Like old songs on the radio, food has a way of jogging old memories, taking you back to things you’d forgotten entirely or nearly so.

A very old friend in Kansas City sent me a message that I found this morning in Paris; it brought back a flood of hazy memories from Dallas, Texas in the late 1970s, when we were both working for United Press International.

Marcella Hazan had only recently become a famous cookbook author back then, and from the size of the crowd — miniscule — at the new Williams-Sonoma store in Dallas, it was clear her fame had yet to make it across the Texas border. I was thrilled, because not only was I going to be able listen to her speak, but I was also going to be able to talk to her afterwards too, without the usual scrum of fans.

She signed both my cookbooks that day, The Classic Italian Cook Book, and her new one, More Classic Italian Cooking, and we talked and chatted. Three decades later, we are still in occasional contact through email, but in constant contact, through her recipes, which have become the core of my kitchen repertoire over the years.

These memories come to mind because my old Dallas colleague, Bob Inderman, was searching through his cookbook shelf last night, looking for a new tortellini filling or sauce to try as he was getting ready for some pasta-making during their annual New Year’s celebration out at Bittersweet Farm.

Bob found his somewhat stained copy of Marcella’s More Classic Italian Cooking, and found “something else on the book’s opening fly leaf” — a note from me, dated June 14, 1979, which reminded him (and me too, for I don’t remember this at all) that I had given Bob a copy of the book when he and his wife, Patty Moore, were leaving Dallas to move to Kansas City.

Bob tells me that I wrote that it was important that he have this cookbook. And he tells me that I made sure to let him know that I was inscribing it with the same words Marcella had written in my own copy:

“Con tantissimi auguri di felicita nella vita e . . . in cucina.”
(With many good wishes of happiness in life … and in the kitchen.)

What a great way to close out 2010 — with memories of old friendships that continue to feed us all.

Happy New Year to Bob and Patty, to Marcella and Victor, and to old and new friends wherever they find themselves. And thanks all round.

I know that the calendar says that summer is behind us. I know that the evening temperatures, as well as Paris’ dark mornings, are trying to tell me that fall is here. But, to put it bluntly, I loathe fall. It’s not just that I don’t want to let the heat and light of summer go. I need to hold on to both — the heat and the light — as long as possible, so I can get myself through the long gray winter and come out the other side.

I’ve probably loathed fall since I got too old to jump in mountains of raked leaves, or at least since I stopped raking them in exchange for pocket money. Worse yet, autumn leaves in Paris, and indeed in most of the world, bear no resemblance to New England leaves, bring no recompense in the way of color and spectacle. Most of them just turn brown and then browner, until one day a driving rain comes and rakes them off the trees, clogging gutters and sidewalks, until the city’s army of street cleaners sweeps them up and out of sight.

Apart from the happy kitchen chaos of Thanksgiving and childhood memories of Halloween, autumn has always been a tough season for me. No surprise then that I’ll do anything I can to keep it at bay.

This year, I’ve managed to hang on to summer longer than usual. That’s thanks to the generosity of our neighbors down in the country, about four hours southwest of Paris, and our neighborhood farmers market, which runs every Saturday morning near the Place de Clichy.

Before we headed back to Paris a couple of weekends ago, our neighbors left us a big, heavy box of vine-ripened tomatoes, neatly packed and three deep. Each tomato was misshapen, some smooth, others deeply ridged, but all were dark red and seriously ripe, with skin so thin and fragile I could peel them without a knife, just using my thumbnail. One bite, and I was transported back to my paternal grandparents’ garden in Connecticut, where they grew more than enough of the world’s tastiest tomatoes to make puree to last an entire year, not to mention extraordinary tomato salads dressed with red onion, parsley, oil, and vinegar.

I’ve made endless tomato salads since we got back to Paris three weeks ago, and turned the mushier tomatoes into a vat of pasta sauce that’s already in the freezer. I’ve stuffed them too — halving, then scooping out all the seeds and juice, then letting them drain on paper towels while I chop up stale bread, and flavor it with minced parsley and garlic, salt, pepper, dried basil and olive oil, then mounding the stuffing into the halves. I bake them for 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven, and nless I’ve been careful to make enough so that they’re easily divisible by the number of people at the table, we fight over how many we get to eat.

The farmers market on the Boulevard des Batignolles has been doing its best to keep autumn at arm’s length too. I try to get there early, before most of our neighbors are stirring, and this year I’ve managed to time it right week after week, so that when I get to my favorite farm stand, they haven’t yet sold out of my favorite summer gift: fat bunches of big-leafed basil, deeply green and redolent with the smell that makes it the king of herbs (its name is said to come from the Greek word basilikos or kingly).

