My earliest food memories are when we lived in Chatham Village in Maryland Heights, in St. Louis. I’m the youngest of nine. That was when most of us were together, a very short period when we were almost all together around the dinner table. We weren’t all together, because my oldest brother was already off to Vietnam, fighting in Vietnam.
We’re very much mutt. My grandmother on my father’s side was one-hundred percent Polish. And her husband was Irish, pretty Irish but I think there was some other stuff. Then, on my mom’s side, there’s all kinds of stuff. Very mixed.
A piece of meat
Growing up, food was huge. It was a huge part. We loved food, we made food, we ate it. But it was also a chore too, because there were so many kids.
These are just impressions of my earliest memories because I was little. But they’re a piece of meat, whether it’s a roast pork or roast beef or roast something. That’s Sunday dinner. Lots of potatoes for all those kids. Loaves of bread. And milk. And probably canned vegetables. The meal was defined by the meat. “What are we having for dinner?” “We’re having chicken, we’re having pork.” Meat defined the meal. It was a big table full of people. But my dad kept it pretty quiet. We weren’t a rambunctious group around the table.
We spent a lot of weekends at my Aunt G’s house. That was always a big food event. In the summertime it was barbecues in the back yard. Pork steaks and German potato salad. Salad and cream bread that she got from this bakery. The winter meals were, again, some kind of a roast. We spent a lot of time there eating. My Aunt G’s home played a role in our whole family life up until recently when she passed. That was a center for coming together and eating food. We always had Easter dinner there. The ham, the lamb-shaped cake covered in cocoanut, the breadbasket made out of bread full of bread rolls. And German potato salad. I never had German potato salad anywhere else. That was something that was part of my Aunt G and my grandmother and my dad. They made it a lot. And I love it today.
That was always fun growing up because there was the grown-ups’ table and there was the kids’ table in the kitchen. The kids got to be pretty rambunctious then. The kids could just go eat in there and – out of sight, out of mind.
Easter was a treat. My grandmother made these beautiful Easter eggs, the marbled ones that you put the oil in. They were gorgeous and shiny. And they always got gelt, which I didn’t know what that was. My cousin calling and saying she was so lucky because she got this gelt in her basket. And beautiful chocolate bunnies that were solid! They weren’t hollow. My mom did splurge on those. She splurged on the Easter Bunny.
And for Christmas one of my fondest memories is making Christmas cookies with my mom. We would make four batches of everything. Four batches of sugar cookies, and icebox cookies, which I hated. They were too grown up. We wanted the sugar cookies. She always got these big tins out. The dining room table was stacked with tins of Christmas cookies.
A lot of potatoes
As I grew up we moved to the city. We lived in South City, on Grand and Utah. I went to Catholic school there, Saint Pius V. I just remember food being in different buckets. Like there was a food bucket that was You Got To Feed Nine Kids, or eight kids or seven kids. That was my mother’s daily job of coming up with these meals that could sustain five boys and four girls. So it was a lot of potatoes. I remember she made this thing called graveyard stew. “We’re having graveyard stew!” The kids loved it. It was hamburger and potatoes and peas and a gravy. It was a big mess of food that we all ate. There was a lot of pasta. This is the during the week meals. Fill ‘em up. Lots of bread, lots of bread.
But Sunday meals . . . there was always a Sunday dinner. There was a Sunday breakfast, too, which was bacon and eggs. Always bacon and eggs and really strong coffee. I remember my dad drinking really strong coffee. My mom used to have her cup of really strong tea. The breakfast table was another big thing.
We ate a lot of biscuits and gravy. That was a big treat on a Sunday morning. Sausage and sausage gravy and biscuits. I remember my dad introducing me to grits, later on, with red-eye gravy. But I don’t think it was part of who we were. It was my dad’s exploring, because he liked to try new things.
Mostly on the weekends there’d be a dessert, but dessert was not a given during the week. My mom would make a cake. She’d make a pie. So we’d never need dessert, but it would be homemade. We didn’t buy cookies. We didn’t buy sweets.
You had to eat what was on your plate. I think about how we do with our daughter compared to how our family did it. You didn’t get to decide. One time there was horrible canned spinach with barley, aww! There was a big plop of it on my plate. I was not allowed to get up until I ate every bite of it. It was hours later. All the kids were up and gone. My brothers were taunting me and laughing. Yeah, I had to eat it.
I loved lasagne. I loved the meat lasagne. That was always a big treat. But other than that, I don’t remember it being about whether or not I liked the food. Grilled cheese was a big one, Velveeta and Wonder Bread. I loved making popcorn at night and watching TV with my dad, Barney Miller or whatever. The big bowl of popcorn.
My dad bought a bar and restaurant
When we lived in St. Louis, my dad – who was a jazz musician – actually bought a bar and restaurant. In Hermann, Missouri, which was about an hour-plus drive from where we lived in the city. He would go there for the week to work, then he’d come home Sunday morning, like 3 in the morning after he closed the bar on Saturday night. And he always, without fail, on Sunday morning, came home and would wake me up at 3 in the morning and my mom and dad and I would go and sit at the kitchen table and eat White Castle hamburgers. He would get a bag of White Castles on his way home as a treat. I don’t remember any conversations. I don’t remember anything other than sitting with them and munching. It was kind of a special thing. It was just a middle-of-the-night thing. I was probably in first, second, third grade, I don’t know. It was a treat. I got to see my dad after he’d gone for the week. I was literally up for like 20 minutes — having a couple White Castle hamburgers and going back to bed.
