Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What's Your Favorite Memory of Food From Childhood?

I recently had a revelation about my business, after nearly 4 years that was a bit surprising to me. All along I had been thinking that as a chef my identity is completely my own. Some of what I cooked had roots in the foods I ate as a child, but mostly I thought it was my own interest in food as a grown up that was steering the ship. Growing up my mother made lots of good homemade food everyday for 9 people, including desserts. That is quite impressive no matter how you slice it. Just the same the availability of so many more ingredients today from different parts of the world, including more variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, opens up more culinary possibilities and choices.

When I first started my business I chose recipes for bakes goods that I knew would be great, that would fill a need in the neighborhood and that I would be able to consistently produce. My early selections were a combination of traditional cookies using the best recipe I could find, such as chocolate chunk cookies and oatmeal cookies but also some of my own ideas about ingredients made their way into the selections. The past year and half or so I have been testing recipes for products that I will sell when I open my bakery. Some of what I chose were items that I thought a good bakery in this part of Brooklyn should have and I was also trying to come up with things that would set me apart a bit from my competition.

I was thinking about some of the baked goods that I had been trying out and it occurred to me that some of them were typical of what my mother and her sisters would serve at their weekly coffee klatch. What is a coffee klatch you might ask? Why it's a casual social gathering for coffee and conversation. I haven’t thought about the whole concept of a coffee klatch in a long time but it gave me a good feeling that I was in some small way carrying on a tradition that I enjoyed as a child. I wonder if anyone today would grasp the concept of getting together every week with your siblings, but growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s it worked for my family.

Every week, usually on Thursday’s, my mother and her two sisters (and sometimes their brother’s wife) and their children would get together in the afternoon. Since they lived less than a mile apart in the same town (or the one next to) Rockville Centre their whole lives it was fairly easy to do. My siblings and cousins and I would play outside games if it was nice, like kickball, tag or monkey in the middle, or board games if it was raining. We would occasionally put on shows if the mood hit us right. I remember doing impressions of LBJ, Nixon, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, white fang from The Soupy Sales Show (I did a mean Soupy Shuffle) and the old man played by Artie Johnson, from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Sometimes I would play Last Train to Clarksville by the Monkees on the guitar. I’m sure the shows were pretty lame, but our mom’s clapped as though we were the Marx Brothers.

Of course coffee (iced tea or lemonade for the kids) and dessert was always served and was the highlight of the day as far as I was concerned. I know my mother almost always made the dessert when it was her turn but I guess sometimes she went to Front Street the local bakery when she did not have time to bake. At least 45 years later Front Street still does a booming business across the street from the LIRR station in RVC.

I remember having cookies, brownies, kruellers (donut), coffee cakes, crumb buns, rum cake, sometime pies or layer cakes, all of it good and tasty in my book. My mother recently lost her last remaining sibling, Anna Federico who passed away last year. Although the “coffee klatch” had lost steam when Mom’s sister Josephine passed away years ago and the kids had all grown up, Mom and Anna got together at least once a week to go to a movie or lunch together until Anna's health declined. She passed away last year.

I can only hope that what I bake might play even a small part in building traditions and memories that my customers might have with their families.

Note: I want to thank my mother for letting me use the photo you see above. She is on the standing on the right, to the left of her is Josephine and Anna, her parents Elvira and Robert seated with her brother Robert.

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