Bon Appetit: A Reader’s Guide For Julia Child Fans

The phrase “reading for pleasure” takes on a different meaning for every reader. Some choose mysteries; others go for romance or biography or a particular author. For the past few years, one of my favorite escapist reading choices hasn’t been an author or a genre, but a subject: Julia Child. Her life and work make for reading that I, for one, find irresistible: cooking and eating, Paris, true love, international intrigue and the triumph of perseverance. Plus, there’s Julia herself, the force of nature, the exuberant soul whose wit and charm belied a work ethic of steel. Julia, who told legions of fans that of course they could cook haute French cuisine, and who counseled them to take courage in the kitchen. Julia, who, more than any single individual, transformed the way we think about food.

Even now, eight years after her death at age 91, Juliaphiles like me want more. And lucky for us, the past few years have seen the publication of a shelf full of books about Julia. Since the 1999 publication of Noel Riley Fitch’s 592-page doorstop of a biography, Appetite for Life,  there have been at least nine volumes devoted to Julia’s life and times, including her own posthumously published memoir, My Life in France. And while they all cover the same waterfront, they’re all different enough to make engrossing and pleasurable reading.      

dearie

The most comprehensive of these is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, published by Knopf late last year. Spitz writes that he got to know Julia when he accompanied her to Sicily in 1992. He was on assignment to write about her and emerged from the experience with a crush on the lively septuagenarian: “She was exactly like her TV persona… warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible and most of all, real.”

The two talked about a biography, but Spitz had other projects and did not start on Dearie until after Julia’s death. I must admit that it took me a while to love this book. In the early chapters, Spitz sometimes takes a portentous tone, endowing simple events with great meaning. Example: in kindergarten, Julia McWilliams learned to follow rules and listen to instructions, which Spitz notes are “prerequisites for following a recipe.” One wonders at the other five-year-old rule-followers who did not go on to culinary careers. But that’s just a quibble, and for the most part, it’s fun to follow Julia’s life from her youth in conservative Pasadena, California; through her wartime service in Asia (where she met her future husband, Paul Child); to their years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe (where she learned to cook and began her groundbreaking book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking); to her days of cookbook and TV stardom and beyond. Along the way, he offers snapshots of nearly a century of history—turn-of-the-century California; World War II in Washington, D.C. and the Pacific theater; postwar Europe; the early days of public television; and the evolution of the food scene in America.

my life in france

Julia told her own story in a memoir that came out not long after her death. My Life in France (Knopf, 2006) was written with Paul’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, and it is a beauty. The pair worked on the book during the last two years of Julia’s life, with Prud’homme interviewing her, writing up what she had said and giving it to her for editing. Julia recalls her days not only in Paris (where Paul was stationed with the State Department), but in Marseille, (his next assignment) and in Provence, where they had a vacation home. Forty or fifty years after the fact, she recalls individual meals and how she cooked them, as well as the people she shared them with. It’s both sweet and frank, a graceful memoir of food, work and her years with the man she adored in a land they both loved.

covertJulia and Paul’s wartime experience has been recounted many times, but never in as much detail as in A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant (Simon and Schuster, 2011). This book is as much about Julia and Paul as it is about an all-but-forgotten-but-once-notorious woman named Jane Foster. The three met during the war when they were stationed in what was then Ceylon, working in the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence unit that was the precursor to the CIA. Foster left government service shortly after the war, disillusioned by a leadership who ignored her on-the-scene observations of revolution in Asia. She went to France to pursue her painting, but during the McCarthy years, her leftist ties led to her being investigated by the State Department and the FBI. She was eventually indicted on charges of espionage, but never tried because France did not extradite for such charges. (The evidence seems to have been pretty flimsy, at that.) Paul was investigated too, but he was exonerated, while Foster was hounded by the U.S. government and the press for years. Connent tells a sad but fascinating tale of what Julia herself later called “a disgusting era.”

