With my brother coming up for a visit today and after not seeing him for a while it got me to thinking. Where does he fit in with regards to my life in food? My brother has, over the years, become quite capable in the kitchen. He hasn’t however, always been that way. I think the first thing I can remember about him with regards to food took place in the little tiny back yard of our childhood home a three family house in Worcester, Massachusetts on the corner of North Ashland and Elm Park…
I don’t recall the circumstances as to why we happened to be where we were, but I do recall it being one of those glorious summer days you have when you’re a kid. Translation…No bills and not having to check the weather channel to see how hot it was, so as to gauge just how miserable a day it was going to be. I was perhaps two which would make my brother about four. We were fascinated by what appeared to be some sort of black candy.
It must have been candy as I was shoveling it into my mouth as only candy can make a child shovel things. I don’t know how many pieces I ate, but I’m sure it was more than ten. This must have been a proud moment for my big brother to witness as all he kept cheering me on. It was shortly after the cheering started when my mother who had been hanging clothes out on the line began to take an interest…”PAV!”
It was all a bit of a blur from this point, but I recall having my mother brushing my hands in between dry heaving and half crying. As it turns out, the candy was actually black ants. Bear Grylls didn’t have anything on this two year old extreme eating machine! Mom made a call to my childhood pediatrician Dr. Cohen…and was relieved to find out eating a black ant was not life threatening…just stupid. Lucky for me stupid doesn’t equal life threatening or I would be dead several times over.
We were always walking when we lived in Worcester, but I remember on the occasional walk we would stop at Friendly’s for an ice cream. My brother being nearly two years older than me had mastered the ice cream cone, and being a newbie in the ice cream eating world I had not realized the art involved. I recall time after time of walking mere licks away from the place only to have the ice cream dropping to the ground in front of me, and leaving me with a hollowed out cone of nothingness.
Luckily my brother was always there to spare a few licks for his down and out little brother. Settle down people, it wasn’t out of love…but rather at the insistence of my mother. Ah, kids…I’m sure in between crying and screaming that it was his ice cream there was love someplace. My parents had befriended the elderly retired woman who lived upstairs. She was from Vermont as were my parents, and to my brother and I…she became our Nana.
She was our babysitter when my parents had a rare night out, and always wore an apron where she stashed cookies or other treats for my brother and I when she came downstairs for a visit. It became a game for my brother and me to rifle through her apron pockets to get to the goodies. This was always a good time until one day when the landlord stopped by to renew my parents lease. He happened to be wearing a suit jacket which had all the earmarks of apron pockets…only bigger! My brother and I set to work frisking through Mr. Bernstein’s coat pockets until my mother walked back in the room having completed the paperwork. She had to kindly ask Nana to stop this cookie delivery system.
My brother was in ninth grade, and as was compulsory back then…. was taking home economics. I remember being fascinated by the thought of actually cooking in school. Then I started to hear about what he was learning to make and was severely unenthused. Wow, you really made toast and hot cocoa?! You managed to put together an actual sandwich?! Sounds like a tough class…Why can’t I be “cooking” hot cocoa instead of figuring out where the hell X was in Algebra class?!
It wasn’t until one Saturday morning he promised to make my parents and I breakfast that I actually witnessed his first culinary triumph…enter the Dutch Baby pancake. My brother after being covered from head to toe with flour and confectioner sugar, actually managed to make each of us a real honest to goodness Dutch Baby! They were fluffy yet crisp, and had edges that were perfect for holding a large amount of maple syrup. Physics alert here folks…When you cut into those edges, the pool of maple syrup won’t actually stay inside and you’ll find yourself shotguning the several ounces of syrup your mother told you not to pour on it in the first place.