Each week I’ve been coming home with two bunches, which I quickly turn into pesto by tossing the leaves into my food processor along with a half a cup of olive oil, a couple of big cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of pine nuts, and a teaspoon of salt. Once processed, I stir in a couple of tablespoons of very soft butter and a quarter cup each of Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses. I always think I’ll freeze it for winter, to be ready for when we’re all in dire need of summer vitamins and summer taste, but week after week we manage to eat every drop of it, on fresh tagliatelle or on orecchiette, a pasta that looks a bit like its name — little ears.

As long as that box of tomatoes out on our front balcony lasts, as long as that basil is still on sale, I feel at ease pretending it’s still summer. This morning I checked on the contents of the box. We’re down to the last two tomatoes, both of them looking seriously over-ripe, and I’m not at all convinced I’ll find basil making an appearance again on Saturday.

That will mean that my pretend summer is likely to be ending soon. Come to think of it, it’s probably already gone: I made my first rib-sticking batch of polenta this week, the first since a very chilly night early last spring. And truth be told, it tasted nearly as good as the pesto…

I didn’t mean to take the summer off from blogging. But my father — the one who read to me every night as a child, who taught me to throw like a boy, to swim, ice skate, to play a killer game of badminton, who tried to teach me his beloved game of golf, who taught me how to clean the fish I caught (he did NOT like cleaning fish), how to cook, how to eat, how to get through what seemed like an endless period of bad times, the man who taught me how to live, and finally, how to let go of living when his time had come — died at the beginning of summer.

And even though he was nearly 92, and had had cancer for nearly twenty years, it caught all of us a bit by surprise. He’d been spending his winters with us since 1991, and though it was clear he was fading fast last winter, he was hanging on and utterly buoyed by the publication of Keeping the Feast last February. He made it to my talk at our local library and was as thrilled as I was to visit with so many old friends who came out to hear about the book.

At his funeral mass, I read the eulogy that our daughter, Julia, helped me write and which gives a rough idea of what he meant, not only to me, but to the little world of which he was such a vibrant part. Here it is:

Our 13-year-old daughter, Julia, wanted you all to know why she loved her grandfather, who every winter used to climb aboard an Air France plane to spend three months with us in Paris. This is what she wrote:

“One of my absolute favorite stories about Bop-Bop was that when we were eating supper, and there was bubbly water on the table, whose brand name was ‘Badoit,’ (pronounced ba-dwah) I would try to teach him how to pronounce it correctly in French. But it always came out as Bad-oooo-it. And despite the whole family’s effort to correct that, it stayed Bad-oooo-it and became a family joke. And now I can’t see a bottle of Badoit, without thinking of Bop-Bop.

“Until Bop-Bop was about 88, every morning he would get down on the dining room rug and would do, without too much difficulty, three backward somersaults. My mother said he thought they were good for his “regularity.” I liked to watch, and he’s the one who finally taught me how to do them. And I could always impress my friends when I would tell them how my 88-year-old grandfather could do three backward somersaults and how their 60-year-old grandparents were walking around with canes and generally being grumpy — things that never happened with Bop-Bop.

“When my friends would come over during the winter and Bop-Bop was there, they always liked it because a lot of them didn’t have grandfathers any longer, or they were the grumpy, don’t-bother-me kind. So my friends Douce, Colombe, Anna and Elizabeth sort of adopted Bop-Bop and he became their substitute grandfather. They were constantly asking “Quand est-ce qu’il vient, ton grandpere? (So when’s your grandfather coming?) That made him happy too.”

I just want to add that an enormous number of people adopted our father in some way as he got older and older over the years. It wasn’t because of his age, but because of his genuine kindness.

A French friend of ours, who sat around our Thanksgiving table with him for many years, wrote to say that she could still picture “his light-colored eyes, his sparkling look, so deep because so full of generosity, something that was spontaneous and came straight from the heart, and which expected nothing in return.” She marveled about how when he would ask her how her life was going, he was absolutely attentive to her response, and how her response always mattered to him. We all know how rare that gift is.

Another old friend, who is one of his pallbearers, only got to know him very late in life. He wrote a brief message that captured him: “Your father was a wonderful, welcoming and gentle spirit, and the world is less because of his loss.”

