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Month: July, 2018

i’m-not-sure-who-it’s-comforting-more food

peach-blueberry bread pudding.3

in which we momentarily retreat to the comfort kitchen as the world wears us ragged, and sometimes our sphere of true influence has shrunken to a concentrated radius of one (maybe two on a good day…)…

the leftover challah called to me, as it so often does. every friday the braided loaf of eggy dough finds its way to our shabbat table, and every morning thereafter the mostly untouched loaf (for we tear off only a few shabbat chunks on most friday nights) whispers louder and louder from the basket where it idles in quasi-retirement.

it begs to be rescued from its shoved-aside status, to be transformed in miraculous ways. bread pudding, most often, is the solution.

this week, once i plunked the getting-staler challah onto the cutting board (my tangible reminder to do something with it) my getting-taller-by-the-hour almost-senior in high school chimed in. “oh, mom, could you make it with peaches and blueberries this time? remember you said you would?”

this was not such a radical advance, this seasonal iteration of the bread-egg-and-milk puddingy pablum. but it was a certain departure from the same-old, same-old in which i chop up apples, throw in handfuls of shriveled-up raisins or cranberries, await cloud-like perfection. this called for summery attention to be paid, called for a trip to the produce bin where i found white-fleshed peaches in all their colorless glory, and blueberries by the bushel-load.

wasn’t long till i was sinking into the familiar rhythm of this recipe i know by heart (though for good measure i nearly always pull mark bittman off the shelf — or, specifically, his “how to cook anything” bright-yellow-covered cookery volume).

once i sliced into the peaches, though, my grandma entered the room. there she was, in pure imagined vapors, standing just behind my shoulder, urging me to reach for the brown-sugar canister, where i would partake of one of my grandma’s signature summery moves: douse the sliced, moist peaches in spoonfuls of deep-brown granular sweetness, allow the peachy juices to swirl with the sugar; tuck aside while golden-hued syrup emerges, the taste of summer defined.

and that was precisely the moment i realized that this comfort food for my sweet boy was just as much comfort for me in the making. there i was alone in my kitchen — me and my bread and my cream and my summery peaches — when all of a sudden i was visited by my long-gone grandma, i was swooped back in time and in space to her cincinnati kitchen in the ivy-covered brick house as sturdy and ample as was my grandma.

i was, for one sweet interval, far far from the news of the day, far from the grown-up worries that some days so weigh me down. it was just me and days-old bread, and the alchemy of sugar and peach. who knew such potency lay just beneath the fuzzy-fleshed skin of the fruit?

it’s the one room where this summer i’ve found a joy that might make me hum. that and the porch where i read.

should you want to play along, here’s my roadmap to summery joy — the blueberry-peach bread-pudding rendition thereof….

teddy’s bread pudding, the peachy summer edition*

  • 3 cups milk (or cream)
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, more for greasing pan
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ loaf sweet egg bread like challah or brioche, torn into 2-inch cubes (about 5 to 6 cups)
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 3 peaches, sliced
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup blueberries
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Over low heat in a small saucepan, warm milk, butter, 1/2-cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and salt. Continue cooking just until butter melts. Meanwhile, butter a 4-to-6-cup baking dish and tear the bread into bite-sized bits. Place the bread in baking dish.
  2. Slice peaches into separate medium-sized mixing bowl; stir in brown sugar. Set aside (wherein magic ensues, and syrup emerges). Rinse blueberries, and allow to drain.
  3. Once peaches are bathing in their brown-sugary juices (anywhere from five to 10 to even 15 minutes should do it), dump fruits atop bread chunks. Stir gently.
  4. Pour hot milk over bread, peaches, and blueberries. Let it sit for a few minutes, poking down the occasional chunk of bread that rises to the top. Beat the eggs briefly, and stir them into bread and fruit mixture. Mix together remaining cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle over the top. Set the baking dish in a larger baking pan, and pour hot water into the pan, to within about an inch of the top of the baking dish, effectively making a bath for your bake.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

inhale the endless comfort vapors….

*thank you, mark bittman, for your endless guidance and your recipe on much-splattered page 662.

what foods bring you as much comfort in the making as in the consuming?

