Susan, age 61

I was born in Los Angeles, and grew up there, until I was an adult. My mother’s family is from the border area of Texas. My father was also from Los Angeles. He was born in the 20s in Los Angeles. He comes from a German-American family. I have a younger brother. My father worked in advertising, worked for the Carnation Company. None of my immediate relatives, in the last three generations, were immigrants, so we’ve been here for a while.

Both my parents cooked. My mom cooked the everyday stuff. She wasn’t a great cook, but she was a decent cook. My dad was a really good cook but he only cooked on special occasions. He must have got that from my grandmother. His mother was also an excellent cook. She had a book of recipes that she collected, some of them dating from the teens and twenties, from the newspapers. She was a really good baker and she enjoyed baking with unusual things. I remember once a chocolate cake and she said, Tell me what’s in this. I didn’t know. It was just good. I remember, still, it was very chocolatey and very dense. Very moist. It turned out it was made with mayonnaise and sauerkraut. I still have some of her recipes that I use.

My mother’s parents, who we saw quite frequently, lived about an hour away. We’d go over and visit them or they’d come visit us every month to six weeks. So they were around a lot. My grandfather was a good cook. Both they and my parents really liked to entertain and have people over. So food was a centerpiece for a lot of family outings. When we were at my grandfather’s, being a Texan, often he would barbecue. That meant that he sat in the back yard all day. And you’d pay court. You’d bring the beer and get him whatever he wanted. But he never left the back yard. He’d do a brisket that would take hours and hours, or a turkey. He also taught me how to cook Mexican food. I remember him teaching me how to make enchiladas. The first time he was at my house teaching me how to make enchiladas it was so that I could take them to my Girl Scout troop. I still use his mother-in-law’s – she was born in 1887 – I still use her recipe for Chili Colorado, originally made with venison. In fact I’m making it for a party, a Day of the Dead party this month.

My mom would cook every day. We sat down to dinner as a family. It was a big deal. Unfortunately we did it while the news was on, so I think it radicalized me and made me a Democrat watching all the Vietnam war footage. My mom was a good cook for the day, but that didn’t mean she used a lot of fresh ingredients. Because people just didn’t. She didn’t use canned food. We never had canned green beans. I remember the first time I had them I was appalled at the texture. We always had Birdseye frozen vegetables — peas or French cut string beans. I remember we had those a lot. She made really good mashed potatoes, but we never had them on an everyday basis. Those were for Thanksgiving. Instead we had instant potatoes, because they were the new and modern thing. Although she didn’t use Minute Rice. We always had real rice. We had rice a lot. Being from the South she was big on rice. I remember when Hamburger Helper first came out. We had that. My mother had a weight issue and she was on the original iteration of Weight Watchers which meant that’s when she started cooking with a lot more fresh vegetables. I remember having stir-fried bean sprouts. They were great! But none of my friends had ever even heard of those. We were also early adopters. We had the first microwave oven on the block. She didn’t cook with it a lot. I don’t think she knew quite what to do with it beyond reheating things. My dad had one of the first gas grills, so in the summer he barbecued chicken a lot. It was everyday kind of barbecue. It was not an art like it was with my grandfather.

My parents liked to entertain. My father had a gourmet club. It was men from his world. I don’t think they all worked at Carnation. I think some of them worked for different vendors or other ad agencies, but they were all basically in business together. I think the initial group was eight of them – could have been six – who cooked in teams. They would have dinner at somebody’s home, one of the team members that was cooking. When I was about 5 they had it at my house. Gourmet Magazine came and did a spread on them. I found it last summer. It was reprinted in the internal Carnation magazine. So I found it when my mother died last year, found the Carnation version. The color version she had framed in a picture frame in our kitchen for the longest time and then it just kind of disintegrated. So we don’t have the original article, but I found this reprint of it.

I remember that day very clearly. It’s one of my strongest food memories. I remember my dad and his team member – I don’t remember this gentleman’s name — I remember them clipping red grapes into bunches of four or five and painting egg white on them and frosting them with superfine sugar to crystalize them. Because I have this article, I have the whole menu of what they had. Lobster. It was quite elegant. There’s pictures of my mother’s table, which was beautiful. She had her Waterford out – and all the stuff that we couldn’t give away when she died last year. Such a shame! Fourteen sets of china that she collected over the years. Some of it was everyday, some of it was my grandmother’s. Nobody wanted it.