As AlwaysA happier story is told in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Joan Reardon, a food historian who has written on M.F.K. Fisher, was the editor of this volume, and she has done a wonderful job of selecting and judiciously annotating the correspondence of these two friends. They met by mail in 1952, when Julia sent a fan letter to Avis DeVoto’s husband, the historian and writer Bernard DeVoto.  He had written a column bemoaning the poor quality of kitchen knives and Julia sent him a good one from Paris. Avis DeVoto, who handled her husband’s correspondence, wrote back, launching a friendship-by-mail that lasted for years and resulted in the publication of Mastering; it was Avis DeVoto who made the introductions that eventually got the book published. Reading this book is pure pleasure; sixty years later, the two women’s voices dance off the page as they exchange notes on cooking and recipes, husbands, politics, and the progress of the book, which took years to complete.  You’ll enjoy meeting the dynamic DeVoto, and if you want to know what Julia was like in private, in her own voice, this is the book to read.

backstage with JuliaAnother angle on the Julia story can be found in Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2007). The book chronicles a later period in Julia’s life, some twenty years after the publication of Mastering, when Julia had been a TV star for nearly two decades. They met in 1980, when Barr was running cooking schools and raising her family. A friend asked her to help with a Planned Parenthood benefit where Julia would be doing a cooking demo; the two women clicked and Barr joined Julia’s team of assistant cooks, working with her on Good Morning America, traveling with her, and forging a friendship that lasted until Julia’s death. Barr is an engaging writer (and a wonderful cookbook author in her own right) and this slender book adds another perspective to the Julia canon.

minetteThere are even two children’s books about Julia Child, both beautifully illustrated and full of charm.  Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) offers up Julia’s life in storyboard form, with multiple hand-lettered pictures spilling from each page. Beguiling scenes of Paris and of Julia in her kitchen with Paul accompany the familiar story, which ends with Julia’s first TV show. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, Bon Ap picture book2012) tells Julia’s story from the point of view of her cat, Minette. Reich’s cat’s-eye-view narrative and Bates’ haunting pictures of Paris nicely capture Julia’s years there. Young readers will surely enjoy these two books (my daughter and niece did), but I can’t help thinking that their elders—who remember Julia in her heyday—will enjoy them even more.

cats

There’s actually another whole book devoted to Julia’s feline obsession. Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats by Patricia Barry and Therese Burson was published by Abrams in 2012. This is, contrary to what you might expect, a serious biography, and it tells Julia’s story with an emphasis on the cats that joined her household over the years. (Minette was the first of many.) If you are both cat lover and a Juliaphile (like me) this book is, um, sheer catnip.

Laura Shapiro book hardcoverLaura Shapiro is one of the nation’s preeminent food historians, so it makes sense that she has weighed in with a book of her own. Julia Child, part of the Penguin Lives series (Lipper/Viking, 2007), is beautifully written volume that tells the story of Julia’s life and sums up her place in American food history and popular culture. “Julia Child,” she writes, “was unlike any other celebrity in America…what was unique about Julia was the quality of emotion she inspired, which was remarkably direct and pure. Julia attracted love, torrents of it, a steady outpouring of love that began with the first pilot episode of The French Chef and continued through and beyond her death.” 

Which I suppose is why, years after her passing, we’re still reading about Julia—and enjoying every page.

 This post was originally published at http://www.booktrib.com

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Poetry So Good It Will Make Your Head Explode

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(cropped)Do you remember Emily Dickinson’s test  of a poem?

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?”  

If there is, I can’t think of it. Although, truth be told, it had been years since I had thought much about Emily’s test or read much poetry beyond what I shared with my daughter. Then, a little over a year ago, I answered a post on the online bulletin board of my alma mater. A fellow alum was launching a literary magazine website and seeking volunteers to help. I answered her ad, and soon, to my unending surprise, found that I was the co-poetry editor of the Lyon Review: The Literary Magazine for Alumnae and Faculty of Mount Holyoke College.  Like I said, it had been years since I’d given much thought to grown-up poetry; the attention that a poem demands seemed way beyond what I could muster as a working mom. But I decided to push beyond my workaday zone and see what happened.

Since then, Emily Dickinson’s test has come back to me many times. If I feel like the top of my head has been blown off, I know that is poetry.  And I like the feeling.

