Families and Food: What Legacy Will YOU Leave Behind?

soupA week ago my family lost our dad to cancer. Although it has been a sad time for all of us, there was something joyful about going through old pictures and reminiscing about all the good times he gave us. As the dust settles, and we all find ourselves trying to get used to the “new normal” as one wise person I know described it, a few food and eating topics came to mind that I should write about. I decided to first write about what I am going to refer to as a “food legacy”.

I had to be sure “legacy” was the right word, so I looked it up. According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary:

Simple Definition of legacy

  • : something (such as property or money) that is received from someone who has died

  • : something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past

As we reminisced these past few days, I realized one of the most wonderful gifts my dad gave us were memories that revolved in some way around food and eating.We all had our funny stories about how he always gave the best parts of everything to his children (such as giving us the top of the broccoli while he took the stalks, the best part of the steak, the best piece of chicken, etc.). He put everyone first, always.

But besides his unselfish personality, my dad also was old school Italian which meant a family dinner every single night. All four of us children and my mom sat at the table where he first said grace followed by the serving bowls being put on the table. Even though my parents were not wealthy and even had times of financial struggle, there was always a family dinner. If often was something cooked in tomato sauce (my mom was Italian too). I often joke that when you don’t have much money, you can always throw whatever you do have in tomato sauce, sprinkle a little cheese on it, and voila! Hence, hot dog stew! Yes, hot dog stew was actually one of my dad’s specialties, made from fresh green beans, fresh carrots and potatoes, home made tomato sauce, and of course those hot dogs. Or it could be chicken cacciatore, rice and meat in tomato sauce, classic pasta with meat sauce, and of course every Sunday was meatballs, sausage, Italian bread and pasta with sauce after church. There was also the meat and potato meals, very simple but good. TV dinners were only a few times a year when my parents went out somewhere.

Besides family meals most nights, we also spent many a holiday at my grandmother’s or aunt’s house where the food traditions were reinforced. Always the Italian dishes along with gigantic fruit and nut trays, figs, olives and pastries. My parents started some of their own traditions such as a yearly picnic in August to celebrate the birthdays of my grandmother, my mother and my sister which were all within a few days of each other and also happened at the time of the month in August the Hot Air Balloon Festival was going on in the park next to my parents house. We would all make foods that would become everyone’s favorites as time went by. Michelle and her caramel brownies, my cream puffs, the watermelon fruit basket, my dad’s barbecue chicken, Paul’s pistachio salad, Fran’s spinach bread, Ernie’s clam dip, Karen’s beans and mom’s potato salad. As I got older and had my own children, I carried on these traditions and prepared much of the same foods so my children would be sure to experience it.  When my children were growing up one of the highlights of our day was always dinner time. No matter what it was, we all sat down together to eat it. If friends were over, everybody ate (it is true what they say about Italians, at least in my family, we always make enough to feed the army as my mom always says). Sometimes three kids turned into six. What I love about dinner time is it gives everyone a chance to really and truly connect. We connected about the food but also about what was going on in everyone’s lives. We talked and laughed and planned the future. Life was good growing up, and I tried to recreate that for my own children.

Today, things are different. Kids have cell phones, people are more electronically connected, both parents work, life is busier it seems. I have learned from the hundreds or probably thousands of families I have worked with over the years that family dinners are not always happening. Not everyone has the time or energy to keep family dinner and traditions in their lives. It may not seem that important at that moment when you are exhausted from a ten hour work day and you have ten minutes to get your son to baseball practice. We know family meals promote healthier children both physically and psychologically, but in my experience, especially after this week, I feel family meals are much more than that in a spiritual way. They can become a very important way to incorporate connection and meaning into a child’s life, even into an adult’s life.

