The need to survive brought out not just my sarcasm, that became a coping mechanism for me, but this scrappy kid had survival skills that were able to feed that sharp tongue. You see, my mother had a stroke when I was just ready to stand that left a household of five hungry on many levels. I my talents – I could dance with Gene Kelly like athleticism: smile a big toothless smile that guaranteed a hug, and I could cook.
I am the only child amongst my siblings that was not happy with the endless supply of chips a’hoy cookies that were offered to quell our requests. I had more specific cravings: perfectly brunt Munster cheese, Green Goddess Dressing doctored with sour cream, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco for my potato chips or a bowl of pre-risotto made from pastina with butter and pepper. Luckily, for me, I was able to fill these needs, and quickly found out my sisters really wanted more than chocolate chip cookies as well.
It was typical for me to make my after school snack, and then head down to our den. There lost in the big black leather recliner I would watch my afternoon television block. Four ‘clock on channel eleven Batman and his young sidekick foiling the outrageous plans of the Joker, Penguin or Cat Woman with a zap, bloop, zing in any given episode. Then at four thirty on channel thirteen I watched the only idol I have ever had – Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Julia Child kept me in rapture, and encouraged me to explore my innate culinary skills. Egg-drop soup, not-so-French cheese omelets and celery canoes filled with cream cheese and radish oars became part of my afternoon munching.
When my sixteenth birthday came up it generated no grand party for my coming-of-age happened, prematurely, three years earlier. What I was offered was dinner at a restaurant of my choice. Now, I know my dad, and I did not think he had Lutece or the 21 Club on his list of possible candidates but they were on mine – by sixteen I was a well-established food snob with definite opinions but no budget. In order to avoid being disappointed I decided to make dinner for everyone. Without hesitation my offer was taken up and the night set. My mother promised we could eat in the dining room and said she would set the table with her china and crystal, which never happened without company being in attendance.
I headed to the public library to research my menu, and for the first time in my life the Dewy Decimal System made sense to me -- engrossed in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume 1 I set my menu that I thought my small screen food mentor would approve of. We would have cream of broccoli soup; veal chops with sautéed mushrooms accompanied by braised leeks, and salad with homemade vinaigrette. Dessert was blissful for everyone, but me, a chocolate mousse with massive amounts of hand-whipped cream. I have never liked chocolate but it showed up at every birthday celebration of mine. I would have to wait another twenty-four years before I had a non-chocolate birthday dessert with my family, but that is so another tale.
The meal came off smashingly laid out on a dining room table beautifully dressed in a freshly pressed cloth and candles twinkling just like we were eating out. I don’t remember the kitchen looking like a tornado ran through it or my Mom doing anything but hovering lovingly as I put the whole night together.
Many years later I was flattered to be invited to a small dinner with my childhood hero, which let me know I had arrived. I relayed the story of my juvenile endeavors to Julia, which prompted a smile and a really welcomed hug. I might not have ended up a dancer but my spirit on that night waltzed with absolute grace.
Sautéed Leeks - serves 6
1/2 cup Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2-cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
To clean the leeks cut them in half to just above the root base. Under running water wash the leeks to dislodge any dirt. Then cut the leek into two halves.
Heat a sauté pan to very hot, and add a tablespoon of oil. Place the leeks in the pan in one layer and sauté to lightly color. Reduce the heat to medium low and pour over the Champagne vinegar and water. Cook the leeks for 15 minutes until tender covered. Remove the leeks to a platter, and in the sauce pan whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. Then whisk in the remaining oil. Then drizzle the warm sauce over the leeks. Serve either hot or room temperature.