When we first moved to Black Rock, back in 1960, our parents were the youngsters on the block, and as our elderly neighbors aged, our mother used to make and bring them big kettles of soup. Over the years, as our father somehow morphed into the oldest man on the block, his young neighbors — a vast army of them — have been helping him in countless ways — bringing him food, mowing his grass, shoveling his walk, checking to make sure his shades went up each morning, inviting him to neighborhood cookouts and wine-tastings, letting their children get to know him. Until recently, when he grew too frail, he used to love to pay them back for their endless kindness by making them an occasional pot of spaghetti sauce. I just wish I could make all the people who took such good care of him — his most neighborly of neighbors — a huge pot of thank-you soup.

A rabbi I know, who only “met” my father by reading about him, gave me great comfort yesterday when he sent me the words of the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead: “May His Soul Be Bound Up In the Bond of the Living.”

Our father’s soul was bound that way throughout his life on earth, and I know it will be bound that way in his new life beyond. Julia and I just wonder if he is doing backward somersaults in heaven…

Comfort Food, Coping Food

Paris’s dirtiest little secret — that its basic weather patterns, cool and damp, are a lot more like London than Nice or Rome — has kept me cranking out hot soups through most of this chilly, gray spring. We’ve finally gotten some gorgeous sunshine in the past couple of days as spring turned to summer, even if it feels like end-of-September weather with bright blue skies, low humidity and temperatures remaining brisk whenever one’s in the shade.

I don’t usually make much soup once spring arrives, but this year I’ve been turning out all sorts of thick soups that we normally eat in winter: chick pea with fresh rosemary; lentil, enriched, Italian-style, with onions, carrots, celery, tomato and pancetta; a pureed kohlrabi soup with onions; and my old standby of leek and potato plus whatever vegetable seems to be past its prime and hiding deep in the refrigerator.

I’ve also been stocking up very early every Saturday at our weekly farmer’s market, which is a few minutes’ walk from our apartment and great fun if you get there before the crowds. It’s about the only place I can regularly find fresh beets with their greens, and I like to buy a bunch and make Polish barszcz – a simple beet bouillon — with the beetroots, a carrot, onion, celery, pepper and a bit of unsmoked lardons, or bacon. It’s a simple broth, flavored at the last minute with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and tasty served either with a chopped, hard-boiled egg, or a dollop of sour cream, which turns it a vivid, hot pink.

I like to save the beet greens and add them to whatever other greens I can find, like spinach, swiss chard, or escarole, and make a light Italian soup loaded with thin strips of greens, some onion and garlic and a rind or two of old Parmigiano. Served with rice cooked at the last minute so it doesn’t get mushy, it’s a soup that I can’t get enough of, especially after what seems like weeks of gray, soggy, chilly weather. Except for cress, Parisians don’t seem to like bitter greens as much as Romans do, and beet greens are the closest thing I can find to Italian cicoria, or collards, mustard greens or kale.
 
When we lived in eastern Europe as communism was coming unglued in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we ate soup nearly every day. I can’t remember whether it was in Czechoslakia or in Yugoslavia, but a local colleague told me that unless a meal’s first course was ingested with the help of a big spoon, it simply wasn’t possible to think that one had eaten well. The older I get, the more I think they were on to something.

My husband’s cousin, known in the family as John the Poet to distinguish him from my husband, John the Reporter, used to make huge kettles of minestrone, that thick Italian vegetable soup that has as many recipes as it has cooks. His grandson, Alexander, wrote a poem about that soup (“How Grandpa’s Minestrone Conquered Lewiston”), which John the Poet proudly sent to John the Reporter many years ago. Anyone who used to visit the John the Poet’s rambling house in Maine looked forward to at least one big bowl of it, to recharge batteries, both physical and mental.

Chicken soup has always been my standby, and I make it whenever any of us is feeling a tad under the weather, especially when we’re coughing and hacking with a winter’s cold. My old UPI friend in Houston, Barbara Canetti, saved me one winter about 30 years ago when she came to Dallas and brought me a huge container of chicken soup made by her mother, Pearl. I’d been seriously ill with a nasty bronchitis that I couldn’t shake until I downed a cup of Pearl’s soup, as hot as I could stand. I had another cup, as hot as I could stand, a couple of hours later, and repeated the procedure repeatedly over the next day or two. The fever went down after cup No. 2. I was back at work in no time, convinced Pearl was the ultimate healer.

I always think of soup as medicine, or at least a restorative, and that’s probably why I’ve been making so much of it this spring, bad weather or not. My father, nearly 92, has been under the weather lately, and I only wish I could teleport bowls of my soup to him back in Connecticut. I’m sure they’d help perk him up.