One poet whose work has left me feeling that way is Sandra Kohler.  Kohler’s poetry has been appearing in print for at least 35 years, in publications such as The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review and The Colorado Review. A New Yorker by birth, she was graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1961 and eventually went on to Bryn Mawr College for her master’s degree (1966) and doctorate (1971). In between writing poetry and raising her son, she taught literature and writing everywhere from elementary school to college. She and her husband now share a two-family home in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson.

Improbable Music CoverHer most recent book (her third) is titled Improbable Music, and it was published by Word Tech Communications in 2011. A previous book, The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) won the AWP Award Series in Poetry. In 1985 and 1990, she was the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Sandra’s poems are beautifully wrought, stark and elegant and they tell moving, sometimes painful stories about people we all might know. 

Here is one of my favorites, titled “For Bernice, Irene and Regina.” You can find more at http://thelyonreview.com (search for Sandra Kohler). Read it and see for yourself if the top of your head feels like it’s still on.        

For Bernice, Irene and Regina

For years I’ve listened to the three of you
reminisce, daughters of a mother who hung
green shades on the windows, not starched
white lace, never baked any of you a birthday
cake, let one of you (you argue about who)
go to school wearing mismatched socks. She
was the mother-in-law I loved for not caring
who had telephoned who last, for her lifelong
passion for “her flowers,” for her detachment
from her children’s lives, her distant tender
attachment to my son, her youngest grandchild.
You were the women whose womanhood
frightened me, brilliant practitioners of its arts.
Your spotless windows opened into a life I
couldn’t maintain: the curtains washed and
starched and ironed to a perfection nothing in
me could reach. I didn’t understand how you
were driven by memory: the childhood houses
of your friends, islands of order and decorum
home didn’t offer, led each of you to a vow,
the veil of a sisterhood your mother flouted
innocently; for your children, you would be
the mother your childhoods longed for.

You invented your roles from a model
of how not to play them; I had no model.
Motherless at ten, I didn’t possess the image
memory creates: my sister owned that mother,
staked an absolute claim to her, greedy as any
prospector. She owned womanhood, the art
and nature of it; I was dispossessed, twice
orphaned, once by nature and again by the art
of a sister who fashioned the past, memory,
the real, into a fabrication of her own. And
yet, like her, like you, I have created an idol,
sacred figure, each of us still in thrall to a
presence we invented, absence we mourn.

 “For Bernice, Irene and Regina” copyright © 2012 Sandra Kohler

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com.

Edamame Salami, or Eat Your Poetry; It’s Good for You

“Oh, Mom, we do enough of that in school.”

My daughter’s reaction to the news that I’d be leading a poetry jam with her Girl Scout troop was pretty much what you’d expect from a hipster 10-year-old. But our troop leader had loved the idea, so it was a done deal, school poetry lessons or not.

When the day arrived, of course we started with a snack. The troop had come straight from school on that May afternoon, and being fifth graders, they were as famished as if they’d just come from a 10-mile trek. Because poetry was the theme of the day, we’d have a “poetic” snack. First on the menu was Edamame Salami (recipe below), which I had invented for the poetry dinner chapter of my book, Friday Night Bites. The name came to me first, and then I made up the recipe to go with it: finely diced Genoa salami, crisped in the microwave, tossed with ready-to-eat edamames. For the less adventurous, there was Delish Fish: goldfish crackers dipped in melted chocolate. Both disappeared in minutes.

And then it was time for poetry. I had asked the girls to bring poems to share and had prepared a selection of my own favorites—poems I had loved as a kid, and others that I had discovered later on.

Oscar_Hammerstein_-_portraitWe began with “My Favorite Things.” We all know it as a song, but I wanted the girls to look at it sans music, both because the title fit the hodgepodge of poems I’d gathered and because, well, the thing is built like a brick wall. Oscar Hammerstein’s verses are just so well constructed. Not only is there a cunning little word picture in each line, but the rhyme scheme is deceptive in its simplicity, with a new rhyme and a refrain alternating in every other couplet. I passed out copies and pencils so the girls could analyze it for themselves, and soon they had labeled the whole thing:

mittens/kittens A

strings/things B

strudels/noodles C

wings/things B

sashes/lashes D

springs/things B

 But we weren’t done. Next, we looked for alliterations, and found one in almost every line. “Raindrops on roses,” “copper kettles,” “warm woolen,” etc. Suddenly, the verses that had seemed so familiar and so simple took on a new dimension.

