Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In the Fields with my Father

Why does food evoke so many memories? It must come from some primal sense aroused from ancestors past. Maybe those same relatives begging for the smell of that ragu that they passed down through the centuries. Or perhaps they are wanting for that tender bite from a scone warm from the oven slathered in that perfect sweet-cream butter with a sticky crown of homemade marmalade. My food memories seem to be protected by these ancestral souls that I'm made of. The bitter, the burnt and botched all seem to have disappeared only leaving room for those that are important for me to recall and savor. I've heard that it is impossible that I can remember my father's 40th birthday cake while lying on the counter as a baby during his party. No, I wasn't the next course, but it is the earliest I can recall and it is tied to food. Fast forward to a misty Sunday in Spring a few years later. Early Spring in California, sitting in the front seat next to my father in our Ford Country Squire station wagon and hearing him say, "This is a good spot". "Good for what?", I asked. (Little did I know that a lifetime later I'd recreate that same memory in the vineyards of Tuscany on a gravel road with my friends Pat and Wende and new friend Judy Witts-Francini, the original Divina Cucina from Florence,)

Mustard Greens in the distance of the Tuscan hills
But, as usual, I get carried onto another subject and digress. My father led me through what, in my 8 year old mind, were just wet weeds when he said to me, "These look good ". "What looks good?" "Mustard greens. See the ones that look like little stalks with no flowers yet? Those are the tender ones Joey. Those are the ones that aren't old enough to be bitter. We'll pick only those". And so we did. Two big, brown grocery bags full. Driving home with my father whistling and me wondering why we were going to eat "weeds" for our lunch. We pulled into the driveway and entered the house through the garage door, plopping our bounty onto the counter to show my mother all that we had picked. "Oh, you two have been busy", she said while washing them in the old aluminum colander with one of its three feet missing. The large soup pot was brought out onto the stove and coated with olive oil. Mom sliced some garlic and that unforgettable pungent scent began to fill the kitchen as it was tossed into its hot bath.  Our "weeds" were added and the sound I now describe as the "crowds roaring with pleasure" began when their damp stalks hit that sizzling fury. The cover was added and a few moments later mom lifted the lid to give them a quick stir, anointing them with that touch that I still see when my hands stir a pot. "Almost ready" she would say as dad cut the Italian loaf that he had picked up earlier when he had tip-toed out of the house before anyone else was up to pick up some forbidden donuts for breakfast. The greens were now lifted from the bowl and as if by magic all that we had picked had dwindled down to just a few cups of wilted, dark green strands bathed in oil and speckled with slivers of garlic. We ate quietly sniffing from the steam rising from our bowls. The final reward being the soft bread soaking up the juices left behind.
I'm now brought back some forty-plus years and another lifetime later. Those memories of that Sunday ingrained and held so close and comforting within my head.  Food for me is, not only trying to replicate those memories to some extent, but to create new ones that might be remembered and shared with a friend or two. It's the family that we've come from and the family we've collected along the way. In Italy, I learned a saying that describes what I feel when I'm laughing and eating with family or friends around the table, "A tavola non si invecchia" or loosely translated as, "At the table, no one ages". That's what food is about for me. That is why I chose to start my blog with a simple recipe from my life and that morning in the fields with my father.

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