Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Food as Love and Doilies

My Auntie Jo's rice pudding and whipped cream, standard fare for her dessert tables.

Over the past several months I have been gearing up to begin a food and photography blog for myself. My love of food and image would have a place to spill out to, to encircle others, to give love and share love.

I had many names that I came up with, all appealing to the different aspects of my personality and attitudes toward food {the healthy, the honoring of traditions, the "hey, let's not get too serious and just enjoy"...} but I found myself circling back to one thought. What is the most profound thing about food? What is it that just makes me feel so compelled the need to send it out, to share?

And the same two answers just kept coming back to me.

I was in NYC during September 11th. I was working at a photo shoot in a penthouse space on the Westside of Manhattan. I had seen the gaping, smoldering hole of the first attack and my first thought was, "we will never be the same". Even without knowing that it was an attack I had felt it's magnitude. As the morning wore on someone had turned on a radio. From it bleated the mind bending updates on the scene from downtown and the news that there was an attack in DC and another plane down in PA. The voices on the radio were strained and adrenaline spiked and it made me think of WWII and people huddled around radios for the latest. We all walked around dazed and in shock.

That shock continued through the week and I was right, we were not going to be the same.

Some dear friends of mine invited me that Friday to their Shabbat table. I am not Jewish, but to be amongst friends was the solace that I needed. Their apartment is in Greenwich Village is on the top floor of a beautiful old building which had a balcony that through French doors we could see the glow from the lights and smoke of ground zero. This was our backdrop and it was staggering.

Later as we gathered around the table, holding hands, and the prayers were sung and the candles lit, that I realized that the warm reflection that was created by loving faces gathered around a table was what life was all about and where our best moments often happen-Around A Table, Shared. That joining together created a warm and safe place and kept out that smoldering glow outside the window, it was bigger and more powerful than anything someone else could do to you, and it was precious and invaluable.

And that leads me to my Auntie Jo, or Fofi as she is known in the family.

Joesphine was my Mother's elder sister, and by far the most amazing woman I have ever known. She had an incredible grace and beauty in the way she handled everything. She was a remarkable smart woman, the sort of woman who had she been born in my day would have been a force in the workplace. Instead she was a force within the family. She was the quintessential homemaker, a gracious hostess, and fierce cook and insistent upon using doilies.

Sadly we lost her this week to a long struggle with cancer, which cruelly landed in her colin, making it unable to eat for the last months of her life. I tell you this because for us around her it was more than frustrating. Fofi and taught us all to equate food with love and giving love, and here, the dearest person in the world to us could not receive our love, we could not nurture her back to health, we could not give her pleasure or solace.

Josephine always had an amazing ability to make everyone feel special. Jo comes from the Spanish side of my family, which is was always a warm and glowing sharp contrast to my chillier Irish side. She spoke a fluent Spanish and I have a memory of being with her once at a restaurant. She was always curious and always wanted to learn more, especially about food. I recall her speaking to a busboy in Spanish and making him blush with shyness. On the way out she touched him on the arm and said one more thing to him and then cupped his cheek. He smiled and nodded brightly to her, and I could see on his face how she had blown away that shyness and he gravitated toward her. She was like that.

But let me also be clear, she was a strong and often stubborn woman. She had her standards, she didn't put up with whining or feeling sorry for yourself and then there were those doilies.

At her funeral I recanted a story about her. It's one of those snapshot moments that were really of no real significance but just encapsulated her. It was Thanksgiving at her house and a few of us were in the kitchen putting together the dessert table. We are a family of great cooks and chefs and there are always just as many desserts served as there were dishes for dinner- needless to say we take our food and sweets seriously. There was always some of the same things year after year and Jo always, ALWAYS had a bowl of freshly whipped cream. 

Now imagine a kitchen full of fantastic cooks all hustling to get coffee service and desserts out onto the table. My Mother grabbed the whipped cream bowl and saucer and headed out the door. Jo stopped her- "May! where's the doily?!" to which my mother answered, "oh come on Jo..." To that Jo whisked across the kitchen and with pinky finger out gently but sternly made it clear that a doily was to go under the plate and just so, as she peeled the paper doilies apart and carefully arranged them under the bowl. That was Jo- in the midst of chaos, there would be beauty.

Later, at the post burial luncheon, photo books were passed around of her. And sure enough, one picture was of a holiday dessert table, and right in front was that bowl of whipped cream- and nestled underneath was a doily.

In honor of Josephine I begin this journey of creating my own voice and song of food. I owe Fofi much, oh so much.... and especially my love and curiosity of food and cooking and sharing tables. My greatest wish is you share this table with me as well as those gathered around yours.

No comments:

Post a Comment