If you are one of those busy parents or even if you don’t have children, live alone or with a partner, there is a way to start creating connection through meals and food. Some suggestions:

  • Look at your calendar ahead of time. Is there even a day or two when nothing is planned, no sports events, no commitments where you can plan a family meal?
  • Keep it simple. Even if it is take out food, plan to eat together.
  • Turn off all electronics. No cell phones, no TV, no eating in the bedroom. No distractions other than conversations.
  • Don’t allow arguing or discussing heavy matters at the table. Keep it positive. Ask about one great thing that happened that day. Make it enjoyable.
  • Ask family members such as aunts, grandparents or cousins for family recipes. All of my holiday cookie recipes I got from my Aunt Maryanne (she was the baker in the family, not my mom. I love my mother’s cooking, but her cakes looked like the leaning Tower of Pisa)
  • Start your own traditions. My neighbor has a yearly July 4th party to celebrate her mother who passed away then. We have been making “infused fruit” which we serve in our garden on tables with flowers and table cloths and classic music. We have rum raison bananas, grilled infused pineapple, Margarita melon balls, etc. People meander about enjoying the fruit, music and garden. Everyone loves it. As far as holidays, Christmas Eve is always baked stuffed shrimp, New Year’s day is lasagna.

I am so thankful for all of the wonderful memories my dad gave me. Memories around food and eating, the importance of family meals and celebrating together with food is a legacy he left that I hope to give to my family, too. What about you?


Food: More Than Just Something to Eat

Wagon Wheel Pasta inside a Rigatoni: How to Maximize Sauce in Every Bite!

This weekend it really struck me what a blessing it is to be a  (somewhat) normal eater. We all know food is more than just fuel, or something to eat. And I am not talking about food as medicine, or food as as (emotional) pain reliever, but rather how complex our relationship to food is merely because of our history with food and eating. I am talking culture, your upbringing, the food you were raised eating. Usually, I learn about a patient’s history with dieting, or body image concerns, or how their parents wanted them to lose weight, and how it affected their eating, etc. It is sad that in our culture what we eat mostly has evolved into what affect it is going to have on our bodies. Yes, we need to care about that (if we want to have energy, feel good, increase our chances of living a long and healthy life). But what about the pure joy of eating, especially based on our (early, hopefully happy) memories of food?

This weekend I was treated to a wonderful birthday trip to Boston, and it was such an interesting experience, especially when it came to food, that I felt the need to share. The first night we stayed in the theater district, and had tickets to see the Blue Man Group (awesome!). We had a short time to find a place to grab a quick dinner, and most of the nice restaurants had long waits. So we took a short off-the-beaten-path side street and found a funky tiny cozy half-empty bar/bistro and grabbed a seat. I got crab cakes which were giant and yummy, my husband got a fish platter (we were in Boston, you gotta get fish!). It was fast and wonderful.

The next two nights were spent in the North end of Boston, which is the Italian section, Boston’s “Little Italy”. My husband had rented an apartment right in the center of it all, right off of Hanover Street (the famous main drag of Little Italy). It felt like we lived there! The second surprise I received was a ticket to a walking “food tour” called “Off the Eaten Path” which was a 3 hour tour of restaurants, hidden bakeries, wine cellar, sweet shop, coffee shop and tiny grocery shops where locals get their meats and cheeses. The tour guide was wonderful and our groups was small (10 people).See Boston Food Tour for more information.

Being Italian, and growing up with some great Italian food, I felt right at home. So many things brought back so many memories. Memories of my grandmother and her sauce, helping my mom grate the Parmesan cheese (nothing but the real stuff, and to this day, I still only use the best). Those giant platters of cookies at weddings, the salami and other meats, the smell of strong coffee, REAL Italian bread. I remember the giant cans of olive oil and the constant aroma of garlic. And of course there was the wine! Even the smell of the gas stove where we stayed brought back memories of both of my grandmother’s who spoke Italian and hated electric stoves because you could not control the heat. They cooked with gas (unless we were on the “farm” on the weekend, where our families gathered just to cook and eat and run around while the older people would play cards and laugh). At the farm they cooked over fire.