That group evolved into a regular potluck group that my parents had with their closest friends for decades. Where they would take turns and whoever’s house had the entree, then somebody had the salad, and somebody had the appetizers, somebody had the dessert. And I was always there and allowed to stay up through cocktails. And then I had to go off while they had their meal. These were my parents’ friends for their whole lives. Which was really great. And I grew up with their kids. Unfortunately I don’t think any of them are left anymore. But they were great to me and as I got older they included me. I was in the youngest set of kids. They all had slightly older kids. It evolved into Christmas parties and other gatherings. They were all good cooks. Everybody loved doing this and being together. One of them especially, the one that had kids my age, I remember going to visit. They lived at Manhattan Beach and so it was of course cool to go and stay with Kimmy at her house. And her mother would also have us cooking. Cooking was the main thing. She would include the girls and we’d all cook. Once I remember making angel food cake and then we hollowed it out, filled it with ice cream and refroze it.

This same group, once a year they would have a big party where they all chipped in and did it together for all their friends. This is when they were younger. It was themed. So they had things like a Tiki party once where they rigged up a bar in the pool area with rain dripping over the palm thatched roof. And they had a ceramic Tiki god mask and found these giant clam shells and, using a pump, rigged a fountain of Mai Tais. And at somebody’s house they had another, a luau where they did a kahlua pig, in the ground. They dug a pit in the back yard, and cooked it for days. They had a friend that worked for the studios who lent them the bar that was used in Gunsmoke or something and they put it in somebody’s back yard and had a costumed Western party. They were creative. They loved to entertain. They’re all really nice people. I remember my parents dressing up for these things. I didn’t go to these parties, but even not going made an impression.

So it wasn’t surprising that I started catering when I was 20. The first thing I did was one of these family’s daughter’s wedding. She had gotten married in another state and then had a reception. It was an interesting experience in that my mother said, “Oh yeah, sure, you can do it,” and at the same time said, “I don’t think you can do it.” Not sure she quite got where she was on this thing. But this was my first thing and I did Lobster Thermidor and several salads. It was in August, in the San Fernando Valley. It’s usually about 105° for the San Fernando Valley in August. I had ordered the lobster from Santa Monica, from the big fish market there. I said I need frozen lobster meat. I ordered in advance and said that it had to be frozen because I had a Volkswagen that had no air conditioning and I had to drive a half hour there and a half hour back to get it. I picked it up. This was the day before. When I got it home I realized they had given me fresh lobster and it had spoiled on the way home. I was panicking. Here’s this 20-year-old who had taken on this big job and paid lots of money for all this lobster for 75 people. Finally they realized they had made a mistake. They replaced it, but I had to drive back out there. I slept for about three hours that night. I remember dreaming that the lobster got up and walked away. But it turned out all right. I made my way. While I was figuring out what to do with my life I did small catering and dinner parties for people.

I think the reason I didn’t stick with it . . . two things. Nobody was an entrepreneur that I had access to. And so I wasn’t sure how to scale up – how to get into a commercial kitchen, how to get the insurance, stuff like that. And then the years I was doing it, in my 20s, I missed all my own holidays. I decided, eh! I don’t really want to do that. But it cemented this relationship and love of food for me.

My relationship with food influenced both of my daughters. My oldest graduated Smith with a focus on Sustainable Food and went to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. She’s been working as a chef for a farm-to-table catering firm in Western Mass. but she has just moved to Los Angeles to see what the west coast has to offer. My younger daughter is also a food person. She works at Hungry Ghost Bread right now. She’s a tea person — she loves afternoon tea like me.

So I fast forward to not working in food but starting with my own group of friends to do a similar thing with the dinner parties. Not as organized as my parents, but our group of friends in Los Angeles, we found that the cheapest and best way to entertain was to do it ourselves rather than go to restaurants. Unlike New York where the restaurant culture is how you entertain, there isn’t that there. So we would cook for each other and have people over. The close group of friends, we all became better cooks because of it. Because there was always this unspoken competition. It helps when one of them is a French woman, who is a good cook, and you have to hold your head up next to her. And that has continued for the last 30 years – which has been lovely.

Two couples in the early 90s moved to Boston. And then ten years later, my husband and I, we didn’t want to stay in California. We moved up to the Bay Area. We couldn’t afford to stay in California. Our kids were getting school age and we didn’t want to raise them there. And we looked around. I went to Smith so we knew about here. And after we looked all over the country we finally said, well, what about Northampton? And we decided to do that. We bought a house that I had never seen. My husband came out and videotaped it. Because at the time it was really hard to find a house here. He was writing a book on food. He’s a naturalist and was doing a Michael Pollan-style exploration of farm to table before a Michael Pollan-style book. We stayed in California for a year while he finished doing his research.

