They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, we’re gonna have to make that a gender neutral statement because that same path is definitely the route to my heart, too.
Sure, the relationship between a girl and food can sometimes be fraught with a lifetime of complicated emotional associations. But what I am talking about here is, thankfully, something more positive. Which, admittedly, is funny coming from someone who started out being an incredibly picky, difficult eater.
Even as a baby, my parents had an almost impossible time getting me to eat what they made for me. I refused any meat or chicken, veggies and most fruit. Growing up, I could find the tiniest minced onion in a dish and use it as an excuse to push the plate away.
So imagine how surprised my parents are every time they sit down at my table and I lay out a meal that’s got meat, chicken, onion and a whole lot of other tastes, flavors, spices, cuisines and ingredients worth keeping that plate right in front of whomever is digging in.
This past weekend, it wasn’t an overly adventurous culinary experience at our table when my parents and my sister’s family joined us on Sunday afternoon. But it was still delicious and something even better.
We had gotten together to let the grandkids run around in the perfect fall weather, to watch some Giants football and disagree over baseball (most of us were disappointed Yankees fans except my Mets-loving father), and to ‘graze’—in other words to linger over an afternoon-long meal.
Starting with a platter piled high with chicken wings (and three different dipping sauces) and fall-off-the-bone ribs; my homemade, secret-recipe guacamole (it’s all about the cilantro, lime juice and chipotle Tabasco); and zesty bloody Marys, we kicked off the afternoon. Alongside, we had bowls full of sweet, juicy clementines and grapes, just to balance the savory main dishes. Three different kinds of cheeses (Taleggio, aged gouda and Cambozola) were accompanied by a perfectly crusty baguette from Michelina’s. I also made a dish inspired by the one I enjoyed the previous night at Wilton’s own Bianco Rosso—roasted figs stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto.
The finale was an apple crisp made with apples we picked last weekend at Bishop’s in Guilford. My mom made it from the same, well-practiced recipe she’d been using for the last 30 years, as she and I worked together in the kitchen getting everything ready.
And that, at the heart of things, is really what yesterday was all about. It wasn’t the menu of dishes that were on the table, despite it being a perfect one for an afternoon of family banter, togetherness and TV sports time. The secret ingredient was in the emotion, memory and connection baked and prepared into each and every plate.
My brother-in-law and I love to compare our guacamoles. It’s pretty much a given that we each will make one from scratch any time we come together for a meal. We’ve never openly admitted it, but each time the other dips the first chip into the bowl, we exchange a look that says, “So, what do you think of mine this time?” We’re always looking to impress one another.
My dad loves figs. Correction: he loooooves figs. I knew when I had the dish at Bianco Rosso that I would try to duplicate it for him. That it was an amazing combination of tastes we all enjoyed was icing on the cake, but what mattered most that my dad had something he knew was made with him in mind.
The meal was hearty, and satisfying. It was perfect for the crisp day we wound up having weather-wise. We broke bread, literally—weaving in something from my husband’s French custom (cheeses paired with bread, rather than crackers) while sitting outside on the deck. The adults traded stories and jokes, as the boys tossed a baseball and the girls ran around playing ‘secret-agent spies’ in the backyard. My husband and I were happy that the deck, which hadn’t seen much entertainment action this year, was enjoying a last hurrah before the colder months set in.
The apple crisp was particularly meaningful. It was the same, familiar one I’ve enjoyed my whole life. My mom would make it for me each time I came home from college, knowing it was a favorite. Even now, the taste brings me back to the feeling of being a little girl, of wistful, fond remembrance. Standing in my kitchen, as an adult cooking next to my mom, knowing that my kids—her grandkids—would have that same, warm feeling when they enjoyed a dish filled with memory and made with love was something greater than a four-star rating.
Food and family meals are a universal experience. The associations we all have with our particular heritage’s culinary traditions are powerful. The yearly rituals surrounding holiday tables and favorite menus carry with them something larger than just the way the dishes play on the palate. It’s just as moving to prepare a meal you know will evoke the emotions for those you’ve invited to sit in your home and join you at the table.
Before I got married, my sister—as my matron of honor—planned a bridal shower that pulled in all of those elements. She chose a French restaurant in New York City, one known for its pastries and desserts. As all the guests sat down to eat the meal, the chef joined the party to teach us how to make his lemon tart—a dessert my sister had requested because she knew it was a favorite of mine. She’d asked each guest to contribute a treasured recipe and put together a book lovingly crafted with pictures and memories, stories and traditions from each friend, aunt, cousin and important woman in my life.
Far greater than the tart or the exquisite meal itself, what was most satisfying is what is contained in that book—a mother’s love baked into a favorite apple crisp; the recipe for my grandmother’s amazing matzoh ball soup that was thankfully preserved now that she’s no longer here to make it herself; the recipes from momentous events and memorable occasions recorded for generations to come.
It’s the secret ingredient that makes a dish delicious, and one I’ll make sure is always stocked in my pantry.
Mom’s Spectacular Crumb-Top Apple Crisp
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
8 large tart apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup all-purpose flour
Filling: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add apples; sprinkle on water and lemon juice. Toss until evenly coated. Spoon into a baking dish. Dot with butter.
Crumb topping: Cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add flour and stir until smooth. Daub on apples. Bake 50-60 minutes. Serve warm, plain or with ice cream.