When we first moved into the neighborhood, back in 1960, my parents were the youngsters on the block, and as our elderly neighbors aged, my mother used to make and bring them soups. Now that my father has somehow morphed into the oldest man on the block, today’s younger neighbors are helping him in countless ways as well, bringing him food, mowing his grass, shoveling his walks, checking to make sure his shades go up each morning. Until recently, when he grew too frail, he used to love to pay them back for their kindness by making them an occasional pot of spaghetti sauce.

I wish I could make them all a huge pot of soup. I just can’t figure out how to get it across the Atlantic.

I’ve been living in Paris for more than ten years now, but I still have days — usually gray, cold, rainy ones — where I ache to be back in the comfortable chaos of sunny Rome. A friend’s daughter, who lives in Ottawa, gets the same feeling years after they moved back to Canada from our old Roman neighborhood of Trastevere; Virginia Stovel, now 13, calls it being “romesick.” And while I don’t much miss the noise and unpredictability of bella Roma, I too suffer from occasionally fierce bouts of “romesickness.”

For the first few years after our move to Paris, there wasn’t much I could do to ward off romesickness until a friend told me about a hole-in-the-wall Italian food shop a twenty-minute walk from our apartment. I passed it by two or three times since I only knew on which street I was supposed to be able to find it; I had no street number to look for and the shop (surprise!) had no sign.

But when I finally pushed open the door, my nose — as much as my eyes and ears — told me I was in the right place. I could smell the mortadella and prosciutto di Parma, the pancetta and bresaola, all the different sorts of salami. Even the chest-high glass display case couldn’t keep me from breathing in the sharp, full smell of Italian cheeses, few of them as pungent as their French cousins, but beautifully, delightfully stinky in their own Italian way: gorgonzola, pecorino romano, parmigiano reggiano, provolone, and container after container of mozzarella, in all its shapes and sizes. I could smell the tiny black olives, salty and sharp, and the big fat green ones, sharper still.

I could see the jumble of new provisions just in from the delivery truck; and over the blaring of an Italian song in the background, I could hear Sebastiano, the tall, skinny one-man-show who runs the place, speaking non-stop in that easy patter Italian tradesman so often have, greeting everyone who walked in — no matter what language they spoke — with a warm bath of Italian words that made me feel as if I were suddenly back near Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, picking out the raw materials for the day’s three meals.

The shop not only smelled and sounded like the thousands of tiny alimentari — tiny grocery stores — that dot Italians towns and cities, but made me feel as if I were actually there. That feeling only increased when I picked up a flyer that told me that the shop was part of the very same dairy cooperative — Cooperativa Latte Cisternino — where I used to buy much of our food when we lived in Rome.

My daughter and I pop down to Sebastiano’s place whenever we get a serious craving for real Italian mortadella, sliced in the Italian fashion, so thin that it’s practically transparent. Supermarkets all over France sell packaged Italian mortadella but it’s nearly always sliced to French meat-eaters’ proportions — thickly — which completely ruins the experience. Whenever Julia and I buy mortadella from Sebastiano, we never get more than a few steps outside the door before we break open the package and steal a slice or two for the walk home.

Sebastiano’s shop also brings back much earlier memories of the old Italian food markets in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which also emitted those wonderful smells, back in the days when Italian food was considered down-market and from the wrong side of the tracks. At least one of them, the Sorrento Importing Company, is still in business, still at the corner of Main and Capitol. A friend of my brother reminded me of it the other day in an email from Argentina, where he was traveling on business and reading Keeping the Feast during down time. The mention of the store, not by name but only by address, set off memory bells for George, and he found himself “bawling.”

“Sorrento’s Importing is where my mom would send me almost every day to buy milk, eggs and the cold cuts,” George wrote, adding that a year ago, while visiting his mom at nearby St. Vincent’s hospital, he ducked in one day and ordered an Italian hero — we would have called it a “grinder” when I was little — for lunch. It was, he wrote me, “delish.”

What I remember most about Sorrento’s was the day Bridgeport had a particularly nasty ice storm in the late 1970s or early 1980s, which meant my grandfather, Tony, would have been in his early nineties. My mother and her sister had each called him, to warn him not to leave the house for any reason, that the sidewalks and roads were ultraslick from the storm. My mother was going to pick him up later in the day so he could eat dinner at their place, and she told him she’d get him anything he needed then. As she drove down Capitol Avenue, guess who she saw slip-sliding his way home from Sorrento’s? Tony himself, of course, who brushed off her worries, saying it wasn’t that bad and besides, “I needed bread.”