While we bought the house our other good friends, part of this group, now live in Hadley. That’s been great. So the four families – there’s two other families still in California – but the four of us, none of us have family out here. So, we then became each other’s family. We spend Christmases together, Thanksgiving, Easter. We go on ski trips. And of course the main ingredient is food. We traveled to France together, with the LA friends, 22 of us in a house. What we did is we drew names of who would cook together. The activity that day for you and your partner was to find the closest farmers’ market and go out and plan your meal. That was lots of fun. Very memorable. The kids were all much younger then so we had a team doing the kids’ meal and a team doing the grown-ups’ meal. It would be much harder now because they’re all foodies too, and we’d all want to eat together so we’d need a much bigger table.

Food is there in our everyday life, which is wonderful. It’s also there in our entertaining life. When we moved to Florence [part of Northampton], somehow I got this idea that because we lived in Florence we needed to have an Italian party. It evolved into this party that we call the Una Sera a Firenze, an evening in Florence, where we do a coordinated potluck for 125 people. What I do is I would pick a menu and I would research the courses and I would try to find recipes for every level. If people didn’t cook at all they brought sparkling water or Italian ices for the kids or something. I will do the main course and I will do the pasta dish. And we got long tables with white cloths. We set up two, about 75 each. And lights with Chinese lanterns across the backyard. Set up an area for dancing. People would wear their garden party finest. We tell them to dress like Sophia Loren. And it was great. We would only do it every couple of years, because it was too much work to do every year. It created these huge memories. Today I run into children of friends and they say, You made those parties – they were so magical.

It’s fun to see people . . . first of all they’re excited, if they’re new, they’ve heard about it, to have a recipe that’s a little challenging to them. It’s kind of fun to give them that experience. I don’t worry too much about all people’s different dietary things because I have so many courses they will find something. And the children, they’d have pasta and stop there and start playing around and that was fine. The idea of eating together outside, multi-generational, that’s always been really important to me to have those things. When I was a kid, besides the big adult parties that my parents would have, they would have a 4th of July party every year, about the same size. It was potluck. You were supposed to bring cold fried chicken. My mom had a big Mexican pot that my daughter now has. All the fried chicken got put in there, so you didn’t know whose was whose. People were told to bring a cake or salad. We had a pool. There were horseshoes in the back and a keg of beer. My mother would make a giant bowl of pickled eggs. We’d go and get a gross of corn and sometime during the afternoon she’d put all the kids to work to shuck the corn and she’d have pots and pots of water boiling in the kitchen. It was great fun. It ended at dark when everyone went off to fireworks on their own after a lot of jungle ball, volleyball, and poker for the old folks.

Every year there was white fried chicken at the bottom of the bowl. We never knew who made it. It was always left because it was really unappetizing looking. It was never quite cooked enough. We had this inside family joke of trying to figure out whose chicken that was. I don’t think we ever figured out who brought the horrible, undercooked fried chicken.

I want to tell about my department store lunchroom memories. My father’s mother loved lunchrooms. We lived in the San Fernando Valley but, as a special treat, she liked to take me to the Bullock’s downtown or to the May Company and take me to lunch. I’d have to be all dressed up, and often it corresponded with going to see Santa Claus. I had the muff, and knee socks, and patent-leather Mary Janes. They always had tea sandwiches and I thought those were just spectacular. As I got older the whole idea of afternoon tea became something really important to me. When I got to Smith College and I found out that they had weekly Friday teas, that was just my dream, that was great. In our house [at Smith] we did tea really well. We had other people come to our teas because we’d invite other students to play the violin or the piano or we’d invite our professors. We had a kind of salon. We’d have a special tea where we made eggnog at Christmas time before everybody left for the holidays. That was really fun.

My mother liked to go to Neiman Marcus — with popovers. That was a big deal. That was in Beverly Hills. Then she and my father would like to go to San Francisco occasionally, for his business or with their friends for a long weekend. I remember my mother telling me how excited she was going to the Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. It used to be a different department store, The City of Paris, and then it became Neiman Marcus. The department store was four stories, and there was a hall in the middle, and a big stained-glass dome of galleon ships. At Christmas time it had a Christmas tree that went all the way up and the restaurant was on the very top floor. When I started going up to San Francisco, I would kind of make a pilgrimage there. My husband’s family lived in Berkeley – this is before we moved to the Bay Area. We’d go up every Christmas and so I’d go there for lunch and I’d take my nieces. They were little. This was our tradition. I’d take them to look at all the windows, Christmas windows, then take them Christmas shopping. And so I got to share that experience with them. I’m big on traditions.

