I was the child of divorced parents, at a time when I knew no one who had divorced parents. And I’m choosing to talk about a period which is after we’ve come back from being abroad for five or six years. So I’m about 8 or 9, that would make it 1956 or 1957. I was living with my mother, who was an educated middle-class Protestant American. Married to a husband who is my stepfather and he worked for a major newspaper. These were very well-educated people, but living in suburban New Jersey. We’d just come back from Argentina where our lifestyle was really higher, upper class, because we were Americans in Argentina. And suddenly we were in middle-class America, shopping for lawnmowers at Sears. I mean it was seeing my mother in Bermuda shorts for the first time in my life, where she’d always worn really elegant clothes. So here I was. It didn’t really faze me, it was just different – kids just accept the world the way it’s presented. But all along I’m always going back to fashion New York City! So no matter where I am I’ve got this other world that has very little to do with the place I spend most of my time in — and that is with my father and, peripherally but not insignificantly, my aunt.
I’m not quite sure when my parents were legally divorced. But at some point they were not getting along and they were living in New York and my mother and the three children — I have a half brother and sister — went to the south of France. I think this was my father’s idea of what you do when you were trying to reconsider, getting divorced. We lived about a year and a half in the south of France. I may have been a year old when we went. I was in France when I started to speak, so that’s how my first language was French. My father came to visit us in France, and then in Argentina I would start this trip back and forth visiting him each year. When I was about 12 or 13, I went to live with him. He married a very young woman! She was 12 years older than I was. And he was 60.
My father and his sister came over from France with their mother. They came over in 1937 and they had a business in France together which was a design firm and he was the sales person. They were on their way to Uruguay and stopped in New York, in America, to visit relatives. My aunt saw New York City, the store windows on Fifth Avenue, on some cold winter day, seeing the resort collection and bathing suits and the copies of Paris items that were purchased in Paris. There would be the original from Paris, by whomever, with whatever the price in Paris was, and “ours” $29.95. And she said, I’m staying here. So they ended up staying in New York. And they struggled to get started and they had a few false starts and then eventually, in ’42, they started their own company, which is the fashion house that they made. And it was very successful, particularly in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. And my father remained the sales person who went all over the country, the first time with a pack of eleven dresses that she designed. He took them in a suitcase and met all the buyers from the department stores all over the United States. That’s how they got started. So, they were successful. They’re an immigrant success story and they worked hard and they wanted to succeed and they had pretensions and energy to do this kind of stuff. And they adopted New York with a ferocity that only matched their love of Paris.
My aunt and my father were business partners, forever. And they fought constantly. They loved each other intensely and they fought constantly. Did I repeat myself? Yes. You could say that again. They fought constantly. And they were both extremely elegant people. And, all three parents – I’m now just talking about my mother, my father, and his sister, who was like a parent but in an odd way, more like an Auntie Mame type. Only because he honored her so much. Now this is before he remarried. During all the time when I would visit him early on he was not attached, that I knew of. All these three people were extremely strong, strong personalities, and very self-involved human beings.
I would sometimes stay with my aunt at her house in the country. Her house was a stage set. It really was a stage set. It was made for parties. My father’s house was more livable. And my mother’s house was filled with misery.
You don’t even like the ice cream
When I sat down to try to collect my thoughts there were some major themes that came out. One was the difference in the two homes and the two cultures. So you have one culture that is American, Protestant, middle class, and you have one culture that’s sort of European middle class, but upper middle class potentially. Style’s very important. And in New York. So there’s also the difference of city and suburbs and the difference in religion and culture.
Since we’re talking about food, I’ll go to the differences that I thought of in these two homes. So, what do kids do when they’re at home alone? They open the fridge. And what do you find in the two homes? In one home you have a great big fridge that has the freezer on the bottom, which I quite like and wish I had again. With a big drawer that opens up and the refrigerator part on top. And you open up the fridge and there is really nothing to snack on. I cannot remember finding anything to snack on. And that’s where I discovered, in my mother’s house, being I guess really hungry for a snack, that a can of tunafish makes a great snack. And to this day I still — as a kind of a comfort food of last resort kind of thing — open up a can of tuna and eat it right out of the can, not mixing it into anything. Really enjoying the chunks that come out and sort of fall apart like leaves. I like that, there’s pleasure in that. But I remember in my mother’s house that there was one ice cream she and her husband liked and that was butter pecan. And I don’t know many kids who like butter pecan. Certainly not then. And I didn’t like butter pecan. I didn’t like nuts at all, in those days, or raisins. So that was very discouraging — you don’t even like the ice cream, right? I mean, what kind of strangeness is that?
