Of Food and Fixing It
photography by Bob Capazzo
Different foods mean different things to each of us. Lobsters remind me of lobster picnics on the rocky shores of Owl’s Head, Maine, where Jane and Tom Yates cooked them in a big pot over a bonfire and taught us how to crack them open with stones (no utensils allowed). Raspberries remind me of a night in my youth when our doorbell rang during dinner. My mother got up to answer it and there from an apartment above stood a tipsy woman who sailed right past her, sat down in Mother’s vacated chair, looked down at dessert and observed in a rawther British accent: “Rawsberries! How dahrling!”
Spinach reminds Jack of his childhood friend Stanley Woodward, son of F.D.R.’s Chief of Protocol. Young “Taney” hated the stuff so much that when he came for dinner, he’d always have to have honey to pour all over it. Cake now reminds me of Obama. While Jamison Stricker Skelli-Cohen and her young family were waiting patiently in line at the Marriott to have their picture taken with the President when he visited Stamford recently, she told three-year-old Charlie that if he said “cheese” really nicely, they’d have cake afterwards. The little boy did beautifully, ending the shoot by asking our Commander in Chief, “Is it time for my big cake now?”
In eighth grade I made a cake with my friend Sandy Ross (now Herman, of Greenwich). The Black Watch plaid frosting was a work of art. Not so the zabaglione we made to impress our dates one night. Ever efficient, we beat together the egg yolks, sugar and Marsala well ahead of time and, of course, when we took it out of the fridge hours later, it had turned to water. Nothing in the world could fluff it up again.
My grandmother was a wonderful cook. As a kid I would run away from home (three blocks away) to her welcoming arms and Hungarian goulash dotted with caraway seeds. But my mother didn’t have much chance to experiment. As a longtime bachelor and traveling salesman, my father was wont to sending a meal back to the hotel kitchen if he didn’t like it. Once early on when he was sick in bed and out of sorts, Mother brought him dinner on a tray, eating her own at a desk nearby to keep him company. He apparently didn’t like the hot dog and sent it bouncing across her desk. Startled, but without hesitation, she winged it back, he ducked, and for years there remained a greasy wiener mark on the bedroom wall no paint could ever cover up.
But D-Day came the morning Dad left for the office without eating his scrambled eggs. Mother took his plate across the back hall to the apartment next door and asked their cook what was wrong with them. Berta tasted them and said; “Nothing, Mrs. Clegg, except they’re cold now.” “Berta,” my mother responded, “do you know anyone who would like to work for me?” “Yes,” said Berta. “I would.” And she hung up her apron there and became the first in our long series of cooks. That night when Dad came home and asked what was for dinner, my mother said, “I don’t know” (though she did). “Ask the cook.” From then on, all compliments or complaints went to The Cook—except Sunday, her day off, when Mother and I once inadvertently dropped a roast beef on the kitchen floor, quickly put it back on the serving platter and giggled while my father and brothers fought over who’d get the outside piece.
One of the first meals I ever attempted was Mrs. Pomeroy’s pot roast—California roast topped with dried onion soup mix and a can of mushroom soup, wrapped in foil and baked an hour a pound at 350°. Jack was duck hunting in Port Clinton and halfway through the cooking phoned to say he wouldn’t be home until midnight. I called Mrs. Pomeroy, panicked. “What do I do?” “Well, dear,” she replied, “the first thing you do is take it out of the oven. Then tomorrow night put it back in for the rest of the time.” Dummy me. But I got even. When Jack arrived with three ducks on a string, I made him hang them out the window of our fourth floor apartment. The next morning he told me he had a pressing business appointment and asked me to take them across town to the chicken pluckers so they’d be ready for dinner with my parents that night.
After Jack left, I called a taxi, told the driver to come upstairs, there was a package for him to deliver and it was hanging out the window. He was to take it to the pluckers on the West Side, wait while the ducks were cleaned, then drive them back to the East Side to my parents’ apartment. And, oh yes, charge it, please. The duck hunter got quite a bill.
Later in life, after my father had died and mother remarried, she learned to cook—sort of. Blessedly, Ellis would eat anything put in front of him. But Mother would call and ask me how to roast chicken or why the pumpkin ice cream came out such a weird consistency. “Just stick to the recipe,” I’d beseech her. “If it calls for half a can of pumpkin, don’t dump in the whole thing not to waste it.” I never could get her to use a salad spinner. She liked to blot each lettuce leaf between paper towels.
Well, I’m blessed, too, having married a guy who will eat just about anything I cook—gratefully even. Some women have all the luck.