I spend all the money I can afford on food and consider it well-spent and never look back. I feel lucky to be able to eat well. My childhood was spent in semi-genteel poverty, which is to say, my family never had any money, and our neighborhoods could be a bit rough, but we always had a lot of books, music, and fun. Before I was born, my mother was a cellist studying at Juilliard on a full scholarship. She finally decided she wasn’t cut out for the life of a cellist and quit with one semester to go and moved out to Berkeley, where she got married and had three daughters by the age of 31.
During my early years, she was the wife of a penniless Marxist pro-bono civil-rights lawyer (my father) and maker of spaghetti dinners for various Black Panthers and anti-war activists, and then she was a Ph.D candidate in psychology at Arizona State University and a single mother without child support (that father having vanished into the drug-fueled fog of the era), and finally she was a struggling fledgling private-practice psychologist living in an Arizona mountain ghost town, married to an unemployed and later barely-employed architect, and later, she was a very poor single mother again. By the time she moved back East and established herself in a successful private practice and married her third husband, a well-off English professor, my sisters and I had all left home.
During most of our early years as a family, we qualified for food stamps and free lunches at school. We bought our clothes in thrift shops. But we didn’t feel deprived. My mother was young, fun-loving, beautiful, always laughing. She read us stories every night before bed. She wasn’t a hippie, not by a long shot — she espoused none of the trendy spiritual beliefs or practices of the 1970s, she was not into free love or communal living; she was a responsible former straight-A student who put us to bed every night at 7:30 — but she wore sexy clothes, had long hair, threw great poker parties, and loved to take us camping. Indian bedspreads were a prominent feature of our house décor — but so were books and records. Most likely because our mother was a serious cellist, we all studied classical instruments, and my sister Susan studied ballet. We were encouraged, always, to be bold and confident in our undertakings — she didn’t freak out when I made minor explosions with my chemistry set, we were allowed to go into the kitchen and invent things, she gave all our plays and concerts standing ovations, she read and praised whatever we wrote, and she saved all our drawings.
And she fed us very well with the little money she had– before dinner, to stave off our pangs of hunger, we got a plate of cut-up raw carrots and peppers and jicama, which, not knowing any better, we gobbled up as fast as she could dole them out — or a big bowl of frozen mixed vegetables, which we adored and called Frozies. She baked healthy bread and handed us a piece of fruit or a Graham cracker for mid-afternoon hunger. Desserts were given sparingly; we ate no sugar cereal, had no junk food or pop (as we called it in Arizona) in the house, ever. But we weren’t ascetics or puritans. We occasionally had Spam and baloney, and for special occasions, we got to go to McDonald’s or the thrillingly glamorous (or so it seemed to me at the time) local Mexican place, where I always ordered the deep-fried beef chimichangas with a deep-fried sopapilla for dessert.
One of my favorite childhood meals was Farmer’s Fritters. On Friday nights, our mother whipped up a big batch of thin, crisp, tangy-sweet cottage-cheese pancakes. While we ate stacks of them with Aunt Jemima syrup, we told a story, going around the table, with the sliding glass door open to the patio and a warm breeze making the candles flicker. Someone started it, and then we took turns continuing it until it was finished. I wrote the best one down — of course my mother saved it, and I still have it in a box somewhere. My youngest sister Emily has the old egg-spattered recipe card — now she can make Farmer’s Fritters for her own kids.
My Mother’s Anadama Bread
I used to wolf down almost half a loaf of this dark, sweet, soft bread straight out of the oven. I would jaggedly cut into the steaming-hot loaf and slather each piece in margarine and honey and chew it with ecstatic eye-flutters and sighs, the kiddie version of a swoon, standing by the cutting board until I could eat no more.
this recipe comes courtesy of the New York Times…
In a bowl, stir together 1/2 cup coarse yellow cornmeal and 1 cup water. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring another cup of water to a boil. Add cornmeal mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is very thick, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup molasses and 2 tablespoons butter. Transfer mixture to bowl of an electric mixer and cool to tepid.
In a small bowl, stir together 1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast and 1/2 cup water until yeast has dissolved. Add to cornmeal and mix on low speed with dough-hook attachment for several seconds (my mother used a wooden spoon). Add 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing for several seconds after each addition. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, and continue mixing until dough completely comes away from sides of bowl, about 7 minutes (my mother turned it out onto a floured board and kneaded it for 10 minutes until it was supple and warm and glossy).
Lightly butter a bowl. Form dough into a ball and place it in bowl. Oil a sheet of plastic wrap and loosely cover dough. Allow dough to rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Lightly grease 2 9-by-4-inch loaf pans. Press down (my mother “punched” it down and kneaded it again briefly) dough and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Shape each piece loosely into a loaf and place each in a pan. Cover with plastic wrap (or a clean dish towel) and allow to rise for 30 minutes, or until loaves have doubled.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until bread is a dark golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.
The recipe says: “Allow bread to cool in pans for 5 minutes, then turn out onto wire cooling rack. Brush all over with remaining softened butter. Serve warm if possible.” But I would say, cram as much buttered, honeyed bread into your mouth as you possibly can while it’s still piping hot.