IMG_0451

the curious pull of family history…

Iwo Jima funeral mass

funeral mass on iwo jima for soldiers who died on its soils, april 1, 1945

amid this summer of deep discontent and dyspepsia, i’ve been visited by an almost mythical faraway sprite — a cousin really, a distant cousin — who has opened for me long locked vaults of family history, and drawn before me the not-so-faint outlines of heartbreak and who came before me.

i signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com. figured i might learn a thing or three about the irish, german, and eastern european roots of my beloved and me, roots that trace directly to our pair of boys. i had no illusions of finding fine-grain stories, of hearing the voices of long ago come reaching out of the depths. i carefully marked my calendar so i’d remember to un-subscribe on day 13, get in and out without much trace.

and then, after i’d pulled the plug and skittered away, paddy shannon found me. paddy is a cousin plenty removed. we share the same great great grandfather, he told me in his first message. if i was willing to share my email, he told me, he had plenty to share.

within a day i had photos of the old family home, a hodgepodge of sod walls and windows and doors built between two bridges in a wee little place on the map not too far from the eternal tide of the atlantic, in county clare in ireland. i scribbled notes, drew diagrams, to try to trace and re-trace these lines and roots. i followed biographical bits — birth, death, burial — struggled to keep one daniel j., one teddy, one patrick straight from all the others (there are multiples of each, a few fine names used over and over and over, ancestral prize to those so christened).

i read once again of mothers who died in childbirth (on christmas day, no less), and filled in narrative. narratives of heartbreak, of loss, and starting over again.

i was particularly struck this time around (for i’ve gone down these roads before, with far less detail, never before guided by my very own ancestral guide) by the heartbreak that visited my grandma mae — how one of her brothers was struck and killed by lightning when he ran for cover in the tobacco barn on their kentucky farm in a rainstorm described in biblical proportions in the front-page news. how the other brother, the one who lifted his brother’s limp body, tried to revive him, how he died years later of cirrhosis of the liver (i couldn’t help but imagine the heartache that drove him, likely, to drink). i read how my grandma married the widower with four young children, and how four years after they married — he 44, she 35 — she gave birth to her one and only child, my papa (i imagined what a treasure he was, the unlikely and long-awaited firstborn).

and then this week i read the most i’ve ever read about the big brother (my uncle) who was like a papa to my papa, a brother named danny whom i’d always been told was destined for some degree of greatness. i knew he’d run one of the great kentucky racing stables, calumet farm, just outside lexington (he’d left university to learn racing from the ground up, literally starting as a stable boy and rising to business manager of the farm that trained whirlaway, a kentucky derby legend). i knew he’d signed up for the army at the height of world war II. but this week i found out that he’d been plucked for an officer’s college at harvard, had written a regular horse racing column in the lexington herald, and when pearl harbor was attacked in december 1941, he’d been on the california coast at the santa anita track, where he’d remain with the horses for months (racing was shut down in the wake of the attack and no transport of horses allowed), and where — my brother wisely hypothesized — his decision to defend these united states might well have been sparked. my uncle danny wrote a stirring anthem on the obligation to serve, one that ran with a grainy black-and-white photo that couldn’t hide the handsome lines of his bespectacled face, in the pages of the sunday herald-leader of lexington, on january 10, 1943, eight months after he himself had enlisted, and 10 months before he set sail for iwo jima.

and then, because my ancestral guide was himself a marine and stirred to understand how an army air corpsman came to be buried in a marine plot in the national cemetery in nicholsville, kentucky, i read the gruesome details of how my uncle danny and 14 others died in a pre-dawn banzai raid on iwo jima, on march 26, 1945, the very last battle of that awful siege of the japanese island. at 4 in the morning, some 300 japanese soldiers — ordered to stage a final suicide attack — rose up out of miles of caves, surrounded the tent camp not far from the beach on the southeast corner of the island, lobbed grenade after grenade and then, one by one, called out “banzai,” before charging into the tents with bayonets that slashed and beheaded.

my uncle, a first lieutenant at his death, was among the ones buried there on the island, in a military grave with a makeshift funeral mass preceding (see photo above). his father, my grandfather, would later have his remains exhumed and moved to kentucky, where he was laid to final rest beneath one of the white granite gravestones that stretch endlessly across the bluegrass he so loved.

it’s all a narrative that had mostly escaped me. my father — who’d been the one who answered the door when the soldiers came bearing the telegram and the news that danny had died — barely ever spoke a word about it. as my third-cousin paddy put it, “I hope this helps in understanding your Uncle “Danny’s” Service and Death and why your Da never spoke of it. It was to say the least a Horrible Place, and Horrible way to die.”

dear blessed paddy, my patron saint of genealogy, was so moved by danny’s story, he sat down and wrote a doggerel, an irish-intoned ode to the life and death of a little-known american soldier.

my own “da” has been gone now for 37 years. but all week, all summer really, i’ve been swirling in the mists of the past, his past. i’ve ached to hear him fill in the details, to fill my ears and my heart and my soul with the depth of the heartache that stilled him to silence.