It got to be too much for him to be that far away, so we moved out to the country. We moved to an 18-acre farm at the end of a 7-mile gravel road, which was quite a culture shock from South City to an 18-acre farm in a little town half way between St. Louis and Columbia, right on Highway 70.
Running the restaurant was hard. It was a hard life. I think it was just to facilitate his jazz musician situation. And that was kind of a nice package around it. It was really a great place. It was really interesting. But it was hard. It took a toll.
He would make tamales
I started to mention buckets earlier. So one bucket was the sustenance bucket, one bucket was the family gathering, like the Sunday meals, in particular with my Aunt G. And my grandmother was there too. She did a lot of the cooking then. And this other bucket . . . my dad was actually very interested in cooking. He actually loved food, exploring food. I can remember going down in the city, in South St. Louis, to a Mexican or Latin American food store. Those were not common back in the 70s and early 80s. And he would make tamales or we’d have sopapillas or we’d have all these different things. He was interested in food and he would explore different cultures’ food.
And then the other bucket was the restaurant. So the restaurant served steak and crab legs and lobster tails and salad. My mom cooked. When I got a little older, when I became like 12 or 13, I got to waitress. So I made really good money on Friday and Saturday night, working in the restaurant.
My dad was an interesting character. He was a musician, he was a creative but not by training. Nobody called it that back then. He was just always reading about things, he was always trying new things. After my mother passed when I was 15 he took up painting. He became a beautiful painter. He was just an artist, he really was, in his heart. And food was a way to explore that, I think, for him. Funny thing is, he never traveled anywhere and never had any desire to. But he liked to travel in the food world. He definitely explored that.
And when we lived on the farm there’s a lot of memories. I have some great pictures, us together on the farm, with barbecues out in the back. Big barbecues. Pork steaks. There were lots of ribs, and pork steaks, and chicken. Salad. We also had a big garden when we lived in the country, we’d have a big, big garden – which I was forced to work in, much to my chagrin, because it was pretty grueling work. It was a big garden. We planted potatoes and corn and everything, you name it.
They would pay their tabs with farm animals
An interesting thing was that my dad – at night he played jazz. The guy across the street, the chiropractor, was an old friend of his. He played keyboard. He just had a group of friends that got together and played jazz. But, during the day, when the bar first opened, like at 3 o’clock or between 3 and 6, a lot of the farmers would come in, after they got done in the fields and they would drink. The story was that a lot of them had tabs and then they would pay their tabs with farm animals. Here we were, city people, living on this farm, and one day he brought home two pigs. And another he brought home a whole bunch of chickens. And another day he brought home a lamb. So we always had some kind of an animal situation going on. We ate them! I did not know that at the time. I would have been devastated because I loved these animals, but . . . So that was interesting!
I also remember my dad really liked pie. And my mother passed away when I was 15, and I lived with my dad for a year after that. I remember making him pie. He wanted to know if we could make pie. He really liked pie.
We entertained a lot. We had people over and barbecues in the back yard. Mostly family, mostly my Aunt G. And the neighbors would come over for a meal here and there. Because we were a large family and we were not wealthy, my memories of snacks were a bowl of popcorn. It was a big bowl of popcorn. We didn’t have Doritos and Cheetos and fancy snacks like I got to have over at my friend’s house, which was so exciting. And cereal was Cream of Wheat and puffed wheat and oatmeal and Cheerios. But we didn’t have Froot Loops and all the fancy cereals. It was a real treat when we got to have soda. Soda was a big holiday thing. But mostly we had Kool Aid.
We used Maull’s [barbecue sauce], but it always had to be doctored. Because my brother and my dad, they put beer in it or some Worcestershire sauce in it, or something. They always had to make it their own. They were masters. I remember my brother, my brother F (he just passed away about a month ago). He was just an amazing barbecue guy. We had so many pictures of him at the grill. He was the guy. He would talk about how you’d have the hot coals over here, the cool coals were here and you’d sear the pork steaks and after you get them nice and brown, then you bring them over here to the cool side and you keep basting them, let them caramelize and caramelize. Leave them on there for hours, and they’re falling off the bone. He just loved to talk about it. It was a real art!
My husband used to be a chef. So food has carried on in my life. He said he used to break down animals, and cook lots of different kinds of meat. And he had never heard of a pork steak. So when we went to St. Louis, the first thing he wanted to do was to go to the grocery store and see these pork steaks. He said let’s go to Whole Foods, because I want to see what a Whole Foods here looks like compared to a Whole Foods in Boston or here, California, where we lived then. And sure enough, there they were, these big beautiful pork steaks.
I remember the first time I brought him home. It was Thanksgiving and there were I think 27 people around the table, with my sisters and brothers and nieces and . . . yeah, big family! Prime rib, that was another big one. At Christmas there would be a prime rib. Food was important. Those were the occasions. During the week it was a whole different story.
