Once, after three months of wedded bliss, I made a mistake that was nearly fatal to my marriage: I suggested an omelet for dinner. My husband looked at me as if he'd married a hot dog vendor. I intended to fill my fluffy egg concoction with all manner of delectable goodies, from peppers and assorted cheeses to Vidalia onions. Still, we ate out.
I quickly learned that food was a vital part of my husband's life, as it would become for mine. I should have realized this when I met his family. Never before had I experienced people so focused on what they ate that it absorbed a good part of their daily routine. The epitome of their culinary commitment occurred on Sundays, a day devoted to cooking, eating, recovering, and recalling splendid meals – or meals that had failed miserably.
"This reminds me of the time we had that extraordinary cassoulet in Carcassonne," my mother-in-law would say as she cut into her Sunday lunch of perfectly roasted pork with sage-and-onion dressing, crisply roasted potatoes, and fresh haricots verts.
"Oh," another relative invariably chimed in, "wasn't that the trip to the Pyrenees when we ate magnificent beef bourguignon?"
"Too greasy," someone else snuffed. "What are we eating next Sunday?"
No wonder my husband is a gourmet cook. His repertoire ranges from soups to zabaglione with main courses of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, pad Thai, and Indian curry. He loves nothing more than to thumb through his cookbooks until "Got it!" reverberates from the kitchen. He copies down the esoteric ingredients and rushes to the supermarket. Hours later, we sit down to an exotic meal. We seldom go out to eat now; there's nothing to compete with a home-cooked offering.
When I think about how we ate when I was growing up, I recall the Charlie Chaplin movie in which he savors a leather shoe as if it were a sirloin steak. That clip reminds me of my father, a steak-and-potatoes man of routine. We ate roast on Sunday, leftovers on Monday, chicken on Tuesday, overdone steak on Wednesday, fish on Thursday, and spaghetti on Friday. On Saturdays we went to Ponzio's Diner for deli or to Luigi's, possibly a Mafia-owned restaurant.
My father's eating habits killed the creativity of my mother's cooking. Still, she had some great recipes and every once in a while, she treated us to one of them. Among my favorites was prakas, sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage. In my mother's recipe, the sweet-and-sour flavor is achieved by equal parts sugar and vinegar. These ingredients are mixed with tomato paste, water, bouillon, onions, mushrooms, and seasonings. The cabbage, parboiled so that the leaves fold easily, is wrapped around seasoned meatballs. The prakas are held together with toothpicks while they simmer for hours in the sweet-and-sour sauce.
When I wanted to escape shoe leather and canned pears, I went to a neighbor's house. If I felt like baked ham trimmed with pineapple, mashed potatoes, and green-bean casserole, I'd head for Helen's. At Gladys's place, turkey breast and luscious seasonal pie were likely to be available.
Away from home, there were eating rituals that still make my mouth water. One of them was grabbing the end piece of yellow cake with chocolate icing in the school cafeteria. Then there was Weber's drive-in where waitresses on roller skates brought hamburgers and root beer to your car window. Another treat was junk food such as vinegar French fries, Taylor pork roll, and Kohr's soft ice cream.
My culinary tastes became more sophisticated once I'd begun traveling. I was in Paris, for example, when I recognized veau on the menu. I pointed and the waiter smiled and returned with what was unmistakably veal's brain. I tried it and voilà! Très bon!
Over the years I've widened my culinary repertoire, and I'm now adept at throwing dinner parties. I'm also the rave at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Seder. Still, my offerings remain limited compared with my husband's. When it comes to the culinary life, I clearly married up. We now eat omelets only for brunch, my casseroles are tuna-free, and his marinated salmon has been known to make friends swoon.
It's enough to make me proud at Sunday lunch with my in-laws.