The year has turned. I’m on a diet. Like Ronni Bennett’s aunt Edith, I want to be thin one more time before I die. So possibly this is not the best time to be thinking and writing about food. But I promised myself I would finish this brief food related autobiography.
When I came back from Burma to Washington, D. C. I got a job as a lab technician, working for a mad gastroenterologist. He studied, among other things, stomach ulcers. He claimed to have one himself, and he insisted that if he had an attack it could only be made bearable with injections of Demerol and a diet of caviar and champagne.
My stay in Washington was brief, however, and I soon returned to Andover, a place of comfort and safety that I regarded as home. I bought a house and got a job in Boston, a commute of 25 miles.
My aunt Clare was still having Sunday lunches, attended by teachers, artists, kids and dogs. Leg of lamb was still the main dish. On weekdays Clare often had afternoon tea parties, which sometimes blended into cocktail hour.
The favorite item for tea was parsley paste sandwiches made with thin sliced Pepperidge Farm bread. Parsley paste is a mixture of finely chopped parsley and cottage cheese (naturally, whole milk cottage cheese tastes better than low fat), possibly with a little mayonnaise mixed in. After a couple of years I had more time for afternoon tea and parsley paste because I got a job teaching biology at a local community college.
I used to take the kids to nearby Lawrence to shop the Italian delis for fragrant cheese and salami. On the way home we sometimes stopped in North Andover at a seafood shop that sold lobster. Usually lobster was a rare treat, but once, for a brief time, there was a glut and the price plummeted to sixty-nine cents per pound. Happy days.
I married again, Willis, and with him came another child, Deborah, aged 3. The marriage didn’t last, but the child did, and I am permanently her mother. Once, a few years ago, she got mad at me for doing something she disapproved of (What’s Mother doing now?). I said to her, “I’m the only functional parent you ever had, so you’ll just have to put up with me.” She agreed and we made up.
Willis finished his Ph. D. (philosophy) at Boston University and got a job teaching at the University of South Florida. We packed up the 4 kids, now aged 14, 13, 10 and 7, and the cats (I would be ashamed to say how many), and moved to Tampa. I got a teaching job at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, another 25 mile commute.
Willis and I shared a deep interest in food. Tampa was a culinary adventure and we got to know Cuban food. I often made black beans and yellow rice. It was a good dish to serve at our many parties. In those days academic life was more relaxed than it is now, and there was plenty of time for parties, flirting, talking on many subjects, some high-brow, some not, and the occasional skinny dip.
We found sources of fresh fish, and tried new kinds that we had never tasted. We particularly liked sheepshead. It has a lot of bones, but a delicate flavor. When we felt poor we ate mullet. Pompano was a luxury.
For a couple of months when we were between houses we lived in a trailer in a wild spot on a dirt road which passed through fields of scattered palms and pink and purple wild flowers. In late summer thunderstorms rolled in every afternoon. Dark clouds piled up in the west and we watched the storms sweep towards us across the fields of flowers and palmetto.
Along the road to the trailer we discovered a quail and pheasant farm where we could buy frozen birds. Julia Child was my source for ways to cook them. At some point during that period I became pregnant with my last child. My oldest, Steve, was 19, Julie was 18, Clare was 15 and Debbie was 11.
We moved from the trailer and bought a house on a lake, but still got pheasant and quail from time to time. When I was so huge with child you could almost balance a tray on my tum, I decided to alleviate the boredom of waiting to deliver by cooking a fancy pheasant dinner. Willis and I went shopping with a list of all the ingredients and while we were in the grocery store I said, “I seem to be leaking, I’ll wait in the car.”
Willis finished the shopping. At home I assembled the elegant dish and put the bird in the oven to roast. While we waited for dinner I found it necessary to sit on a towel. Debbie, who had read every book she could find on pregnancy and birth, hovered, saying, “You should call the doctor,” or, “I wouldn’t eat that, Mother, you aren’t supposed to when you’re in labor.”
I said “I cooked it, and I’m going to eat it.” Lucky I did, since I got nothing to eat until about 3 o’clock the next day after Benjamin was born. Then I was allowed some Jello.