I never ate at MacDonald’s
We really didn’t go to restaurants. I remember my sisters and brothers saying I was the lucky one because I did get to go, when it was just me and everyone was gone. I remember when my mom and dad went out for dinner my mom would always bring me home the little package of crackers that would come with the salad course. We would go out every now and again, but I never ate at MacDonalds. Part of food being an important part of my life, and not having money, we actually ate pretty well. Because we ate food that was basic. And we prepared it. We didn’t have processed foods. We didn’t go out to MacDonalds.
I also remember when we lived in the city, in South City, my mom and I and sometimes the next door neighbor would go to Soulard Market on Saturday morning. And, oh, I loved that, loved Soulard Market. It’s funny – we went back there a few years ago and I hadn’t been since I was a little girl and it looked so small. But I remember it being huge. And we’d go to the butcher, get all the produce at Soulard Market and we’d go to the butcher, in South St. Louis, and get all of our meat. Braunschweiger and bologna. And then we’d go to Aldi for canned goods. I remember, more so in St. Louis, canned goods being a part of our existence. When we lived in the country, because we had the big garden, my mom actually canned stuff. We’d have real food canned.
That’s how we came together
I would say that my husband and I, that’s how we came together. I loved that he cooked. That was so exciting to me because I also love to cook and entertain. That’s how we kind of give. That’s what we do. We cook for friends. So, on a daily basis, we’ve always got food projects. Right now we’ve got kombucha brewing. I’ve got fire cider in the basement. I’ve got my sour dough starter that I’m caring for and feeding. I’m just starting to take an interest in herbs and herbalism. So I just made some elderberry syrup for colds and things like that. I just bought a book called The Herb Book and it covers culinary to medicinal. There’s a lot of overlap there. And just the history of herbs and how they’ve been used. That’s kind of my newest foray.
About three years ago a friend of mine and I started a supper club. My husband and I had started one when we first moved here and started getting to know people. We basically get together every few months and there are six couples. We choose a cuisine and everyone brings a course. The only rule it to make the course small, so that people are enjoying the last course as much the first course. We had a mistake early on of just being stuffed three courses in. We’ve really jelled and it’s really, really fun. We just look for people who are also really into food. We kind of had to go down the path of omnivores so we can all just cook and eat.
Even with that supper club, my husband and I still host just impromptus of that kind of thing. Like we just had five couples over for a French night, like a small French course and a wine to pair with it. And that was really fun. Our daughter has grown up with food projects. She’s been making pasta since she was a little girl. She loves pasta. So we’d have the kids over on Sunday and the kids would make the homemade pasta and then they’d fill the pasta and make rustic homemade ravioli. We’ve done making Thai spring rolls. We’ve done that as a project. We’ve also done tamales where we have a bunch of friends over and you spent the day cooking tamales and then at night the spouses and the kids all came and we had a big fiesta.
This morning we had our coffee in bed and my husband brought a whole armful of cookbooks in. We were just looking in the fermenting book. He’s interested and he’s really learning. He got this great fermentation cookbook for Christmas and he’s been really into his kombucha and perfecting it and exploring it and what to do with it.
Something that brought my husband and I together was the love of travel. And food has become a big part of that. When we got married, we didn’t have a traditional wedding. We got married with just a few people. My sister stood up for me, my husband’s mother stood up for him, and we had our friend marry us at dawn in a wildlife sanctuary. And then we took, basically, the equivalent of what the average American wedding cost, and we traveled around the world for a year. We backpacked. And we ate our way around the world, for sure! After we got married we visited the man who married us, who my husband traveled with earlier. They spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, so we went to his house and he made us this sort of Eastern European fish and brown bread and what they ate on their travels. And then we went to my mother-in-law’s house and my husband and I cooked for the wedding reception. We made all the food, Greek food. And then we went to my Aunt G’s, in St. Louis, and then we went to some friends in California for the night before we took off for Japan.
I guess the biggest food adventure was when we were in Singapore. Oh my god, the food there is incredible! The hawker centers! Nepal! We were trekking up in the Himalayas and really interested in how they ate. Making bread, and putting bread into the fire, literally putting it into the fire in the coals and then shaking off the ashes and passing it out. Thai food, amazing! Street food, we loved the street food. Same in Vietnam, though when we were flying from Thailand to Vietnam there was an article about being careful about eating the noodles because they had found there was a company that was putting formaldehyde in the noodles to make them last forever. We did eat some questionable things for sure when we were there. In fact, when we were in Nepal my husband got very, very, very sick. It was scary. We were staying in this Korean guest house with these lovely guys and we went out. When we came back it was festival time and they were partying. They said come and party with us, we’ve got this pork. He ate it and he got really, really sick.
We both love food so much, and we talk about how much we love food, and why aren’t we doing something in food? But, he was a chef and I worked in my dad’s restaurant, and all through college I was a waitress and a bartender. We know how hard a life it is. It’s a young person’s project. We would love to open a restaurant, but we don’t want to run a restaurant. We just like to open them. Maybe after retirement, maybe we’ll figure out something to do.