So, to contrast it, in my father’s house, which was so different anyway — and I’ve just described the fridge — well, this fridge was three parts and it was hanging on the wall. I mean no one had a fridge like that! I still haven’t seen them. I’ve seen them sometimes as low fridges under counters but I’ve never seen since then a fridge that was three sections wide, two was the fridge part, one was the freezer, and they hung. I mean it’s fabulous! And, starting with the best part — well, they were all good parts — but the freezer had Louis Sherry ice cream. The box for Louis Sherry ice cream had lavender in it. I can’t quite see it all but lavender was the color. And there was always coffee ice cream and to this day coffee ice cream is the comfort food. There was also vanilla and it had vanilla bean dots in it. It wasn’t my favorite, the coffee was. Maybe I got addicted to coffee then, who knows? If you opened the other doors you would find, again, things that I saw in no one else’s refrigerator, not even my aunt’s. There was Dannon’s plain yogurt. I didn’t know anybody else with yogurt. That must have been like the beginning of the yogurt world. And it was cardboard. But I remember back when I was still living with my father, so under the age of 17, when the lip underneath the yogurt container got deeper. Nothing changed, not even the price, but it must have been the content, because the thing stayed the same height but the inside got smaller because the lip underneath got deeper. And I guess that could be the beginning of my jaded understanding of the world a little bit. I mean, Oh my god they’re tricking me — the understanding that marketing can be trickery.
Then on the right, in the door of the fridge, there was always a large bar of thick plain milk chocolate, Lindt. No one else had that in their house. And the other thing that my father’s house had was fresh oranges. (Which made me think, Wow, did my mother not have fresh fruit? I can’t remember it.) So he had fresh oranges and he had an orange juice squeezer. And he would make fresh orange juice for me in the morning and would wake me up with the glass and bring it in right next to my bed. That was really high class stuff! It was, I guess, one of his delights, like people doing their morning rituals or prayers or meditations or whatever. His was squeezing the orange juice for people in the family. He also liked shining shoes for people. Anyway, if I was hungry and I would come home from school, I could sit over the garbage can and just peel oranges one after the other and just eat oranges with the juice and the peels just dropping into the garbage can. That was my, I guess, “pig-out” food, which was actually pretty nice. And at my mother’s house it was cans of tunafish — I can’t remember anything else.
So this was very clear in my mind that there was a real distinction. There was also what I call subconscious stuff, because I don’t think I was thinking about it really. But it all related to these different cultures that they were presenting me with. One was one of delight and plenty, and the other was sort of ascetic stuff, or if the stuff was there it wasn’t what I liked — it was what they liked. I mean, I guess one could develop a taste for butter pecan but I didn’t.
Now what was eaten in the different homes? It’s funny how little one remembers. It’s so bizarre. I’m trying so hard to remember making meals with my mother. I remember having to set the table, but I just remember my mother’s meals as being really ordinary. And I’m not quite sure why exactly. They made a big deal of Thanksgiving turkey dinners and stuff like that, but it had to do with the serving of it, the carving of it at the table, sitting next to the turkey so you could nibble at the little pieces left behind. But the vegetables were awful. They were overcooked boiled vegetables. Whereas nothing like that was done to the vegetables in my father’s world, and I include my aunt in there, and then later when he married and I went to live with him. He married a woman, quite young, but she was a very good cook also. Her background was Swedish. Nothing that was ever eaten in the homes that I lived in in New York was overcooked boiled vegetables. Everything was tossed and light and tasty and buttery and whatever. So there was a delight in eating in one house that I just did not experience in the other I guess. My mother made things like tomato aspic. I mean she was very straight down American style stuff. So I had a choice way in the beginning of two styles of doing anything.
Big tall glasses of milk
Milk was served at my mother’s home. My stepfather and my mother would drink big tall glasses of milk with any meal no matter what was being served. You wouldn’t do this if you had company – if it’s company you’d have water and maybe wine. But if it’s just family, everybody is drinking a big tall glass of milk. No European drinks a glass of milk after the age of 6 or something like that. And my father used to think it very odd. We also had prune juice in my father’s house. I liked the taste. But no European drinks milk with a meal, so that’s a big, big difference.