Anyway, on this tour, the first stop was for pizza at a place that brought back a giant pizza oven from Naples, Italy which cooked at super high heat and produced the best pizza around. After visiting Italy this past spring, I can tell you the pizza was the same. Very thin crust with spare but wonderful toppings of prosciutto on one and fresh mozzarella and basil on the other. After pizza, we stopped in to a restaurant that perfected pasta to hold the most sauce in every bite (see picture above), then off to the wine cellar (100 years old, in a dark basement, with a tasting of red and rose). We heard about how wine was made and after that I really wished I could always afford the good stuff. Next came a visit to a tiny hidden bakery, down an alley way, then down stairs where they made bread from yeast that was smuggled in from Italy over 300 years ago. After our bread tasting we stopped at a home made chocolate shop, and 2 tiny shops which again brought me back just because of the smells and aromas. Finally, we stopped at a local coffee shop for expresso, cannoli and the only home made gelato in Boston. Here are some pictures:

We walked and talked and sampled, and I was so thankful for my culture, and the way I was brought up when it comes to food and eating.

The next day we spent lots of time walking around the Boston Farmer’s Market. If you have never gone, and you live in the area, you need to go. As you walk among the tents and farmers, you hear so many languages spoken, witness funny interactions and bargaining for fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, and feel like you are in some movie, or in a different country. I love it! To me, that is what food and eating are about. Culture. If you love cooking, you know what I mean. In America we have some good food (all I can think of is cheeseburgers right now, but there is also New England Clam Chowder). There is so much to learn from other cultures about cooking and food and spices and eating that it seems most of us just never think about. This weekend, wandering through the North End, as well as the Farmer’s Market, I was reminded of the beauty and wonderfulness of all of it. Here are some pictures of the market:

All in all, it was a great weekend filled with lots of great meals, lots of walking, lots of laughter, but most of all, an important reminder: don’t go through life forgetting to embrace your culture. When is the last time you had your favorite dish growing up? Is there something your family used to make that is from your culture that you have not had in a long time? Is it because you think it may be unhealthy, or make you gain weight? After this (BIG) birthday, it motivated me even more to “live life to the fullest” Joie de vivre!!! as the French might say……

now off to make my puttanesca sauce!

What I learned about food and eating in Italy

IMG_5635 I recently returned from an almost three week vacation in Italy. It was an amazing trip in many ways, mostly because it truly validated who I am and why I like the foods I do, (and why I love dancing). I felt very connected to my roots. Growing up in an Italian family with a grandfather who spoke broken English and a grandmother who did not speak a work of English created many wonderful memories. Family was the center of our lives and meals and gatherings that centered around cooking and eating were just a part of life. I remember going to my grandmother’s house who did not speak English, and she would take chunks of aged Parmesan cheese and melt them on a gas stove as a snack on the end of a fork. Every Sunday was pasta and meatballs and fresh Italian bread.

In Italy I loved the way everyone was never in a hurry. Meals took a long time! If we went to a restaurant, the bread always came out with the olive oil first. Then the liter of homemade red wine which was cheaper than the water! and tasted better : ) And then the “first course” would come which was your pasta, pesto or sauce or whatever and it was always homemade. Then came the meat or fish, chicken was rare to find on a menu. And salad was last, always simple and always olive oil and vinegar. Dessert was offered but the funny thing was that every single breakfast we had at every hotel or B and B consisted of beautiful homemade cakes and croissants and pastry as well as some type of cheese and ham. We joked at the end of the vacation that we did not want to see another slice of ham or salami for awhile! Italians love their ham and prosciutto and salami! and the olives were out of this world. In fact, if you stopped in anywhere for just a drink you were always given a platter of food that usually consisted of cheese, ham, bread, nuts, olives and/or potato chips….I was in heaven.

What I loved the most was the feeling of never being rushed. Italians will never bring the check until you ask for it. They do not seem to care if you sit for three hours over the same plate…..they understand the importance of savoring a delicious meal and a glass of wine and spending time with friends talking. It was absolutely wonderful. Oh, and I had real gelato for the first time…in a word, YUM! But they have not learned about super-sizing…the cups were tiny….but just enough. It did not strike me that Italians wanted quantity, they were more into quality and deliciousness.

I hope to continue to take the time to enjoy and savor all that meal times represent. It is more than just eating. It is savoring and enjoying and connecting over traditions. Whether you are Italian or Polish or Asian or French or Hispanic, whatever your culture and your food traditions, take the time to learn about them, learn how to prepare them and cherish your heritage.

But it is good to be home!!!