there is much to mourn in the stories i’ve turned up this summer. and, just as emphatically, there is much to inspire. it’s a history rife with tragedy, and yet — and yet — it’s a story that goes on and on. triumph over loss. rising up from the unbearable.

and in the summer of 2018, when the world all around shatters me, i am holding onto shards of the past and breathing in the will to not be succumbed.

danny headstone

what family stories do you hold, and learn much from?

coming home.

coming home kitchen

i slipped back in as if gliding my arms through the sleeves of the oldest soft-knit sweater from the back of my closet. the sort of sweater you reach for when it’s the end of the day, and you want the goosebumps to go away, but even more you want woolen threads that breathe against your skin, woolen threads that whisper to your soul, “here we are, home.”

that’s pretty much how it felt to unlock the door after a few days away, to plop the duffel in the front hall, to wander about in that way that one does, to check for what’s happened while you’ve been gone. i saw right away that chipmunks must have upturned a brick or two at the steps that lead down to the garden. and the old house all but hollered to please open the windows, to let the hot dry air back out where it belonged.

wasn’t long till i found the note left on the kitchen counter, the note written by a dear, dear friend — the one who’d stayed at our house while we were away, since she needed a place to sleep and we had one. she wrote:

“in this house, one is always aware of time. the ticks and tocks, the chimes of multiple clocks evoke shared joys, episodes of comfort and sorrow, presences long gone but still close to our hearts. the rhythms of those machines wake me in the mornings, lull me to sleep…and call me to return.”

it’s a fine thing to hear your house through the ears of a friend, a soulful friend, a friend who has always put words to page with more grace than nearly anyone i know. my blessed friend’s words only amplified what i already know. what i know every single hour of every single day i live here.

coming home — even when there’s not a note to remind you — sharpens your ears, and all of your senses. wakes you up once again to this place you’ve spent your life making — making home.

home, for those of us lucky enough to have one, is that place that over time has come to hold the living breathing narrative of perhaps your most essential essence, those threads in your life you hold to be sacred.

my old house is one layered with story upon story. each old clock tells a story. the sounds that ooze in through the windows — the fact that i almost always leave a window open at least a crack — the birdsong, the breeze rustling the leaves, the faraway train whistle, the dog down the block. those are the sounds of home to me. i know its gurgles and burps so intimately that if one is off-kilter i know it’s time to call the plumber or the fellow who stokes the furnace. i am the guardian of my old house, and my old house returns the favor: my old house guards my heart and my soul.

and so coming home to it was coming home to a friend i’d left behind. we’d gone off to see the boy we brought first into the world. we’d packed a two-week visit into four short days — whirled our way through the hottest days DC has seen in a mighty long time (and lived to tell the tale, though for a while there we were gasping for air and long, tall quenchable waters). i’d be lying if i didn’t admit to wiping away a tear (or more) when we said goodbye to the sweet sweet legal-scholar-in-the-making, the one who was working so hard he couldn’t even take in the fourth of july fireworks. and while i wouldn’t trade a single one of those days away for anything, the sweet joy of finding myself back in this place where i most belong made the absence more than worth it.

i’ve come to know my particular custom for coming home: right away i dump the laundry down the chute, i gallop off to the grocery store, tear through the stacks of mostly-junk mail. i’m a madwoman restoring order. and then the puttering comes: i pour drinks down the gullets of my garden. i reach for the clippers and snip here, there, and yon. i stuff the old pitchers again, and tuck a fresh batch of cookies under the shiny glass dome that sits atop the pedestal (my nod to the ’50s diner).

i always take time to listen. to breathe in the ticks and the tocks and the chimes and the rhythms. to be quelled and lulled by all of the quirks of this place i so know by heart.

by the time i plop my creaky bones atop that old familiar mattress, perk my ears to the night sounds seeping in through the screens, whisper my litany of thank-you prayers, i am thoroughly deeply home. and more than grateful to call this old friend by that most blessed of names — home.

thank you, sweet home.

what’s the thing you relish most when you come home? and, just because i’m curious, do you have a quirky way of reacquainting yourself with the place once back from where you’ve roamed?

here’s a little extra morsel, a link to a story about retro and vintage cookbooks i wrote for the chicago tribune. it ran on the fourth of july, a day not too fit for browsing through the news pages. it’s a story whose reporting made me swoon — for the fine cast of characters from the literary kitchen, tamar adler, graham kerr (the famed “galloping gourmet”) and a very fine baker with a yen for updating retro pies, cakes and confections.