I just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s most recent book, My Kitchen Year. It is a cookbook and it is also a story of her first year after Gourmet magazine closed (she was the editor for 10 years). Each recipe is introduced with a short essay so it reads like a memoir—a memoir with food. I feel very much like my life is a memoir with food. I learned to bake and cook at an early age, I get much solace and joy from creating good eats in the kitchen and most of my strongest memories from childhood and through adulthood center around cooking and food.
I began reading my mom’s cookbooks at an early age. I always loved reading her Joy Of Cooking, an encyclopedic collection of recipes that covers anything you can think of. To this day I read recipes for fun. I read cookbooks cover to cover and we subscribe to a number of cooking magazines. Growing up, my mom bought the December issues of Woman’s Day and Family Circle for the holiday cookie recipes (see Holiday Traditions Old and New: Baking Christmas Cookies with Mom) but otherwise I had no knowledge that wonderful magazines just for recipes even existed. Growing up, my husband Andy’s family had tons of cookbooks and lots of cooking magazines. I first was introduced to Gourmet and Sunset while sitting in the living room of his parent’s house in Davis, CA when we were dating in college. Now Andy and I subscribe to Sunset, Bon Appetit, Everyday with Rachael Ray, Saveur, Gourmet until it closed its doors, and a wonderful newsletter called Simple Cooking by John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne that Andy’s dad subscribed us to many years ago. We also get many other non-cooking magazines that have recipe sections and Andy is a devotee of the Wednesday food section of the NY Times.
In part, due to the memoir nature of the book and because the recipes themselves are written in conversational form, Ruth Reichl’s book evoked a flood of kitchen memories. When it comes to actually implementing a recipe I find it best if you have the list of ingredients in order that they will be used—that is how most recipes are written. Reichl’s book reads more like how you would learn alongside someone you love. These days having read thousands of recipes and cooked hundreds of them, I need little instruction. I credit my cooking skills to my early education with cookbooks and of course the excellent cooks I studied with as a young girl. My earliest memories of learning to cook come from working side-by-side with my mom, my great grandmother Hani Mama, my grandmother Coco, and my great aunt Ellie. From them I learned to make strudel sheets and noodles from scratch, cookies, cakes, salad dressings, soups and more. I loved their kitchens and gadgets, pots and pans and I can visualize where they were stashed in their cabinets. I kept a number of their kitchen items and one of my most important utensils is a spatula of Coco’s that I consider to be my designated cookie spatula.
I also learned to cook alongside friends and moms of friends from my hometown of Roosevelt, New Jersey. I learned a little here and little there from Elan, from Nathalie’s mom Josette and others that I can’t remember their names. Some of the most poignant memories come from the kitchen of Sara Prestopino, Peri’s mom. I remember little things like the fact that she kept a stick of butter on a little plate sitting on her antique kitchen cabinet—the kind with an enamel top that has a built-in place of flour. Next to the butter she kept a little bowl of coarse grain salt to take a pinch when needed. I had no idea why her salt was different from what we poured out of our blue cylinder of Morton iodized salt at home. As I look back I presume that it was kosher salt—the only type that now sits out in a little bowl in our kitchen and has for years. Although I don’t keep butter out because I don’t use it often enough, I prefer it that way, soft and ready to spread. Thank you Sara for those simple ways of being in the kitchen that are integral to my life.
Beyond those simple things, I am also grateful to Sara for cooking training. I took a “formal” cooking class from her with several other friends that lasted for perhaps a few months and I still have the recipe cards. We made whole-wheat pretzels, macaroni and cheese from scratch, of course, made with a white cheesy béchamel sauce and little bits of tomato, and more. I don’t have the recipe but I remember when we made rosettes—fritters made from dipping pretty metal rosettes into batter then into a boiling pot of oil. They were so scrumptious sprinkled with powered sugar and eaten warm. Going to Peri’s house was a big part of my early childhood and I am filled with rich memories of sleepovers, craft making, running around in the back yard and all those playful things we did as kids. Spending time with her mom in her kitchen was always an added treat and a highlight of my memories.
Ruth Reichl’s book aided my recall of childhood kitchen memories, particularly when she described making congee, a rice porridge. Immediately I thought of a special breakfast that Sara once made Peri and me of buttery noodles and milk. Noodles for breakfast? Yes! As I recall we had little alphabet noodles cooked very, very soft with butter and milk and a sprinkle of that perfect coarse salt. It was a yummy, salty bowl of comfort on a cold morning. After reading about congee, similar yet different, my noodle breakfast memory came rushing back. I couldn’t wait to get to the computer to do a search on butter and milk noodles for breakfast. Although it didn’t specify this for breakfast, I found a blog post with a recipe by Julia della Croce for pastina (little pasta) with butter and milk, an Italian dish often made for little children. The “alfabeti” version is just what I remember eating at Peri’s house that cold morning. Last night I made a variation of congee with butter and milk to sooth my post-holiday stomach and I plan to shop for pastina to recreate my childhood memory. Will it taste as good as when Sara made it for us? I doubt it—but the memory is even better than the food.