Unfortunately that was the high water mark for my brother’s teenage culinary career. I’d like to say I was having hockey practice, but in reality it was probably a parent teacher conference… the kind my smart brother never seemed to have. These were the kind of conferences where the teacher (at this point quite possible on anti-depressants or pain killers because of me) would regale my mother with fun little anecdotes. Like how young Pav was reading Spanish text books in French class, or how can he possibly be getting ninety plus on his test scores when he never does homework?!
At any rate, my brother was saddled with the task of making dinner on this particular evening while I enjoyed what seemed like a four hour car ride from the school that was only four miles away. He opted to make spaghetti which he had seen and at times even helped me make. After cooking the spaghetti for what must have been a half hour, or approximately 23 minutes too long. He decided that it would be perfectly fine to leave it in the colander without rinsing it.
I don’t think my brother realized at the time that foods could be cooked on temperatures other than high. As a result, he burned the sauce and rather than turn the heat down, he just continued to scrape it up from the bottom of the pan until there was a nice even distribution of black bits throughout the sauce. When my mother and I walked in the door my brother was just finishing the cremation of the sauce and looking all pleased then confused when my mother asked what was burning.
“Nothing” replied Bryan. It’s odd how you can smell burned food and yet you don’t see any smoke. If you asked Harold McGee he would probably chalk it up to the Maillard reaction or deeply caramelized amino acids and my brother could have felt better about this disaster of a meal. Mom being mom said nothing about the disaster, but instead set about to serving it. The spaghetti had turned into a dome of starch solidified to the point of not separating. So after cutting out two wedges of spaghetti cake and topping it with a scoop of black and red sauce…we began to eat…with me laughing and pointing every chance I could…
My brother went away to the Air Force to become an air traffic controller and was stationed in England for a few years where I got to visit him. By then he had moved into a house with two other roommates off base. They kept the house at a steamy fifty or so degrees Fahrenheit, and ate what bachelor guys eat, which is to say…not much, and cheaply. Bryan made a dinner of ramen noodles and what he and his roommates called “funk.” Cooking funk is when you cook ramen noodles as per the instructions, then throw in any manner of extras such as mushrooms, a can of vegetables, leftover Chinese food, really just anything and then top it with hot sauce.
I was glad he had moved on from his spaghetti days and didn’t let that deter him from finding other foods he could violate with extreme prejudice. But young men being young men and drinking more meals than they cook, food just wasn’t that big of a deal. I adopted the “funk” method myself a year later…and we went our separate ways with regards to food.
I would get calls from my brother from time to time telling me of this dish or that dish he was making, and did I have any thoughts on the matter. I’d give my input and we’d talk food, sports and politics for a while before bidding adieu. Whenever he would make it to my parents’ home for a visit, my father brother and I would grill out on the deck and talk.
We would talk about the time my father bought half a dozen donuts (he loved to have an old fashioned cake donut with his coffee and morning paper) and my mom removed each donut from the bag, took a small bite of each then placed them carefully back in.
My father came to the kitchen, carefully poured his coffee, unfurled the paper and reached into the bag to get a nice donut. Seeing a bite mark he set the donut down and reached for another, then another…more surprised each time until we couldn’t hold the laughter anymore and busted out laughing. These are the kinds of food memories I love, and Bryan was there for just about all of them. It was then I realized where my brother fit in with my life in food.
Food, it unites us. I believe it’s the thing that most closely ties all human beings together. It’s the thing we all need and can appreciate. It’s the offering of a simple bite of food that can show compassion, love and care. It doesn’t matter if that person is a loved one, or a stranger. Even when it’s not done quite to perfection you know the love is there. Whether you make a joke of it or appreciate it, you know deep down that person cared enough to try. It is what we use to celebrate life, and it’s how console and comfort ourselves with death.
Go share some food people. Make it something simple, make it from the heart…but share it and take comfort in the fact that the other person will get something from it. When I pick my brother up at the airport today, we are going to go to my mother’s house and we are going to cook. I think on the way there I’d like to stop off at the Hispanic market and get him something special, something that when he eats it…I can cheer about… I just hope black ants are “in season”…