck onto his lips, and I heard him utter a long, low “Ah-h-h!” It was then that I knew I had him.
—Nancy Koop, Chicago
It was back in the late 1970s. Jim and I had just fallen in love, and enjoying good food was one of the things we had in common. The word “foodie” hadn’t been invented yet, but that is what we were.
By way of trying to ask me out on a first date, Jim quizzed me on restaurants—did I like Italian, Chinese, French? Of course I said yes to every one. Jim took me to a Thai restaurant when most people hadn’t even heard of Thai food. We had a spicy crab dish with cellophane noodles, and he endeared himself to me by wiggling a crab claw in his mouth. Only someone who doesn’t take himself (or haute cuisine) too seriously would do that. We also went to the River Café in Brooklyn and were dazzled by the extraordinary view of the Manhattan skyline, the fabulous food, and the ultrasophisticated ambience.
But our most memorable meal was right in my own kitchen. We made a salad; a pasta dish with fresh peas, prosciutto, shallots, and cream sprinkled with fresh Locatelli cheese; a loaf of good Italian bread; and a bottle of Chardonnay. The sun was setting, and the kitchen glowed with warmth, comfort food, and contentment. We decided right then that it doesn’t get much better than this.
—Linda Slezak, Jamesport, New York
An Irish feast
Three years ago, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday. I was busy cleaning, baking cookies, doing laundry, and attempting to enjoy the day as best as I could. An out-of-town Irish brother-in-law, relatively new to our family, called at 10:30 a.m., and invited me over for a lunch of corned beef and cabbage.
After quickly getting gussied up, I jumped in the car, sped an hour to their house, and despite being a confirmed vegetarian and slight of build, lavishly feasted on traditional Irish fare, including the best pumpkin bars I have ever tasted, all wonderfully prepared by my burly brother-in-law, who had also invited his comical 90-year-old father. ’Twas a meal that warmed the cockles o’ me heart!
—Sue Moynihan, Milwaukee
A different kind of Thanksgiving
Grandmom’s hair had never been white before, but her fine German-blond locks turned before my family’s eyes during her last three weeks. She passed on Thanksgiving night, seven years nearly to the day after her still black-haired Irish husband, my grandfather Jim, passed.
Her house in Petaluma, California—usually empty and quiet save for the television she watched—was now occupied by two of her three daughters, my aunts, Heidi and Patti; Aunt Patti’s husband, Brian; his brother, sister-in-law, nephew Justin, and Brian’s parents, Altamont and Enid Kim, who are from Jamaica. The Kims are half-Chinese and for generations in Kingston territory have been known for their cooking.
Yet on this Northern California winter night, cooking would be left to a commercial pizza chain, “… and one Pepsi please,” Uncle Brian uttered over the phone. Everyone would indulge in this comfort food, except for Altamont (“Alty”) and me. Most of what my family eats is what I don’t or won’t eat; 70-something Alty is also a food snob. Or rather, we’re deeply practiced in our awareness of how food affects us and how best to treat our bodies using this knowledge.
While the family was in the living room camped out with whichever DVD they’d chosen—I could smell the warm cardboard and cheese—I was teaching Alty about quinoa. It was my honor to cook for this wise and passionate (though sometimes stubborn) man, and it was a delight to actually teach him something. “This is one of my favorite grains—nutty and light,” I said. I combined dried currants and chopped walnuts and served all in half of a steamed acorn squash with a drizzle of honey. I also offered a warming bowl of miso soup (steeped with ginger and green onion, of course). And because my 13-year stint of lacto-ovo vegetarianism had reached its own necessary end, salmon fillets prepared in olive oil and garlic provided the vibrant protein.
With forks and knives—this second-generation American still eats as a European, no crosscut, put down knife, switch hands eating—we took in each other’s smiles, company, love, knowledge, respect, as two old souls meeting do: in silence. Alty’s napkin made its final pass over his lips, from which the Jamaican-accented words fell with ease: “That was most delicious.” The muscles of his right brow rose slightly and his pupils widened as he leaned in to whisper, “So you cook the quinoa for 20 minutes?”
For each of us, the Kellys and Kims, this night was most delicious. Each of us was able to nourish ourselves in the dawn of our mourning as we needed to, savoring mindfully what we took in, be it Canadian bacon, TV, and couch cuddles, or bamboo-colored broth, gentle smiles, and monastic posturing. Most assuredly the strong and also highly psychic spirit of Mrs. James Kelly was and is with us.
—Tuaca Kelly, Los Angeles