I need to stop in at Sorrento’s the next time I’m back in Bridgeport. Now that most of my mother’s generation of relatives are dead, Sorrento’s is one of the few repositories of knowledge left about things Italian-American in Bridgeport. I’ve been thinking for some time that I want to try making my grandmother Jennie’s old recipe for “pizza gain” as she called it, a two-crust, calzone-like pizza eaten after the Lenten fast, and filled with all kinds of meats and cheeses. One of the ingredients is “fresh cheese” and nobody I ask can tell me what it is. I bet Sorrento’s is going to be able to straighten me out.

Maybe that’s what I’ve always liked about Italian food shops: you always come out with more than just a sack of groceries. The last time Julia and I were at Sebastiano’s, I told him in passing that I’d just been interviewed by the big Italian glossy magazine called “Grazie,” which was interested in the Italian food memories interwoven into Keeping the Feast. Sebastiano, who doesn’t speak English, suddenly seemed interested in the book too, and told me he’d like a copy to show his English-speaking customers. So I walked out with a sack of parmigiano, pecorino romano, mortadella, green olives, artichoke hearts and an unexpected book sale. Grazie, Sebastiano!

(And if you visit Paris, you can find Sebastiano at 37, rue Godot de Mauroy in the 9th arrondissement. Look for the shop with no sign… If you’re in Bridgeport, check out Sorrento’s Importing at 2487 Main St. Better still, ask them if they still carry “fresh cheese” at Easter and if they know what it might be called in Italian. Then I can ask Sebastiano if he has any.)

It has been an extraordinary time for Keeping the Feast in recent weeks:

–MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski wrote a remarkably strong review in the New York Times Book Review of March 21, calling it a “blunt and brave memoir.”

–Two days later, NPR’s Linda Wertheimer aired an interview about the book on ‘Morning Edition.’

–On March 28, Keeping the Feast was listed as an Editor’s Choice selection in the NYTimes Book Review.

–Then National Catholic Reporter’s editor-at-large Tom Roberts wrote a powerful review that captured the three major threads of the book: not just clinical depression and its affects on family life, nor the sharing of food around a family table as a source of healing and strength, but also the power and comfort of spirituality in confronting what sometimes seems like “life’s holy mess.”

–But perhaps the biggest surprise was when the Rev. John Marsland, the president of Ushaw Seminary in northern England, based his Easter Vigil homily on the book. “It was food, friendship and faith that won the battle,” Fr. Marsland said. “Food representing the continuous celebration of ordinary life prepared with constant love. Friendship from their close circle and from strangers alike giving words of comfort, encouragement and wisdom. Faith expressed at times in a scream of anger and frustration at God.”

It still seems totally out of character that something I had written might be talked about — positively — in church. In high school religion class my senior year, I was the one for whom the sister asked the class to pray. Later, another sister told me I was risking hellfire, because, she said, I “asked too many questions.” I’ve often wondered if I became a reporter just to be able to cite a legitimate reason for asking “too many” questions. To this day I’ve never figured out her link between the posing of questions and hellfire. In our house, there was no such thing as too many questions, just not enough answers.

In the weeks since the book was launched all sorts of utterly unexpected happenings have occurred: the director of a Yale-affiliated mental health program happened to hear me speak on Connecticut public radio. Intrigued, he bought and liked the book, then got in touch to ask whether I might consider speaking at the Connecticut Mental Health Center’s annual fundraiser. Serendipitously, the center was planning to sponsor a new farmer’s market in the New Haven area this year, to provide better quality food for its poorer patients, a move that ties in with the food and nourishment threads of the book. I’ll be speaking there this summer, happily, not just because it’s a great program, but also because it was a Yale doctor who helped my brother fight back against a kidney ailment that used to kill its sufferers before they turned four.

I’ve also been amazed at the deeply personal and thoughtful messages that have been coming in as people read the book. Some come from women whose husband,  suffers from depression or other serious illnesses. Some come from Italian-Americans whose memories were jogged by my descriptions of our family meals, or from people who know and love the slow-food life that’s perhaps more easily followed in Italy or France than in the States.

One message that touched me deeply came from a Jewish woman who was going through family problems serious enough to make her decide she wouldn’t bother with a Passover seder this year. After she heard me speaking on NPR, she decided that even though she wasn’t keen on it, she’d give the seder a try. So she “cooked a large and wonderful meal with brisket, potatoes, soup and, of course, spring asparagus. My twin grandsons were ecstatic, my husband suddenly became warm and fuzzy with my daughter. The food was a comfort and a blessing. Everyone thanked me. I even thanked myself. There will be more hurdles to jump but I couldn’t help but reflect … how all ‘the feasts’ in our lives are moveable and permanent at the same time.”