For something a bit more contemporary, we looked at Adele’s “Someone Like You.” We talked about how she used the second person to give her song a sense of immediacy.

ogden nashThen came a lighter selection: “Fossils” by Ogden Nash, from the poems he wrote to accompany Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” It had some vocabulary to define first; 10-year-olds didn’t know that “wassail” is a kind of a drink or that “mastodontic” refers to the girth of a prehistoric mastodon. But they needed no coaching to chuckle at Nash’s mischievous punch line:

Amid the mastodontic wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said and winked—

“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

 d147b662f0fc28f340d33f060a578d93Next was A. A. Milne’s wonderfully whimsical  ”Sneezles,” in which Christopher Robin has a  a case of wheezles and sneezles. It’s a wonderfully whimsical poem with a strict meter—tetrameter, to be exact. I clapped out a few lines with the girls, but they kept going until the end of the poem through lines like:

                   

…They asked if he suffered from thirst.

                They asked if the sneezles

        Came after the wheezles

Or if the first sneezle

Came first.

         They said, “If you teazle

A sneezle

Or wheezle

A measle

May easily grow.

      But humour or pleazle

The wheezle

Or sneezle,

The measle

  Will certainly go.” …

Then came Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikki Giovanni and Shel Silverstein, the latter brought to us by several of our Scouts.

statue of liberty By then we were ready to tackle something more challenging. Our troop had visited Ellis Island together, so Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” seemed in order. First we considered the title; we learned that the “old” Colossus was a giant statue on the waterfront of ancient Rhodes until an earthquake crumbled it to bits. We noted how Lazarus contrasted a militaristic symbol with the strong but welcoming lady of New York Harbor. Again, there was challenging vocabulary to review, but they got the gist:

           

Not like the brazen giants of Greek fame,

           With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

         Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

 A mighty woman with a torch whose flame,

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. …

 Call me sentimental, but the last lines always get to me:

“…Give me your tired, your poor,

                  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

           The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

               Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

   I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 It was late in the afternoon, but I had two more poems to share. The first, one of my all time favorites, is by Emily Dickinson, and it’s as short as it is profound.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

A tricky poem for a kid. We reviewed the hard words and then I told them how Emily Dickinson had lived at the time of the westward migration, which they had studied in fourth grade. She herself never went west and probably never saw a prairie in her life. So what was she writing about?

“Imagination,” ventured Hannah.

Bingo!

robert frostThere was just time for one last poem, and again I chose a grown-up one, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We defined the vocabulary words and then read: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both….”

It was May, after all, with just a few more weeks of school. I got out my soapbox. “I wanted to share this poem with you because you are all going off to middle school next year, and there might be times when you have choices to make. Somebody might offer you drugs, or there might be a bully who wants you to be a bully, too. I think this poem is about life—and about how not taking the easy road can make all the difference.” They were silent. I wondered if they were listening.

Clearly, it was time for a poetic art project. Concrete poetry—the arrangement of text in shapes that convey meaning. I handed out sheets of words that I had typed out and they got to work cutting and gluing and adding colorful flourishes with markers.

While they worked, I asked them which poems they had liked best. The answers were as different as the girls. “Sneezles,” said one. “Bed in Summer,” said another. “My Favorite Things,” said our troop leader. Around the table we went, and when it was Lauren’s turn, she said, “’The Road Not Taken,’ because it’s about making decisions that might not be popular.”

I said a silent YEE-HAAA!

On the way home, I asked my daughter what she thought about the afternoon. She replied, with all the eloquence of a kid, “It was good.”

“Ya’ know,” I said, “Some of these poems you might remember for the rest of your life. I first read some of them when I was young, and I still remember them”

“I guess so,” she replied.

That was good enough for me, because, well, I know that she will.

***

 

Edamame Salami

Makes 4 servings

2 ounces Genoa salami

8 or 9 ounces ready-to-eat edamames (thawed if frozen)

Chop the salami very finely or pulse in a mini-chopper to make small pieces. Transfer to a microwavable container and microwave on high power for 45 seconds to 1 minute, or until crispy.

Pour the edamames into a serving bowl and when the salami is cool enough to handle, pour it in and toss to mix well. Serve with plenty of napkins.