So you have to imagine as a child, you walk from one place to another, you’re setting the table slightly differently, you’re putting out different glasses. Whenever you’re helping you need to know that there are different styles. Eating at the table was the same thing. You have different table manners if you’re a European or an American. In my mother’s home you would spear the item with your left hand on the fork and you would cut with the knife and then you were expected to put the knife down and switch the fork into the other hand. And if your hand was not in use on top of the table, you were expected to put it in your lap. My aunt would say, What are the Americans doing with the hands in their laps while they’re eating? I remember that, this is such a vivid memory, because it’s slightly off-color or suggestive. But you ate, you cut the same way, but you lifted the fork with your left hand to your mouth. Why in the world would you switch to your right hand? You have it already in your left hand. Anyway, there was more gusto and involvement and joy it seemed to me. That was the way I interpreted it. In eating. Eating in my father’s world was more relaxed. In my mother’s world it was stilted with rules that seemed to get in the way of just enjoying food.
It just occurs to me – it’s nothing to do with my food habits but it may have something to do with the whole picture — that in my mother’s household, before dinner, people had had one or two martinis already, and not in my father’s world at all. They might be drinking a martini while they’re preparing the meal. It seemed to be, come home and you’re allowed to have a drink. You’re coming home and you’re getting … Well, my mother was alcoholic. They were big drinkers, these two. He died at 52. She would deny, but most alcoholics do. I mean, if you come to visit somebody for the weekend and you bring your Scotch it’s probably because you’re afraid there’s not going to be enough, right? You know, you bring your marihuana, you bring your alcohol, you bring your cigarettes. Maybe if you got already one or two drinks down you a meal feels different to you. I don’t know, I have never thought of that before. So, yeah, somebody who drinks too much loses their taste buds. Now my father liked wine but I think it just started and went with the meal. It didn’t go on after the meal. He was not an alcoholic. And he enjoyed his chocolate and his wine, and whatever.
One very important thing. I’ve often said there’s one advantage to divorce: a kid learns early on that there are two legitimate ways of doing something, and if there are two legitimate ways of doing something it opens up the possibilities of three and multitudes. So, it’s a normal, open-minded way to live, whereas most people leave home at college age and for the first time discover that people don’t eat such and such that way or they think that white bread is terrible or they don’t put milk in their scrambled eggs, or whatever it is. There are these very firmly held positions that are finally colliding in the cafeteria of the college or someplace. And for a kid who grows up in two worlds that are so different it’s very clear that there are multiple ways of doing things.
I use the example of how to make scrambled eggs. How you cook eggs is like a microcosm of the cultural differences. My mother’s eggs were made this way: she would scramble the eggs in a bowl. She might have put salt and pepper in them, but she would add milk and then whip them up real well and then, probably, there was butter in a sauce pan, not something flat. And she would put this egg into there and moosh it around and keep stirring it, with a spoon or something, and so it would have this fluffiness and little balls fluffiness that is like cumulus clouds or something. And then they would be served like that! And those are perfectly fine. I don’t recall my father ever making scrambled eggs, but I remember my aunt doing it. There was a frying pan, and the butter would be hot and sizzling and the eggs had been mixed — but no milk added — maybe salt and pepper again, and then would be thrown into the frying pan, moved around the frying pan very quickly, with the back of the fork on the frying pan moving things around. And it would not be cooked until it was hard. It wouldn’t be undercooked — there wouldn’t be liquid egg in there — but it would be just right. And then quickly slipped onto a plate. Those are the eggs that I prefer today. And to this day when I make eggs I really want people sitting at the table. As long as I’m making them perfectly quickly then they should be there — they’re not going to sit on a plate. So these are like really ingrained things, part of some cultural stuff of who I am. So this scrambling of eggs, I think, is really an important feature of how you can distinguish where people come from. I mean eggs are ubiquitous. How do people cook eggs?