Spring. Where would we be without it?

I’m just back in Paris after nearly a month in the U.S. talking about Keeping the Feast, and the one thing I learned through a series of talks I gave in bookstores and libraries from Washington, DC, north to Portsmouth, NH, is that a lot of people seem to be in search of just the right recipe for a good, moist, chocolate cake. In nearly every group I met, there was someone asking me, often forcefully, for this recipe, with which I was NOT traveling.

What follows is the recipe my mother’s sister, always “Auntie” to me, and my mother’s mother, Jennie, used to make for all the birthdays of my childhood, and which I still make at least once or twice a year no matter which country I’m living in. That means hand carrying a few ingredients across the Atlantic occasionally, a small chore I’ve come to enjoy over the last nearly 30 years.

Please note: I never have cake flour, so I just measure two cups of regular flour and remove 4 level tablespoons from it. I usually use unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate. As a child, my family always made this cake with fresh milk soured with vinegar. Buttermilk works just as well, but you don’t have the fun of watching the vinegar go to work to coagulate the milk. If all the ingredients are at room temperature, the cake seems to taste better. I use a pair of battered metal cake pans, which seem to cool down quicker than glass ones, and keep the cake from drying out. I only wish I had thought to ask my aunt from whom she got this recipe, but it never occurred to me until after her death.

Auntie’s Chocolate Birthday Cake

1 cup boiling water
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, cut into small pieces
2 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup soft butter
½ cup buttermilk or fresh milk soured with a half-teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two round 8-inch cake tins with butter, then flour them. Set aside. Stir boiling water and chocolate together until chocolate melts. Cool. Blend flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir into chocolate mixture. Add butter. Beat one minute on medium speed of electric mixer or 150 vigorous hand strokes. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl constantly so that everything is well mixed. Then add milk, vanilla and eggs. Beat one more minute. Pour into prepared cake tins. Bake 35 minutes at most, so the cake stays very moist. You can test it with a wooden toothpick if you like. I start checking it after about 25 minutes because our old oven runs hot. Let cool in cake pans set on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let continue to cool. Frost with Jennie’s White Icing, below.

Jennie’s White Icing for Chocolate Birthday Cake

(With corrected ingredient list here, adding vanilla! My grandmother’s recipe didn’t have an ingredients list, and it was only today that a friend mentioned that the vanilla was missing from my list.  SORRY ABOUT THAT!)

2 ½ heaping tablespoons flour
½ cup milk
½ cup Crisco or other vegetable shortening (but no butter or margarine)
½ cup regular sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
Grated coconut

Into the flour, gradually blend the milk, stirring very well with a whisk so that there are no lumps. Cook to a very thick paste, stirring constantly, over low heat. Cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile cream the Crisco with the regular sugar and the salt. Add the flour/milk paste. Beat with electric beater till very fluffy. Then stir in the vanilla. Finally, add the powdered sugar and beat till well incorporated. Frost the cake ONLY after the cake had totally cooled. Sprinkle fresh or packaged grated coconut on top of the frosting and between the layers.

Please note: These days I only add about ¾ cup powdered sugar to the frosting, after my daughter let me know that her French school friends were scraping it off the cake every year because they thought it was too sweet. French kids love desserts, but they’re accustomed to a lot less sugar then American kids; that’s proof positive that you learn to like whatever it is you’re fed as a child. So, avoiding sugar from the beginning of a child’s life makes sense on many levels.

Many happy birthdays forever!

My father is ninety-one-and-a-half years old, and still manages to get himself onto an Air France flight each November to spend three months of the winter with us in Paris.

He’s always had remarkably good health, and until a few years ago, used to thrill our daughter every year with his daily exercise routine: two or three backward somersaults performed in the middle of the living room rug — not the usual parlor game. We all loved it, he more than any of us, I expect.

Sometime after 85, he started having to cut back, dropping first one of those somersaults, then a second and finally the last one a couple of years ago, when a gradual loss of weight exposed more bone, and his backward roll began hurting his spine. But he kept up his long, daily walks, both at home– along the seawall near the house where I grew up near Long Island Sound — and in Paris — where he would regularly stroll along the central, tree-lined promenade near our apartment. He would start out near the Place de Clichy just below Montmartre, and walk east, past the metro stops at Place Blanche, Pigalle, Anvers, and only turn back at Barbes-Rochechouart, where the metro comes up from underground and rolls along on an elevated track.

