I Never Cooked for My Father

Littleneck clam.jpg“I learned about cooking and flavor as a child, watching my mother prepare food in our kitchen in Virginia.”

Maybe I’m worried that it’s too easy, or dislike the part of me that’s a permanent boy, but I’ve become increasingly shy of drawing from the same family well to recount my early fascination with food. Recently, though, I came upon a recipe for creamed scallions by the late chef Edna Lewis taken from her kindly and expert “memory” cookbook, In Pursuit of Flavor. The line at the top of this post is that book’s opener, and here’s how she introduces the onion dish:

Growing up, we would sow onion seed in the garden and then thin a lot of them out before their bulbs got too big. We chopped them up, sautéed them in bacon fat, poured in heavy cream, and ate them for breakfast. This recipe is not quite as rich as that, but uses scallions in a way that tastes just delicious. In my opinion, they are an underused vegetable and taste almost as good today as they did years ago.

Breakfast. Scallions, bacon grease and cream for breakfast. Even though her Freetown, Virginia family, settled there by her slave grandparents, was a larger collection of relatives than my nuclear Brooklyn four, what the hell. If Miss Lewis could look back without reservation, so may I.

Many of her recipes run from-the-dirt ingredients through butter-and-cream initiations, claiming their own particular France. There’s a wonderful one for “long-cooked green beans” in which the chef politely dismisses “undercooked” vegetables and instructs us to find thick-skinned Kentucky Wonders to simmer (with pork) for more than an hour. So here’s her scallions, an easy lesson in how to find luxury in basics.

Edna Lewis creamed scallions 4.JPG

Heavy cream gains the antique ivory you see by reducing and morphing into sauce. (Whisk carefully till the very end.) Taste? In the movie Heat, actress Pat Ast refers to pimpled hunk Joe Dallesandro as “a little piece of semiheaven.”

Wonder why I made that connection….


Forbidden Lundy’s

No, I won’t drag yet another Lundy’s story out of my Mouseketeer cap, the one with the ears that my California toymaker-uncle Irving who lived in Sherman Oaks next door to Liberace sent to me — and one to brother Leslie — with our names sewn in pink script so we could be the first on our block to wear them to school, the same school that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Julian Schnabel went to, a few blocks from where Arthur Miller brought bride-to-be Marilyn to meet the parents. No, I promise I won’t talk about the fine, floury steam of napkin-wrapped beaten biscuits; the army of black waiters; the way Dad convinced his observant mom that when it came to lobster, especially lobster fra diavolo, God made a kosher exception for the Weinsteins, and the oh so sad attempt late in the Lundy’s game to revive the clam bar by calling it the Teresa Brewer Room, the same place where I first saw my father, Harry, eat steamers.

I actually have few ordinary memories of my dad. He was a car dealer and closet bookie who felt it necessary to be away a lot. Yet special things stand out, as in all family memories: how proud he was that he could take his many brothers and sisters for wet jaunts on his shiny Chris-Craft, which he docked in Sheepshead Bay, right near Lundy’s. (Suddenly it was gone.) How good he was at making messy tuna salads and at grilling steaks, and how very much this short, redheaded, sun-freckled man enjoyed his food.

I’ve written before that eating out was our special connection, but I see something now that’s new. When I think of him 50, 55 years ago at F.W.I.L. Lundy Bros.on Emmons Avenue, plucking and sucking his clams and piling up the shells in a keen, mechanical manner, not sighing over how good they are or pausing to say so, then sipping the still-warm broth, intent on its finality, I realize that in this and this alone we have become the same person.

An uncomplicated dish of littlenecks and pasta led me to this realization, a recipe fashioned by the genius turned generic Emeril Lagasse, whom I once met (anonymously) as, flush-faced, he swept through his just opened New Orleans cri de coeur, Emeril’s. What a changed man, as are we all.

Local Long Island littlenecks are 50 for $17, and for some reason — in spite of its reputation to the contrary, food does not automatically make one self-aware — I had stayed away from buying and cooking them. Yes, I know they pop open on a grill, spilling their insides as you try to gather them up. So I Googled and found something so basic from Emeril’s Food Network show (a network that would never take off, I had written long ago in the New Yorker) that I wasn’t afraid to try.

Scrubbed them and soaked ’em in salted water with cornstarch, which is thought to “bleach” the meat as well as purge the poor things of waste and sand. Then all you do is cook some pasta and in another big pot cook some garlic and pepper flakes in olive oil, add white wine and the clams, cover, shake, and wait till they open. Add pasta, parsley, stir, serve.

I used the chef’s proportions, except added more clams, and ate with a gusto and delight that comes too rarely. I am a little older than my father was when he died. No matter. He would have loved these clams, the first dish I have ever cooked that is just for him, and for his son.

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Do you have a recipe that you’d like to cook, or like to have cooked, for your mom or dad? If so, share it in the comments section, and I’ll post them here and on Facebook so we can compare.

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  1. Tobi Tobias says

    Lundy’s! The gifts from the sea! The biscuits! The grace and efficiency of the black waiters! You evoke vivid memories. For those of us who grew up in Jewish Brooklyn, perhaps those biscuits are our madeleines?

  2. says

    Hi Tobi, Will we ever get those biscuits out of our minds? Was it the surprise that they were still warm, even hot, or that the steam that rose when you split one, or that we had waited maybe half an hour, getting hungrier and hungrier, as we watched families around us receiving their meals from giant metal platters? Dad once walked me toward the swinging kitchen doors, so I could look in: just like a Gustave Dore illustration of Dante’s Inferno….
    I wrote a few piece about Lundy’s when it tried to reopen, but it was all too sad. I’ve looked everywhere for one of those swordfish to hang, even though I know John would not be happy with one on the wall.
    We lived on Ocean Avenue and Avenue X (we could walk there), then on E. 8th Street between N and O. Harry, his mom and the three brothers had a Packard dealership on Coney Island Avenue, but Packard folded, so downhill all the way.

  3. John Wm. Rommel says

    My mom had just been released from the hospital, and sad to say was home just a few days before being re-admitted, and I had come home to visit. Alone as was usual of late, she seemed comfortable but i needed to find if there was anything i could do. Offering to get her something to eat, she waved away the thought, but very shortly asked if i could make her some scrambled eggs.
    The look of dismay on her face as I came to the table with toast, tea and a high yellow mound within minutes excused a lifetime of canned vegetables and Corned Beef on St. Patrick’s Day only…
    The only item i had taken from the household that i can remember when leaving home at 20 was that small frypan I had used as a child to do my own eggs, tho’ i preferred them sunnyside…with rye toast, please.
    Today I would like to make her a feta/herb omelet, without announcing the ingredients as I am sure she would wave that away as well….