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press, 2009)

 

***

 First published on booktrib.com

Hot Comfort: An Adoption Story

Is Chinese baby formula dairy or soy based? The question occurred to me so suddenly and with such force that I had to check myself to make sure that I hadn’t blurted it aloud. But no. The other parents-to-be sitting in the meeting room in the offices of Spence-Chapin, the venerable New York City adoption agency, were listening undisturbed to our social worker, who was explaining yet another item in the mountain of paperwork we had to complete before we would be put on a waiting list that would eventually result in a trip to China to meet our longed-for daughters. I tried to listen, too, and to take notes, but I couldn’t help picturing an innocent babe, placed into my arms fresh from the orphanage, the only home she’d ever known. Would she like the formula that I’d bring from America for her? Would she recoil at its unfamiliar scent? Oh, God, what if she hated it? What if, in our first hours and days together, when she’d be assaulted by newness at every turn, I couldn’t offer her the comfort of a familiar mouthful of food?

I pictured my baby wailing and hungry and wondered what on earth I would do if that picture became a reality. Resuming my note-taking, I tried to focus on the form under discussion. But the questions stayed with me, and at the end of the session I approached the social worker.

“Is Chinese formula dairy or soy-based?” I asked. “Which should we bring? Will our babies take to American formula?”

“The Chinese formula is dairy based, and most of the babies drink the American just fine,” she answered. “But if your child doesn’t, you can buy formula there and mix it with the formula you bring with you. Then you can gradually reduce the amount of the Chinese. That way she’ll get used to it. By the time you come home, she’ll probably be completely happy with the American brand.”

Oh.

So much for that mom-to-be anxiety attack. But it got me to thinking: If an infant has been taking a particular kind of nourishment for her whole, albeit short, life, what happens when you change that form of nourishment suddenly? To put it in another way, do babies have comfort food?

So much has been made of that term in recent years. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese have been rhapsodized and eulogized so often, you’d think they were ambrosia. Of course, what’s comfort to one palate is exotic—or appalling—to another. My Argentinean friend speaks lovingly of the blood sausage and tripe, but he gags at the mere mention of root beer, my childhood favorite. For some souls out there on this small planet, comfort food is the roasted, carefully browned rat that I saw for sale at a street market outside Bangkok. (A case of chacun a son goût if ever there was one.) But while the foodstuff might vary, the idea is the same no matter where you go—comfort food is the food of home. It’s what we ate in our earliest experience of the restorative powers of the table, before, well, whatever came afterward.

I thought about this as I drove home from the agency with my folders of paperwork: Do babies develop food preferences? Can they form taste memories even as their first teeth are coming in? In short, can they have comfort food?

A few months later in China, my child answered my question—and it had nothing to do with baby formula. It happened on the third night after I got Jessica. We were settled into our hotel in the capital city of the province where she was born, waiting for all the official paperwork necessary to finalize her adoption. On that evening, my sister (who had accompanied me to China) and I went down to a late supper in the hotel dining room, with baby Jessica in her stroller. We were dining late because my newly acquired eight-month-old had had a late nap. When she woke up, I had fumbled my way through a diaper change and her dinner—a bottle of formula mixed with rice cereal, some puréed peas and mashed bananas—which, despite my lack of finesse, she seemed to enjoy. The peas necessitated a thorough sponge bath, and when that was done, we dressed her again and set off for our own meal. It was after nine. By that time, we didn’t feel like anything complicated, so we just ordered big bowls of noodle soup.

The dining room was tranquil and nearly empty, and the three of us sat companionably waiting for the food, Jessica content with a full tummy, or so I thought. But when the waitress came to our table with two steaming bowls, my tiny baby let out a series of large, loud screams.

Our few fellow diners turned to stare. In the three days I had known this child, such a thing had never happened. Was she suddenly sick? In pain? Just cranky? After a few moments of new-mommy terror, I realized the obvious. She wanted the soup. A one-page “bio” of my baby that had come from her orphanage had mentioned that her diet included soup, but the information had been sketchy, and I was a strict and nervous follower of my baby books. These advised introducing single foods, not blends; the better to identify the cause in case Baby had an allergic reaction. So Jessica had been drinking formula mixed with rice cereal and eating simple baby-food purées and mashed bananas.