Last year, his walks became less frequent and shorter, and this year, he was upset to find that he didn’t have the strength to make it much farther than a walk around the block. As the days passed, he found himself more and more exhausted, and after a month with us, could no longer try to blame it on jet lag. He finally let me call in the doctor in January, who quickly diagnosed anemia. Even after only a few days on an iron-rich tonic, he was feeling a bit more perky, and the last couple of days I walked with him back and forth to the metro stop at Pigalle.

He hadn’t had much appetite this winter either — unless I made some old family treat like fettucine, kneaded and rolled out by hand when I had the time, and made with my old hand-cranked pasta machine when I didn’t. One recent rainy, dank Saturday night in Paris, the night of the great snowstorm around Washington, DC — a day when we kept getting emailed photos from family and friends in the area, documenting the depth of the snow — I didn’t know what to make, but knew we all needed comfort food of a high order.

So I made a quick batch of polenta, the thick cornmeal mush that my father’s family lived on before emigrating from northern Italy very early in the 1900s. I made the polenta with a mixture of water, milk and leftover chicken broth, which gave it more flavor and protein, turned it out onto a round wooden board, and served it with leftover Bolognese sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

I didn’t tell my father what I’d prepared, and simply surprised him when I walked into the dining room with a big full moon of yellow polenta and placed it right in front of him. I cut it into slices, spooned the sauce on top, and let everybody add their own cheese. He ate two big slices, hungrily, and then went back for a third. It cheered us all to see him eating, with his old strong appetite, and clearly enjoying his food. So I filled his stomach, in the old way that I’ve been missing, and he filled our hearts.

Nearly as good, there was even some polenta left over, to be sliced and sauteed in butter, for the next day’s breakfast. Can’t ask for more.

Roast Beef Hash

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Nobody in my family ever talked about being thrifty in the kitchen, probably because thrift was so ingrained in the house I grew up in that wasting food — or anything else — was simply not a concept.

My mother, like her mother before her, felt it was positively sinful to throw food out. And she loved learning other women’s tricks for getting the most out of whatever they’d bought to feed their families. I remember when I was a teenager, watching my friend, Gina, cracking open eggs to make meatballs, and was surprised to find her using her index finger as a miniature spatula, to make sure every drop of egg white had been dislodged from its shell. My mother had never seen that particular trick, and when I told her about it, she adopted it there and then, only sorry to have wasted who knew how much egg white in her past.

My mother would practically weep if she discovered that something had gone off in a back corner of her fridge, and thrift is probably why she avoided having leftovers hanging around in the first place, since none of us much liked eating leftovers. She normally cooked just enough so that the four of us could finish every last bit at each meal; it kept her fridge empty of stray bits of food that she just might forget to set out a second time before they’d gone bad.

What did this thirst for thrift mean? Bacon at a weekend breakfast always meant bacon fat in a tall jar at the back of the fridge, to be used whenever, for sauteeing potatoes or adding flavor to a stew. A glazed ham on our holiday table meant an eventual ham bone, and without fail a thick, split pea soup flavored with that bone. Thanksgiving meant an eventual turkey carcass, and without fail, a huge soup pot filled with turkey broth, and eventually a turkey-flavored onion soup. An occasional roast beef ordered from Gabriel’s Meat Market on Bridgeport, Connecticut’s East Side, meant my favorite treat — my father’s roast beef hash.

Sometimes my mother would get the three main ingredients ready for him: cutting potatoes into small cubes, soaking them in two or three changes of cold water till the starch came out of them, and drying them on clean dish towels; dicing a couple of big onions; chopping the leftover roast into tiny cubes or grinding it on her old-fashioned hand-cranked grinder that she clamped onto our kitchen table. Her preparations meant that when he came home from work, supper could be on the table fast.

We still have the big cast-iron skillet that used to help give the hash its flavor and texture. My father would set it on the flame and get it hot, add a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat or freshly rendered pork fat to the pan, then dump the washed and dried potatoes into the skillet. As long as the pan was hot enough and the potatoes had been washed and dried, they would sizzle and sputter but rarely stick, and he would stand at the stove, shaking the pan back and forth to keep the potato bits rotating and cooking evenly. When they were half done, he’d toss in the onion and the meat, plenty of pepper and salt, any leftover juice or gravy from the roast, and keep the contents of the pan moving constantly, stirring and shaking the pan, until the onion had just begun to soften.