We were a middle-class family. We weren’t upper middle-class. My dad got paid once a month and by the end of the month we were eating Hamburger Helper. We had to stretch the budget. My mom didn’t work. It was rare to go out to a restaurant. Restaurants weren’t viewed the same way. My parents would go out with their friends occasionally. If we went out it was to Love’s Barbecue or a family kind of restaurant.

We went out when we went to my grandparents’. We often went to Mexico, and to local Mexican restaurants, which we loved doing. My grandfather spoke what I say was “fluent Mexican” because he had such a strong Texas accent. We’d often go with my parents and grandparents for a weekend in Ensenada – soft rolled street tacos before anyone in the U.S. had heard of them and greasy brown paper bags filled with warm sugary churros! But we also would go down for the day to Tijuana. My grandfather loved the ponies and he’d take us to Agua Caliente Racetrack. Afterwards we’d always go to Caesar’s. My grandfather had a big personality and everyone knew him. Caesar Cardini and his wife Rosa would always come to the table and greet him like family. Of course, we’d always have caesar salad and we have the recipe that Mrs. Cardini wrote out for my grandmother.

We’d occasionally get Chinese takeout. I don’t think there were even any Chinese restaurants where you ate in, in those days. I also remember being taken out to Robert’s, which is a fancy French restaurant that was in Los Angeles. Occasionally my dad would get invited to premieres of Disney movies, and we’d gone to some kind of a special movie. I was in kindergarten. And I was all dressed up. We went to this French restaurant and I had frogs’ legs and snails. I always loved frogs’ legs. And I think that I knew that I liked frogs’ legs because when we went camping all the adults went gigging in the river and barbecued frogs’ legs, so I’d had them. But the snails! I thought that was so cool. They let me take the snail shells home with me. I remember I took them to kindergarten for show and tell. I still like them, and of course it’s because of the butter and garlic. Picky eaters weren’t in our family. I did not like scrambled eggs for the longest time. It was a texture thing. I didn’t like green bell peppers. I trained myself to like them. But that was pretty much all. There weren’t many foods that I didn’t like.

My mother had an amazing cookbook collection too. She liked reading her cookbooks even more than cooking. Hundreds and hundreds of books. It was very sad when she died – they just went in boxes, and hopefully somebody will appreciate them. I kept a couple of them that were interesting mementos of Los Angeles. One was a Brown Derby cookbook.

A big treat when I was growing up was going to downtown Los Angeles to Philippe’s. I still go there. The fact that my daughter’s is moving to LA – I said, Oh, go to Philippe’s and get a sandwich. My grandfather hopped a train from Eagle Pass, Texas, to get a sales job in Los Angeles. This had to be like 1920, and he got off at Union Station and that’s the first place he ate. It opened in 1919, I think, so it must have been right there. So he loved to go and we’d often go with them.

I remember that Smith still had family dinner nights when I was there. Although they did not have the napkin bins. They got rid of cloth napkins, but they did put on cloth tablecloths for that night and candles. I was always surprised about how many young women really could care less about food, about any of it. It was just eat dinner, get done with it. I still feel that way. Somehow what’s missing is people’s appreciation that cooking is more than just feeding yourself. It sounds so corny, but it’s an expression of love, it’s community, it’s being together. It’s taking care of yourself and each other. I really, really wish that they taught cooking more than they do – to boys and girls. I was toying with the idea of having cooking classes. I would hope that even kids who weren’t initially interested – because they don’t know – would become interested.

I talked about my childhood family, but my family, my children, that’s the other thing. We’ve always had family dinners. There just haven’t been any options. When the kids were in high school only a couple of times did we not arrange it so that we could have family dinner together because they had practice or something. We’d have it later, we’d have it earlier. We really made a huge effort to have family dinner together. Even if the kids were in a bad mood and wouldn’t talk to us. Didn’t matter. They sat at the table and had dinner with us. They were flabbergasted when they started getting out in the world and finding out that their friends didn’t! That was huge for us as a family. We still do it. We’ve had our oldest daughter living with us for the last six months before she moved to Los Angeles and it’s been nice. Especially since now she cooks too.

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