My heart was overflowing. This tiny being, so trusting and innocent in the face of everything new—new mommy, new auntie; a new crib after so many months spent in the orphanage issue; the new surroundings of the hotel, with its shiny brass fixtures and mirrored halls; rides in elevators with doors that opened and closed; rides on buses with their smells of diesel fuel; a new stroller with belts and buckles; forays in that stroller over bumpy sidewalks to vast green parks and bustling department stores; new clothes and new diapers; new toys—almost everything she had encountered over the past three days was cosmically different from what she had experienced for the first months of her life. Yet, she had greeted each new phenomenon with smiles and coos. And now she smelled soup and saw the big bowls, and she knew what it was, and she wanted it.

I blew on it to cool it and spooned a bit into her mouth. Instantly, she was calm. We shared the rest of the bowl. How powerful, I thought, was the appeal of something delicious, even for so tiny a person.

When we came home to Connecticut, I made a big pot of my mother’s chicken noodle soup—my own comfort food, but not so very different from the noodle soup we’d shared in China. My daughter dove in, eating the noodles with her fingers.

And now I know: Babies surely do have comfort food. For mine, it was soup. And not age or language or nationality—nothing—could stop her from trying to taste it.

Copyright Karen Berman 2012. Permission is required to reproduce part or all of this essay.

Here’s to the Ladies Who Latke

I was making my lists for our family holiday gathering a few days ago, and as I went over the menu—old-fashioned brisket and potato latkes—it occurred to me (a writer of cookbooks) that the two women whose cooking most influenced my Chanukah repertoire probably never consulted a cookbook in their lives.

In my grandmothers’ day, cooking from cookbooks, or even written recipes, was hardly a universal practice. Girls learned to cook by helping in the kitchen and by the time they had kitchens of their own, they had mastered the art. Of course, there were books to consult if a cook was so inclined; recipe collections had been around for at least a millennium and a half. But cookbooks didn’t figure in my grandmothers’ world. How could they? There was no money, at least not in their early years, and anyway, neither one could read much English; one could barely read at all. My grandmothers kept their recipes in their heads. Their hands and eyes were their only measuring tools.
Fannie, my mother’s mother, and Sarah, my father’s mother, had both sailed from Eastern Europe in the first years of the 20th century. They did not know each other until my parents met and married, but their young lives followed oddly similar trajectories. Both were barely into their teens when they crossed the Atlantic in steerage class, two among millions of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island hoping to better their lives. Years later, Fannie recalled being seasick for most of her journey. Sarah remembered how she and her younger sister, traveling alone, were detained at Ellis Island, waiting, terrified, for an older brother who was already settled in America to come and get them. Fannie could read Yiddish; she had had some schooling in her hometown of Lemburg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sarah, born in a shtetl in Poland, lost her mother when she was three, and never had any schooling. Both were sent to live with their older sisters in America, Fannie to Brooklyn, and Sarah to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Both elder sisters quickly pronounced them too old for school and conscripted them to help with the housework. But both of my grandmothers rebelled. Fannie enrolled in night school and learned to read a bit of English; she found work as a seamstress in a Lower East Side factory. Sarah, deeply offended by her sister’s refusal to let her go to school, jumped at a neighbor’s offer of domestic work and became a wage earner.In time, both married and had children, but the American streets that they traveled were hardly paved with gold.
At the height of the Depression, Fannie’s husband died, leaving her with six children, the youngest of whom—my mother—was just six months old. With no pension in those pre-Social Security days, she survived on public assistance, plus the after-school wages of the elder children and her own genius for household management. Around the same time, Sarah’s husband suffered a heart attack. Medical wisdom at the time held that heart patients needed rest. So my grandfather retired from the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, where they lived by then, and Sarah became the breadwinner. Rising at dawn each day, she left her cold-water flat spotlessly clean and readied her two children for school before going off to her factory job.
As years passed, my grandmothers’ lives became easier. By the time I was on the scene, both took pleasure in setting bountiful tables for family. They were both gifted cooks and more important, loving grandmothers. That was what I knew of them. That, and the magical holiday gatherings, full of aunts, uncles and cousins all having a lively, noisy time—and eating latkes.
I look up from my Chanukah list-making, at my kitchen bookshelves overflowing with cookbooks. In the next room, more shelves are stocked with all sorts of books. How much of my life has been spent reading and writing—cookbooks and other books, for work and for pleasure. How much I owe to the two ladies whose courage and strength laid the foundation for the many extraordinary opportunities I’ve had. I close my eyes and I see Fannie reading her Yiddish newspaper intently, chuckling at the advice column one minute and the next poring over the lists of Holocaust survivors, always hoping to find the name of a missing loved one. I see Sarah, determined in her eighties to make up for her lack of schooling, working with a young volunteer, struggling to learn how to write her name. Now, a lifetime later, their lives seem to me to be nothing less than heroic.
I never got Sarah’s recipe for latkes. I know that she added baking powder to the basic potato batter; the leavening made her latkes rise just a bit, and rendered them dense, chewy and delicious. Fannie’s latkes were different: light, crisp and luscious. I have her recipe; my mother transcribed it and made it her own. Now it’s my recipe, and my sister’s. And it occurs to me, as I continue making my lists, that as many cookbooks as I may own or acquire, I’ll never need one for potato latkes.
Bubby Fannie’s Potato Latkes
2 large potatoes
1 medium onion
1 egg
Matzoh meal
Salt, if desired, to taste
Oil for frying
Sour cream, for serving
Applesauce, for serving
Grate the potato and onion into a mixing bowl. (Fannie insisted on a hand grater, maintaining that a blender will not give the proper consistency. But she did not have a food processor. I do, and I use mine for this recipe. You can use the shredding blade.)
Add the egg and beat with a fork. Add the matzoh meal and salt, if you’re using it. The batter should be thick, not watery, so you should add as much as is needed, judging by the texture of the batter as you go along. Mix all of the ingredients together. (That would be about 1½ tablespoons matzoh meal and about ½ teaspoon salt.)
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Spoon the batter in heaping tablespoons into the pan and fry. (Don’t crowd the pan too much; work in batches as necessary.) When the edges start to brown, turn with a spatula and fry on the other side. When the latkes are golden brown, remove from the oil with the spatula and place on paper towels to drain the excess oil. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce.
This post originally appeared on BookTrib.com.

Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.

Dinner, The Best Umbrella

The night that the superstorm Sandy took the power out, there was still dinner to get on the table. I suppose I could have served sandwiches, but something warm seemed in order. With the winds blowing at 70 miles an hour outside, firing up the grill was out of the question. Instead, I got out my chafing dish and set it over five squat candles that I had arranged in an aluminum tray. In went a can of condensed soup and some water, and about 45 minutes later—voila!—lukewarm soup. My other chafing dish yielded warm slices of buttered French bread. I cup an apple into wedges and dinner was served. There we sat, my daughter and me, eating our soup, bread and apples by candlelight. The storm taunted us from outside, but inside, the familiarity and comfort of family dinner prevailed.

Having written two volumes that fall into the burgeoning category of books about cooking with and for children, I’ve become convinced of the importance of family dinner. And I’m equally convinced that that the style of the dinner matters far less than the fact of sitting down together to eat it. I’m a happy producer and consumer of books to help with every permutation of the evening meal, for every taste and every occasion: multi-course extravaganzas that are cooked from scratch with organic, local sustainable ingredients; quick affairs that are assembled in 20 minutes from jars and boxes; or special, kid-themed dinners that feature foods with silly names, whose architecture makes them fun to make and eat (as in my two books). But—dare I say this in a blog post about books?—I don’t think you need a cookbook to do family dinner. The occasional take-out meal or hurricane-chafing-dish-improvisation will also qualify.

The important thing is to sit down with your kids as often as you possibly can, to share a meal, talk about the day, talk about life and just be together. I could cite many studies that have proven the social and public health benefits of family dinner (and reserve the right to do so in a future post). But now, days after the hurricane that barged in on so many lives, in so many ways, I’m just thinking about family dinner and how it’s such a sweet simple, refuge from whatever storms rage around us, no matter what’s on the table.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com, The All You Can Eat Literary Buffet