…then there was the time…

If you sit long enough with a family elder inevitably you will begin to hear “and then there was the time…” something. Some story you may have heard before but listen closely for newly remembered details and ask questions.  Especially the nagging questions.

I had lunch recently with my mother before taking her to her doctor’s appointment.  She’s a fan of MacDonald’s hamburgers and always seems to get talkative when we eat them together.  Just the two of us, no Toti so she’s fully present.

She began by saying, and then there was the time I stayed at Aunt Nettie’s during the summer when she lived on 42nd St (and 3rd Avenue) across from the Church of the Immaculate Conception. She was on the second floor.  We were three in the bed and every night they would light the statue and it would shine in the window and we could see it from the bed. (When recounting this to my sister she immediately confirmed it would freak – her – out.)

The Church is still there but they are all long out of the city.  She went on to say that Aunt Lucy lived on 1st Avenue so they would make tomato and egg sandwiches and have a picnic in the park. “I made myself a tomato and egg sandwich the other day but it wasn’t the same” “I get that, I prefer potato and egg”, to which she stated you’re just like “Your Aunt”.

I knew which Aunt she meant, she never called her by name, she was always “Your Aunt”. Taking the mention, I can’t help myself, I say, speaking of My Aunt is that how I got to go and stay with her in Astoria when I was a kid?  Was it a thing?

I was asking because as much as it’s one of the highlights of my childhood I never understood how it came about.  I figured it was because I was a pain in the ass but she said no. It’s because she never had kids so first it was me (my mother) then it was you. I might have mentioned my sister has a theory…

I have very vivid and fond memories of one of the “sleepovers” but in talking with my mother I didn’t even remember the other one. The timeline seemed odd, the one I remember was in 1965 the other was in 1967.  Ahhh my sister said, “the year everything changed” (you can be pretty sure you’re never going to see a post on that)…is the one my mother remembers most vividly. Interesting on so many levels.

There is insight in the timing but there was more insight in the rest of the conversation. In the end it confirmed the contention that existed between my mother and I and my mother and “My Aunt”.  “She had to take charge, nobody could do anything without asking her (did anyone ever try, no I did not ask that question…) she always knew best, she wanted everyone to be like her, do things her way.”  Oh boy, I’ve lived in that space.  In some ways I still live in that space and ironically my mother won’t make a decision without “asking Sandi first”.

Per my mother she was a pain in the ass, you might have noticed I recognized earlier that I too was a pain in the ass.  But she was important to me, I remember later in her life listening to her lament about being old and not belonging, of not being able to do the things that were so important to her once, like cooking her own meals. Something as seemingly small as a gallon of olive oil being thrown away when she moved from her beloved apartment strickened her. All the while she talked the tears ran down her face.  I remember thinking that no one should have to cry when they get old.

I’m never going to be a mother’s daughter, I think we’ve established that many years ago, and there’s a very good chance that I might turn into “My Aunt” with a kinder edge perhaps.  In this past month of ah-ha moments I’m noticing many of her endearing traits coming out in me. Movement is important, cooking for oneself and enjoying what you eat is important, dancing (even just around your living room), truthfulness with a touch of restraint and empathy (she might have missed that part) is important and living life to the fullest you’re capable is important.  This she did in spite of her regrets and her highhandedness. She’s been gone well over a decade but I have her picture at my desk and discuss things with her often.  There are times I think she’ll answer me and a tiny bit of fear crawls up my neck but that’s ok, I’ve also had that effect on people and in the end the goodness always comes through.

I’m looking forward to more of those ….and then there was the time…moments.

Have a good week and look for the ordinary moments, it’s where legacy lives.


Lekvaar Bars

I had the pleasure and privilege of joining my neighbor, Barbara Oreshnick, in her kitchen recently to learn how to make her holiday Lekvaar Bars. Lekvar (which is the most common way to spell the name) is a fruit butter of central and eastern European origin.  It is smooth, creamy, rich and delicious.  It can be made from any number of different kinds of fruits but Barbara prefers Lekvar made from prune.

This recipe, a Russian Polish version,  came from her mother-in-law.  The funny thing about this recipe is that it might never have come into Barbara’s recipe book along with her mother-in-law’s poppy seed cake and nut rolls.  Seems Barbara never wanted to try these delectable bites…then….once she finally tasted them she was hooked.  I can see why and I’m grateful she’s carried on the tradition.

Barbara’s kitchen is nostalgic and warm.  It gives a nod back to a certain period in time when not everything needed to be upgraded to the latest and greatest simply for the sake of upgrading.

The process is much like making any basic dough.

Speaking of nostalgia the site of Barbara’s canisters sent my heart reeling.  For those of you who know me, vintage aluminum is my jam…these were a shower gift to Barbara back in 1954.  Oh how I adore them.

Then on to forming the dough. You’ll notice the jelly roll pan is not greased.