I knew how to eat in restaurants quite early
The art of entertaining, that’s the second theme, parties, going out, and such. I’m trying hard to remember going out with my mother and I can’t think of anything except eating quite ordinary things and not too often. Maybe a diner? It was not something we did, I guess. And my father, I remember going out to restaurants and one time that sticks in my mind is when he and I alone went out. I was a tag-along when he had business associates he would invite. So I knew how to eat in restaurants quite early, but one time he took me out alone, and so this was not to impress some customer at some fancy New York restaurant. He took me to Longchamps, which is Long Champs, but it’s Longchamps if you speak French. This was his idea where you would take just a child. And I remember being very disappointed because it’s not fancy, it isn’t. I wasn’t sure what to order so he suggested I order the Salisbury steak and it turned out to be a just huge hamburger, which was disappointing to me. I guess I felt like a child, which I was, but … He also took me to Rumpelmayer’s. Now that’s where you take a child! It was on Central Park South, past the Plaza or someplace along there. It was an ice cream joint – but it’s a hell of a joint. Everything was shiny, shiny brass, and shiny chrome. And chocolates and gorgeous things behind glass and further back you could sit down and have some ice cream sundae. Of course I just wanted coffee ice cream.
My father had lots of parties, they were business parties. And I remember many times being asked to help and sitting at that little board that comes out of counters and having the pumpernickel that comes in squares that are like 5 by 5 or 4 by 4. I cut them twice so they would make little squares. And I would assemble, in assembly line fashion, little canapes that were with sour cream and a blop of caviar on top. I would open these pate foie gras containers. And the trick was that in the middle there’d be a stick of truffle that would go through the whole thing. And so if you sliced it through nicely, you would get a little circle of truffle in the middle of your slice of paté. And so it fit very nicely on one of those squares of black pumpernickel, or rye. (Oh, I forgot to mention – my mother’s house was white bread, Wonder bread. And this house was pumpernickel and rye. My mother didn’t make canapes. She didn’t have that many parties. The parties were back in Argentina and there were servants making everything. In New Jersey there were not parties. I don’t remember parties.) And the pate would have gone straight onto the bread, and I’m trying to think if there was one other item. Oh, it would be lox. So there would be cream cheese and a piece of lox. You didn’t have food like that at my mother’s house at all. No pate, no lox. I mean you’d have peanut butter and jelly at her house, and I didn’t like peanut butter. So, none of those foods I just described would have been served at her house at all.
So I was part of the party, in a way. I mean I could run around with the people afterwards and I could help serve. And there were just a lot of parties. And my aunt had a lot of parties. I didn’t live with her but she had me setting tables. And she guided my understanding, my aesthetics, by saying, No, not like that (when you think you’ve done it just fine). And suddenly this scary aunt says to you that you did it wrong. Oh my god! So you watch and it’s really fine tuning. I mean not always kindly fine tuning, but she’s fine tuning a certain aesthetic. My father made me write thank you notes and it wasn’t just some cranked out little stupid note from a kid, it had to be nicely written. The sentences had to make sense. It had to be amplified and not just like thank you very much blah blah. And it had to fit on the paper properly. I wrote it over and over again until it was right. Well these are how you refine somebody’s sense of aesthetics. How you teach aesthetics. So although she sort of terrified me, you took it all in.
I remember a food that I didn’t like as a child, but that I became enamored of later on. It’s what in America is called eggplant caviar. Most of us who live on the East Coast will recognize it as baba ganoush. So you roast an eggplant and if you can you roast it over open flames so it gets that nice roasted smoky thing. And then you scrape out the inside and you chop it all up and you mix it with certain ingredients. This is very middle Eastern. My grandmother used to make this, and she’s from Russia, moved to France, so where did she get this from? And it was very creamy the way my grandmother and my aunt made it. My grandmother was always part of the scene at my aunt’s country place, which is where I would have bumped into my aunt more often than not. And they would roast the eggplant outside. I didn’t like the flavor at the end — there was a quality that was just too sophisticated, it was bizarre to me. I discovered later on that they make it too creamy. They add too much, I think, mayonnaise. When I went to Israel and I loved it, I realized, Oh my goodness, it’s the same food. In Israel I saw what they do there with it. The thing that they add is not mayonnaise but tahini sauce. So this is something – how did these Russians have this? And so, the family’s from Russia, from Odessa, which I started thinking, maybe this is the travel of food, right?