At that point, he’d use the back of a fork to press the hash firmly into a compact patty covering the bottom of the skillet, and he’d let it cook for a few minutes, until a tasty crust would form on the bottom. Then he’d take a spatula to loosen the hash, pop a big platter over the top of the skillet, and quickly turn the skillet upside down so the hash slipped out onto the plate. My brother and I liked to watch that step more than any other, not only because it meant dinner was ready, but because nobody could ever predict whether the hash would slip out neat and clean, or end up half stuck in the pan, eliciting a few choice words children were not supposed to hear.

I’m not at all sure that the neat, clean version of the hash tasted any different from the hash that stuck to the pan, but I always preferred the stuck version, spiced with a healthy pinch of frustration, as well as with the usual salt and pepper.

Babcia Ula

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Babcia Ula, whom I met shortly after John and I moved to Warsaw, was a very different sort of grandmother than the two Italian nonne I had grown up with in Connecticut. Ula Fikus, just past 80 then, but still slim, her hair always swept up into a neat chignon, was the doyenne of a long line of determined women running through the maternal side of my translator Kasia’s large family.

Like most of her generation, adults when Communism was installed after World War II, Babcia Ula became one of the keepers of Poland’s 1,000-year-old flame, witnesses to what the country was like before the Soviets installed their puppets at the helm, a puppet show that lasted less than 50 years. During that time, as stubbornly as the Communist monolith played with historical truth on television or in the schools, grandparents like Babcia Ula even more stubbornly explained to their grandchildren that government “truths” were really Communist lies.

I got to know Babcia Ula through butchering as much as I got to know her through her special cups of tea. Meat was always more than a simple foodstuff during Poland’s Communist years, and repeated attempts at legitimate price hikes had repeatedly driven workers to take to the streets. Even the Solidarity trade union, which eventually toppled the Communists, owed its birth in 1980 to anger over meat price hikes.

As foreign correspondents living in Warsaw in the late 1980s, John and I had the right to purchase as much meat as we wanted from the capital’s well-stocked, members-only, butcher shop for foreign diplomats. It was one of the biggest perks of our Polish co-workers’ employment, for when I bought meat for John and me, I also had the right to buy meat and butter for Kasia, her husband and daughters; Kasia’s mother and grandmother; John’s assistant, Alex and his wife and daughter; as well as the families of the other staff members from our newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.

The first few visits, the sight of so much meat — loins of pork, sides of beef, carcasses of lamb, skeins of kielbasa, mountains of hams, bacon and lard — would turn my stomach, for after moving to Warsaw I had quickly grown accustomed to the general emptiness of butcher shops designed for non-party members. Meat stores in fact were often referred to as nagie haki, or bare hooks, since the traditional metal meat hooks where carcasses and haunches were meant to be displayed were generally empty. For Kasia, however, walking into the diplomatic meat shop was like arriving in the Promised Land.

Once we made it past the bouncer at the door, we would stand in the raw meat line first, then wait again in the sausage line, then wait a third time to pay. Laden with parcels, we would drive directly to Babcia Ula’s tiny apartment near the Palace of Culture, a gift from the Soviets that was the largest and arguably ugliest building in the city. On an old table in Babcia Ula’s living room, Kasia and I would unwrap the enormous hunks of meat we had scored, then I would hack them further into as many parts necessary to keep our staff in meat products for the upcoming weeks.

When we finally finished cutting, weighing, bagging and pricing the meat, we would clear up the mess and sit down at the table on which we had been working to wait for our payoff: glass mugs of Babcia Ula’s best tea, standing beside an old Mason jar brimming with the thickest cherry conserve I had ever tasted. We would spoon three or four of the cherries, deep red, plump and highly sweetened, into our glass mugs, stirring until the syrup had melted into the tea.

I can still see the cherries in the bottom of those mugs, still taste that hot, sweet tea going down. The three of us would sip, then sigh with quiet pleasure. Our work was over, our cupboards full for a while. We had every right to sit back and sip our tea for the next half hour, chatting comfortably, laughing, three generations of women sipping a bitter Chinese tea sweetened by the cherries the family had picked from their own private garden north of Warsaw, which kept them in fresh fruit and vegetables for much of the year.

John and I made it out to the family’s riverside garden one glorious summer afternoon when they had been picking red currants to put by for the coming winter.  Kasia’s toddler, Victoria, was too young to think of winter, but old enough to listen to her stomach. While we strolled through the garden, Victoria succumbed to a fierce craving; we returned from our stroll to find her cramming handfuls of currants into her mouth until she literally couldn’t fit any more in. She was celebrating her own private feast, sating herself on exactly what her body needed, just-picked currants, bursting with vitamins and minerals and spilling red juice down her lips and chin.