Gifts of Food

For a moment on a recent Sunday I thought I had been dropped into an episode of Seinfeld, one of those episodes where two or more of the characters, let’s say Jerry and Elaine, maintain a protracted conversation that has little to do with substance and everything to do with one particular word being bandied back and forth, repeated over and over until the word holds no meaning and sounds ridiculous. If you need your memory jogged, think “babka.”

To set the scene for you, that Sunday in question marked the last day of Family Weekend at UMass. My husband and I had just arrived and caught up with Ben in the parking lot outside his dorm. I had a few things to give him before we took him out for lunch. Here’s how our conversation went.

Pears? Why’d you bring me pears. After looking inside the paper bag, he handed the bag back to me.

You like pears. It’s pear season. I handed the bag back to him.

What am I going to do with pears? Bag to me.

Here’s a crazy idea: eat them maybe? Pears are good for you. Bag to him.

I won’t eat the pears. I don’t want the pears. And the bag was in my hands once again.

Ridiculous, right? Babka all over again? Well, no, not really. I would argue that while our pointed repetition of the word “pears” veered into the absurd, the conversation – and what the conversation really revealed – was anything but.

This back-and-forth, however brief, confirmed that I am an incurable food pusher, someone who will always believe her family and friends need both food and a person to bring them some to fill that need. “Mangia,” as some Italian relative has said or is saying right now. Or “Eat up!” as my Scottish grandmother would urge, when we were tempted to leave the crispy pork fat from a Sunday roast on the sides of our plates. “It will make your hair shine.” Yup, that’s me.

And why not? Cooking and eating played a big role in my early life. Many other factors made their mark too, and sure I remember these as well: having older parents who were battle-weary when I came along, and even more so when my brother did five years later; my parents’ loss of a child and ours of a sibling; the long term health concerns of Parkinson’s disease and heart disease; and plenty of individual failings to go around.

But there were also moments of joy between the not atypical family dysfunction and discord, and most of these moments came at mealtimes. Making good food and eating it kept us going and gave us common ground. At those moments when our mouths were filled with something delicious, when we met in that moment and agreed on the taste of a dish, we became one whole functioning unit, each individual’s longings and shortcomings temporarily placated, or at least set aside. When I bring pears to my son, this is all I want for him. For all of us.

The late novelist and Gourmet magazine contributor Laurie Colwin wrote in the introduction to Home Cooking, her book of collected food essays: “No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”

So true. Every time we home cooks and food enthusiasts walk into our kitchens, we are encouraged to gather, remember our favorite moments, and make favorite moments of our own because of the presence of everyone who fed us or taught us a thing or two along the way. Sometimes it is a familiar spidery handwriting on a yellowing photocopied recipe, or the way I whisk a fork in rapid circles – just as my mother taught me to do when beating eggs for an omelet – that reminds me on any given day that I will not be alone in my kitchen. That, I find, is something inescapable and also deeply reassuring. So is knowing that the food I offer is much more than mere nutrition; it is family, heritage, continuity. We stay connected to our individual pasts, to all the pleasures and all the pain too, with every mealtime tradition we bring to today’s table. We guarantee that the past will move with us and our children into the future, to be remembered long after our influences, long after we ourselves, have gone.

I want Ben to remember that once, I brought him pears.

That is why, on that Sunday, I let a few seconds pass as I stood across from him, holding the damn bag of pears between us.

Well, you’re taking the yoghurts I brought, then. And the whole milk; you’ll use it for your coffee or tea. Oh, and I brought cookies too, I added.

He started to open his mouth. I raised an eyebrow, a warning. Not another word, I said. I’ll take the pears. But the cookies stay with you. 

 

Hazelnut Shortbread Sandwich Cookies

These make a nice gift but are equally nice to find in the kitchen after, say, a long morning spent weeding out a very messy basement. Put aside the work, pour a cup of tea and relax. This recipe is slightly amended from one I first found on Epicurious.

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped husked toasted hazelnuts (a rotary nut chopper or food processor do the trick)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • your favorite chocolate-hazelnut spread, optional

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with sheets of parchment.

Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer or stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until smooth. Beat in the chopped hazelnuts and vanilla. Beat in flour mixture until just combined.

Shape dough into a long log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Roll the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. When dough is chilled, slice the log into cookie rounds that are somewhere between 1/8-inch and ¼-inch thick. Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart. Bake cookies until light golden brown around the edges, about 15-20 minutes. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring the cookies to a cooling rack. Let cookies cool completely.

These shortbread rounds taste great plain, but for a sandwich cookie, spread a small amount of chocolate-hazelnut spread on the bottom side of one round and top it with another cookie.

Seedless raspberry jam is also wonderful. Repeat with remaining cookies. Let stand until the spread is set. Cookies will keep in a tightly sealed container for about a week. Makes about 30-36 round shortbread cookies, or 15-18 sandwiches.

 

©2012  Jane A. Ward