Memories, misty water-colored memories of the way she ate. Our taste-starved columnist hungers for the potatoes, the pizza, and the people from her past.
I just finished reading Love, Loss, and What I Wore for the 219th time. It's a quirky little autobiography in which the utterly charming Ilene Beckerman recalls her life's defining moments through the wardrobe choices she's made—from Brownie uniform to bridal veil.
The book got me digging through my own closet full of milestones, but clothes have never really been my thing, so here is all I can report from the fashion front: When I was 5, my parents took me to see Snow White and I have a clear memory of wearing a sleeveless orange sundress dotted with little white flowers and thinking that when I grew up I would do whatever it took to avoid a gig where I had to be the cleaning lady for a houseful of diamond-mining dwarfs or, for that matter, any man who goes by the name of Sneezy. I also have a clear memory of being 13 and getting the perfect dress for Michael Lasky's Bar Mitzvah. Unfortunately, Judy Glassman got the same perfect dress and Judy Glassman was adorable. I recently unearthed an old photo—proof positive that I, too, was adorable, but not even Paul McCartney himself could've convinced me of that back in the day. Finally, I will admit that somewhere between 1961 and this morning there appears to have been a fake fur vest, a pair of pink pleather hot pants, and something that, were I feeling really charitable, could best be described as a staggeringly festive sombrero...with antlers.
And that pretty much sums up the last 48 years of my life in clothes. Believe me, Beckerman did it better—my story just doesn't quite work when filtered through the prism of ball gowns and bathing suits because frankly, even if I were the Belle of the Ball or the Bunny of the Beach, it isn't the stuff I wore that stays with me.
Love, Loss, and What I Ate
The first time I visited France, I did not sleep on the eight-hour flight for a perfectly reasonable reason; I wanted to be preternaturally alert in case the pilot suddenly needed me to land the plane. You may be wondering why he wouldn't simply turn to his or her copilot for assistance. I don't know. You may be wondering if in fact I have a pilot's license. I do not. You may be wondering how many other delusions of grandeur I currently suffer from. Dozens. My point is that the first time I saw Paris, it was through profoundly jet-lagged eyes.
Here's everything I know about French cooking: (1) Julia Child was a genius and (2) those little rodents in that Ratatouille movie couldn't have been more darling. As for what I know of the French language, well, suffice it to say that I once walked into a small pharmacy outside Lyon and tried to buy a tube of "KY marmalade." Want to know what you get when you combine a distinct lack of foreign language skills with a limited knowledge of haute cuisine and a dash of sleep deprivation? You get a plate of scandalously rare meat with a raw egg perched on top. You also get me screeching across the rather sedate bistro, "Holy mother of God, there's an oeuf on my boeuf!"
Upon breaking up with my first true love, a delightful young gentleman whom I still affectionately refer to as "evil incarnate," I invented the ultimate my-boyfriend-has-just-dumped-me food. Prehistoric man came up with the wheel, Steve Jobs created the iPod, but let the record show that it was I who brought the world the dessert potato. Yes, the dessert potato, because nothing says "I'm hurting" quite like a woman who hasn't showered in nine days chowing down on a Yukon Gold that's been slathered in sprinkles and marshmallow fluff while the greatest hits of Janis Ian play on in an endless loop of sheer misery.
I like my pizza like I like my men: hot, no-nonsense, and covered in melted mozzarella and fresh mushrooms. And though I've never been especially religious (this despite the fact that I once saw a yam that was an absolute dead ringer for Golda Meir), I'm telling you that as transcendent experiences go, it's pretty hard to beat Buddy's Pizza in Detroit, Michigan. I could rhapsodize about the pure perfection that is Buddy's pillowy yet crackly crust with its ever so slightly fried edges and almost golden center. I could gush endlessly over the harmonic convergence of sauce and cheese, the hint of garlic and oregano, the touch of provolone, but for reasons that will never be entirely clear my editor has refused to provide the 33 extra pages I requested. Just know this: Despite everybody saying that when the country gets a cold, Detroit goes straight to bed with the flu, that it's got the highest unemployment rate, the most messed-up housing market, that the last one out should be sure to turn off the lights, I still believe in the Red Wings, the auto workers, and Smokey Robinson. I had Buddy's on my first date, I had it at my sweet 16, I had it the night before I moved to New York City, I have it every time I come home, and I can assure you that where there is Buddy's Pizza, there is hope.
I own a food processor that slices and dices, shreds and minces like nobody's business. But it seldom sees the light of day, because I have this other gadget, an ancient hand chopper consisting of two curved metal blades attached to an ordinary handle; also attached are some of the loveliest memories I own.
We are standing in my mother's kitchen. We are both a little eccentric, a little complicated—my grandmother and me. I am 5, and she is 70, or I am 31 and she is 96, it doesn't matter, the ritual remains unchanged: Into the biggest wooden bowl I've ever seen go whatever peppers, red and green, can be found in the fridge. Carrots and parsnips are peeled and tossed in, too, along with celery stalks, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and the odd bulb of fennel. Next my grandmother takes hold of the chopper that her mother and very possibly her mother's mother once used, and begins the serious work of bouncing the blades up and down till the bowl is filled with chunks and cubes and a green, earthy fragrance. Now it's my turn. The paint on the handle may be chipped, but the blades are as sharp as ever. I rock them back and forth until a bright confetti of fresh vegetables is ready to be added to the beef bones simmering on the stove.
We made this soup a hundred times but I can't recall a single conversation we had while we did it. I know she taught me to clean up as I go along. I know she believed it was sinful to waste even a scrap of food. I know she missed her mother till the day she died. And I know one day my daughter will learn to make soup with an old-fashioned handheld chopper that's missing just a little bit of paint on its antique handle.