Today I cook extremely intuitively
I love cooking. And I didn’t realize this until it hit me one day — as an adult I realized that I could cook up a storm for 25 people and it doesn’t faze me. I think, Wow, that’s not normal! That’s kind of interesting. And I like being left alone to cook. And I cook extremely intuitively. I find that it must be some kind of meditative thing. I now can observe myself doing it. So, when it hit me, I started thinking about it and then while I started cooking I would check myself and say, Oh, I’m going into this kind of mode. So I have no idea when I’m cooking. I get an announcement from K, my husband, that four people are coming for lunch. I look around, I open the fridge, I open the pantry, and I look and say, Ok. I start pulling things out and I start it going. So, I have just intuitive cooking — texture, variety. I can get stuck doing one type of salad for six years and then switch to another type of salad and I’ll just do that for a while.
I remember trying to teach K how to cook. I said you can’t just throw anything in. You can’t. I said here’s a rule. No more than four ingredients. Let’s see what you can do with that. Because he would do these stir fries, and eventually at one point I said, It actually tastes good but you know it has to also look human and I hate to say this but this looks like dog food.
I like being alone in my kitchen and starting something going. It’s not as if anybody taught me how to cook. I was not anybody’s prep chef, neither my mother’s nor my father’s. The only thing I can remember is doing those appetizers. I’m an observer. I think that’s what kids naturally are. And if things are a little confusing they become more serious observers. And if it makes a difference, that you need to know the difference between one household’s needs and another, then it’s important to observe.
I finally resurrected my mother’s brussels sprouts. I hated brussels sprouts. I just hated them. They were boiled and chalky and I don’t know what else. I’m not quite sure how to describe her brussels sprouts but they didn’t taste much like I liked. And now I cut them in half and stir-fry them. And they’re just wonderful.
I also wanted to say, as an early adult, how I couldn’t afford to keep buying oranges and made the startling discovery that some of the stuff I liked was beyond my means as a student or graduate student or young couple. I had the orange juice squeezer and then I couldn’t keep buying the oranges. And then I discovered certain things that were happening that I not only could not afford, I couldn’t keep up with. Like my father had a housekeeper to clean the house, not to cook, but to clean, and my aunt probably did most of her own cooking but she had people to clean up things too. So she’s not doing the cleaning and the cooking, right. And she would start something and then have a servant continue. I couldn’t do that either. Plus I’d married an American who had different sensibilities about food. So that was all an awakening to me. That was my first marriage. So buying a cardboard container of orange juice tasted awful to me for the longest time. It just didn’t taste right. And orange juice that’s been sitting — if you squeeze it fresh and put it in your fridge something happens to it chemically in four hours — it tastes different. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s definitely different. Having to shake myself off of this ideal and live in the real world where I was living, I had to really adjust. I have an orange juice squeezer now, but recently, in the last couple of years, I’ve stopped drinking orange juice entirely because it’s too much sugar for me.
Reading cookbooks all day, I mean I keep reading over and over and over again. I keep going back and reading it again and sometimes if there’s something that I do each year that I need that recipe for I will rewrite it in the way I actually think and function. Because it’s not my natural impulse to do it that way. And I cannot stand baking because it’s much too chemical and precise in the ways that just don’t resonate with me.
I said that I was an intuitive cook, but what does that mean exactly? It’s that I don’t sit down and plan a recipe normally. I may say, Ok I’ll have a soup and then something, but I’m not going to say, We’ll have the grenouilles à la creme de sauce blah blah blah and then we’ll have this soup here. I can’t do it that way. What happens is that I will start the soup going and then I’ll say, Ok so it’s turning into a green soup, let’s see what I’m going to put with it. I have some fish, I’m going to do that. I look for things that sort of go together so that it’s got something that’s mooshy and something that’s tough and something that’s green. And I can look at something and say, Oh it needs a little color, what can I add? So it’s like a pallette actually. It’s like painting, but with texture involved. So, I don’t know if that’s a very normal way of cooking, but that’s the way I cook now and a great deal happens because of the way I was raised. Not because somebody said to me, This is how you make spaghetti with mushroom cream sauce, but rather it has to look like this in the end and it has to taste like that and it has to have this kind of feeling as you’re serving it or have it on your palate. So it has a painterly kind of quality to it. But it’s a meditative process that I’ve discovered just by accident. It gives me great pleasure.