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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Write and Cook With Me: Happy Mother's Day, Nana.

An excerpt from the Chapter on Ducks and Veloute in Mother's Five, A Season of Sauces.  

My brother, Jeremy, and I were handed over to Nana to raise like she raised her zinnias, begonnias, and tomatoes, right beside her deep bowls full of old fashioned yeasty potato dough she used for big round potato cakes and fastnacht doughnuts. We were about three years old and never gave a second thought to the arrangement, then. Nana also ran a Beauty Shop in her house on Fourth Street, which was right around the corner from my adopted mother's, Dr. Aileen's, medical practice on Douglas Street. I think because both these businesses were in our home, that may explain why I chose to build C’est si Bon! Cooking School beside our house, instead of renting a retail space.

Nana, (Dorothy) and her husband, Leroy's wedding portrait. 

Beauty Shop seems like an old-fashioned term. I mean how  many variations on a theme have we seen in that regard? But shop of beauty still perfectly describes Nana. Her linen tablecloths would also now be seen as vintage ~ but unlike her beauty Shop they are still here, and still in use at C'est si Bon! I used them in a Team Building just last week for a company that well, sees things a little differently. I talk back with Nana's simple and beautiful linens and as they lift her tablecloth off their "gourmet basket" my Team and I make sure they know the ingredients are organic. And so Nana's tablecloths are still full of her kind of beauty and her voice. The one she liked best was the one with bright red strawberries and a white background. That was for the days in May when the three of us, Nana, Jeremy, and me would have strawberry shortcake for dinner.

Nana, Jeremy and Me, early on. 

Nana didn't make cake in the traditional sense for our strawberry short cakes. She made a biscuit dough, patted it in and baked it in a glass pie plate. Her biscuit dough was a little on the sweet side. And the strawberries –  they were always bought the day we were going to eat them. Nana tucked quarters in our hands from the tin cans full of loose change that she kept in the glass-doored cupboard. We rushed out the front door and down the steps to the huckster lady who drove her truck slowly down Fourth Street every Wednesday morning. She drove slowly, so we would be sure to catch her. Nana shouted behind us - “taste them first and the best, only the best strawberries, you hear?” The huckster lady smiled as Nana watched from the front porch. 

About an hour before supper we mashed the sweet berries in a red pyrex bowl and mixed in lots of sugar. Nana pulled the hot shortcakes out of the oven, split them open while steaming, and spread them knee deep with butter, then piled on the strawberries and more strawberries. The crimson juice spilled all over the white plate. I'm sure Jeremy and I dribbled our fair share of red juice on Nana's tablecloth too. Well, I am sure I did. 

But besides buying strawberries from the huckster, Nana was devoted to going to the farmer's markets. And she was a natural teacher. I don't think she thought of it that way. But she was always dropped little hints as I tried to keep up with her in aisles of the 9th Street Market in Reading. But I was always dropping the paper bags instead, filled with white celery, mushrooms, parsley, and scallions that she piled in my arms. As the youngster, this was my job. I suppose I was in training then, but of course I had no idea about that either. This was "chust" the way it was done. I caught little wisps of her conversations with the vendors. She asked the poultry farmers about the muscovy ducks, the bakers about the bear claws and the rye bread. The farmers who heaped the straw over the celery to keep it white, always greeted her with a smile and a "Hello, Dot!" The man who ground horseradish knew she loved good food, and she was fussy about it. She knew exactly how she wanted her horseradish. I don't know how you learned all of what you knew. Nana, but you passed along everything. She adored cup cheese with molasses, sat down anytime for baby cakes dunked in coffee, and saw eye to eye with raisin sticky buns teeming with walnuts. 

Nana in Florida, with a friend. Maybe in her Forties?

Later my shopping privileges grew, and I advanced to being the main shopper. "Pick up some chicken corn soup  too, from Ciotti's freezer," she said. Was this a test to see if I had been paying attention during all our trips together? I am not sure how I got the big metal shopping cart out the door that first week. I'm sure she laughed a little as I tried to make it work. I like to think she had faith in me, I must have been about eleven, and I didn't know that being given the grocery shopping was such a big responsibility. I loved having the shopping to do, and I loved helping Nana. Going shopping to Ciotti's, the big Italian grocery store was the next step in the test, but again, I didn't see it that way. I only saw the glint in her eyes as her hands pinned the money in my pocket, as if now I had passed over the border into her land, and our bond grew. 

Nana at Fifty

One of the most special times with Nana was when I was newly married, and actually had nothing to do with food. Rich and I drove her away from Dr. Aileen's place where they both had moved; Mesa, Arizona. We drove west to California for a few days at Disney Land. This might have been for her 70th birthday. We drove with the windows open because the Cutlass Supreme had no air conditioning. Even though we kept checking in with her, Nana always shouted from the back seat that she was “chust fine.” We checked into a hotel just over the border in California and when we stepped into our room, there was a long mirror. Nana's hair was still perfectly coiffed, her permanent didn't let things get too far out of hand before they sprung back. But when I saw my hair – wild and windblown. She finally laughed out loud too, as if maybe we had recaptured a time where we had once been. A time we hadn't seen since Jeremy drowned. It was a sweet time, where the day was defined by simple tasks; like going to the market, digging weeds out of the garden, or collecting the heads of the zinnias in paper bags for their seeds. Before the time that Jeremy and I grew up and all innocence had passed. The time when she raised me and Jeremy on strawberry shortcake.  

She asked me to sit down on the bed. She slid my blue plastic comb out of my purse, and sat on the edge of the bed, too. We watched The Galloping Gourmet on TV and Nana patiently worked through the tangles to the ends.

As I say she was a Beautician. She always took matters into her own hands to fix them. When Jeremy and I first came to live with her she gave permanents and "sets" where she divided the neighbor ladies hair into plots and then into pin curls in the cellar shop. There beside the old wringer washer was one of those old-school bonnet hair dryers. Jeremy and I pretended to do each other's hair while she was washing clothes. My hair must have presented some sort of special project merit for Nana. Just like picking out the right Muscovy duck or getting the right grind on the horseradish, Nana was determined to fix the color of my hair and keep it curly. My hair was never allowed to get long, which of course I longed for, to be like the others girls. She always got out the hairdresser's scissors just when I thought maybe she would relent. Nana bleached my hair with baby shampoo mixed with 20 percent peroxide. She asked a hairdresser friend, Mr. Lloyd, for the correct timing. I remember my hair being very soft and yellow. And always curly. Later on, much later, when I was in charge of my own hair, I ferociously blew my hair dry and straight and in the dry heat of Arizona and California it was very easy.

            But on that day on in Hotel California Nana’s hands that had taught me all about the beauty of how to make biscuits, buy strawberries and search out chicken corn soup, held my long straight yellow hair as she softly stroked through. She didn't say a word. Neither did I. 


Later on, Nana and me.

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