Now for that wonderful Lekvar.

The filling is spread thick and evenly across the dough. Barbara makes the painstaking process of shingling the upper crust of the bars look easy in that “these hands have done this a hundred times” kind of way.

As I watch Barbara I’m reminded of our Italian crostata.  Similar in that it has a bottom layer, a fruit filling but instead of shingling the upper crust we cut strips and make the lattice top.  The first time I tasted these Lekvaar Bars I knew there was a familiarity about them, now I made the connection.  I once had a wonderful crostata recipe that somehow got misplaced so I can see re-purposing this recipe in that direction.  I know Barbara won’t mind.

Into the oven for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.  Like most experienced baker’s Barbara has a system for clean up and my time with her was coming to a close.

Days later, when I came home from a wonderful Christmas Eve celebration I found a bag of goodies hanging from the nob on my front door.  I couldn’t wait to open them up.

They did not disappoint, they were absolutely delicious.  Even more so now that I know their history.  I can’t thank Barbara enough for sharing this heritage recipe with me, and now you.  The thought of these wonderful morsels being lost just breaks my heart.  I hope you’ll give them a try, I know like I know you will enjoy every crumb.


Ida’s Ravioli

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When two friends are passionate about their heritage and their love of cooking and their recipes ultimately one thing will lead to another.  My dear friend Tonine and I have been talking culinary for years and after comparing and competing we have finally come to a showdown, of sorts.  By the way, she wins or rather her mom, Ida, wins, big time.

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I was thrilled to be invited recently to Sunday dinner at Ida’s where she would be making the now famous ravioli on the even more famous (better be included in the will to Tonine) board she uses for everything pasta.  I came with camera and curiosity and neither was disappointed.  I made myself as invisible as is possible for a round girl like me and clicked away.

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Ida is formidable in her eighties, she has been cooking her entire life and she continues to this day to go to work in a local school cafeteria.  To watch her work with food is to watch a story being told.  There are so many stories being told on this day not the least of which is love of family, pride of heritage and legacy in the making.

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Tonine’s brother Paul, his wife Amy and their two boys, Beau and Bryce came for the “photo shoot” and soon the tiny little apartment was abuzz with chatter and laughter and loudness and teasing and pure love.  Ida loves her family and shows them in completely different ways.  She is still vigilant with her children though they are grown and her grandchildren can do no wrong…because that’s what a Momma and a Nonna does.

The ingredients are ready and the process begins.  Everyone is involved either hands on or with a comment here or there until it comes to the pasta dough, to this day only Ida is kneading and rolling the dough, only her hands know the right consistency and have the right touch.  My guess is that these children make their own pasta in their own homes using the lessons they’ve learned from Ida but in Ida’s house Ida rolls the dough.

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It’s a wonderful back and forth between them all, one jumping in when the other jumps out to keep the boys engaged in a way that keeps them out of trouble but in the mix.  When brother and sister stand side by side the quips and the teasing and the love go back and forth and back and forth, it’s a joy to watch something I’m sure they don’t even know they are doing.  All the while Ida is at work, she pauses to get everyone’s attention and keep their wonderful assembly line going.  Finally the ravioli are ready to cook and enjoy.

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But first the board must be cleaned and the table cleared.  Tonine volunteer’s to clean the board but Ida declines as she brushes the flour from its surface the look on her face reminisces the many times she’s used it and every story that it might tell.  It is held in reverence as a cherished link to times gone by.

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Roused from the reverie Ida finds her way into the kitchen to “cook”, everything she can think of because Italian people can’t help themselves.  The cutlets are fried the pasta water is boiling, the sauce and the vegetables are readied the bread is baked and the wine is poured.

Ida Ravioli (121)While Ida is in the kitchen the drinks are made, Tonine’s husband Mark joins us and the laughter increases a few more decibels.  This is what Sundays are made of in large families, even when they get a bit smaller there is still an easy flow that settles in on a home for Sunday dinner.

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The table is set and the camera and phones are put away.  The TV is off and the eating begins.  The ravioli are large like the opening of the glass they were made with and round and light and flavorful.  They taste of heritage and love and I eat at least three, OK maybe four.  And, of course, a taste of everything else on that table because I certainly don’t want to insult Ida….

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We eat, we talk, we laugh, Tonine and I sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder and pass a look that says this is what life is all about. We can’t look for long or the tears might come. Neighbors come and go with ice and cookies and drinks flow and time passes and then I go home.  But I smile all that night and the next day having been welcomed and trusted with the recipe for Ida’s ravioli.  I won’t make them her way, I could never do them justice but I will look forward to the day, hopefully many many years from now, when the board is passed to Tonine and she asks me to come and help her make ravioli.  It will be my privilege to join her to tell this story again, and again, and again.

Thank you Ida, for trusting me with your story.