The house on the lake had a number of orange and tangelo trees around it, but the best was the lemon tree. I learned to depend on lemons for all sorts of cooking projects. All I had to do was run to the back yard and pick a delicious, juicy lemon as big as a big orange.
Willis had a sabbatical when Ben was less than a year old. We sailed to Europe on the Michaelangelo, a beautiful ship, but we traveled third class, and the food was nothing special. We landed in Cannes where we met Julie who had been traveling with a friend in Europe. Then Julie, Debbie, Ben, Willis and I toured Europe for 6 months.
We traveled by car north from Cannes through France, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden where Willis gave a lecture at the University of Uppsala. Then we came south through East Germany, to Berlin, West Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, detour to southern Italy, Corfu, Greece, Bulgaria, where Willis gave another lecture, and from there direct to England where we stopped for a month so I could study for my Ph.D. general exams.
In bad or cold weather we stayed in hostels, and in good weather we camped. Most of the time we ate food that Julie and I cooked, either in the hostel kitchen or over a Coleman stove by the tent. We did a lot of shopping in local stores.
We were on a tight budget, and most of what we ate was less than memorable. But there are a few times I won’t forget.
We drove down the Dalmatian Coast to Split, in what was then Yugoslavia, now Croatia. Willis was terrified by the heights. The 2 lane road winds along the sheer sides of barren treeless mountains. The deep blue Adriatic is a thousand feet down, and frequent car wrecks can be seen on the cliffs or shore-line rocks below.
We stopped at a camp ground in Split and he wouldn’t budge for a month. It was June, and the weather for the most part was fine. I shopped for groceries in the city, and Julie and I would share a kilo bag of cherries on the way to the camp. They’d all be eaten by the time we got back.
Within walking distance of the camp we discovered a small restaurant. It was outdoors, a few tables and chairs on a stone patio. The inside was for cooking. The waiters spoke a bit of German, as did Willis. The menu was simple. “ Fisch oder Fleisch?” the waiter would ask. If the answer was fish, he would bring out a tray full of whole fish, examples of the day’s catch. You pointed at the one you fancied and they cooked it. If the answer was Fleish (meat) you got grilled goat. I think I have never eaten such delectable food. Believe me, goat is good. And the fish was minutes from the water.
I have to admit, Greece was a disappointment. I mean with respect to food. We saw some wonderful antiquities, but Julie had an upset stomach the whole time we were there. I think the heavy olive oil that almost everything was drenched in did not agree with her. And I found the seaside cafes with a décor of dead octopuses and squid hung around to be disconcerting.
In Athens a friend took us out for an evening of authentic Greek food and entertainment in the sort of place where one might find Zorba the Greek. There was a huge open fire with a whole sheep on a spit slowly roasting. I didn’t find the smell appetizing, and when I was given a plate of unidentifiable parts of the sheep to eat I began to feel quite ill. It took a couple of days to fully recover.
Sofia, Bulgaria, was our next stop. At that time, of course, it was a communist country. Each shop had multiples of a single item. For example, the toy store had one kind of toy, a sort of duck-like doll. There seemed to be only one dish on offer in all the eateries: mixed grill. This consisted of a small piece of meat, (probably goat) a sausage, a piece of liver and a bit of kidney, all grilled on an open fire. It wasn’t terrible, but you could get tired of it.
Willis gave a lecture at the University, and after the talk his faculty sponsors took us out to dinner. They were kind and amusing people, and cheerfully told a lot of communist jokes. I was looking forward to a variation of diet, but when I asked our hosts for a recommendation they said, “Oh, we really recommend the mixed grill.”
By the time we got home to Tampa and our lake my second marriage was failing. I finished my Ph.D. and when Ben was 2 Julie and I packed up and set out for California. I had a post doctoral position at the University of Southern California. Julie, who was at Harvard, was taking a year off and going to live in Delano California. Steve and Clare were both at the University of South Florida and stayed in Tampa, and Debbie was in high school and stayed with her father to finish.
Further food adventures in another post.