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Father's Day and Memories of Food

Story ID:6079
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family Memories
Location:Oak Park IL USA
Person:Al Julien
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Father's Day and Memories of Food

Father's Day and Memories of Food

Father’s Day is next Sunday, and how can that special day not bring thoughts of our dads, whether living or deceased. Sometimes the memories of dads are strongest when it comes to punishment for misdeeds. How many times did we hear, “Just wait til your father gets home. He’ll have something to say about this!” And most often he did have a goodly number of words and/or a punishment of some sort. But our dads influenced us in so many other ways.

My father has been gone for fifteen years, but memories of him will last me forever. One of the clearest has to do with eating ethnic foods. Dad appreciated good food, and he passed that love on to his children. Our family didn’t get to eat out frequently, but when we did, it was almost always Italian, Chinese, Bohemian or German food. At home, my mother fixed all those, except German. Why no German, I don’t know. But she also made English, Irish and French meals. Not gourmet French—more of the peasant fare.

I had the great good fortune of growing up in a suburb of Chicago in a red brick apartment building that housed over 60 families. Among them were Italians, Germans, Irish, Bohemians and more. Some were new immigrants while others were one or two generations removed from those who’d immigrated to the United States. Those people brought little in the way of material things when they came to a new country, but the recipes for the food they ate back home came with them and spread to others. They cooked here like they’d done at home but gradually added American foods to their table, as well. Each stairwell housed seven apartments, and climbing the stairs to the third floor where we lived was tantamount to reading a menu in a restaurant.

The smells of spaghetti sauce, sauerkraut and pork ribs, and boiled beef and noodles mingled as they climbed the steps with me. Oddly enough, the aroma never repulsed me. It only made my mouth water with hunger as I wondered what Mom had for our dinner.

If it was Beef and Gellets, we were sure to hear stories of our dad’s childhood because it was a dish his French grandmothers and his mother made regularly. Boil a big chunk of beef with onions and celery and a few spices in the water until the meat was fork tender. The dough had already been made and rolled out for the gellets. Instead of cutting the dough into long strips for noodles, Mom used a pastry cutter to slash diagonally through the dough in two directions to make diamond shapes. She dropped them into the boiling broth the meat had stewed in earlier. Then she thickened the broth a bit and added chunks of the meat to the serving bowl. It didn’t look especially appetizing, but it tasted wonderful and was a real stick-to-your ribs meal that we ate gathered around our kitchen table. Dad always had bread and butter with this meal and every other meal he ever ate. He wanted bakery bread, not Wonder bread from the grocery store. Living in a metropolitan area, we had a wonderful neighborhood bakery that supplied us with endless loaves of bread that could rival homemade.

Our Italian dinners were not Chef-Boy-Ardee from a can. My mother prepared the sauce and let it simmer for hours. The ground meat, onions, celery, carrots and herbs bubbled in the tomato sauce getting better and better as it cooked. Sometimes she put the sauce on spaghetti, and once in awhile, she made ravioli from scratch. She found a new recipe once that called for piling the flour in the middle of a bread board, making a well in the center and adding the eggs and liquid, then mixing it all together with the hands. Too sticky? Add more flour. Too dry? A little more liquid. When it was just right, and only she who made it would know when that moment arrived, she rolled the dough, then cut it into squares, plopped a tsp of the veal/spinach/cheese filling she’d made earlier in the center of half the squares. Next, she covered them with the plain squares and using the tines of a fork, she sealed the edges before cooking them in boiling water and topping with her special sauce. My Irish mother could fix Italian food like a native of Italy. And once again, in-between bites of crusty Italian bread, Dad related stories of restaurants he’d eaten at in a section of Chicago known as Little Italy.

My very French aunt, dad’s sister, married a Czech man, but in those days the Czechs were known as Bohemians. Aunt Vivienne learned to cook the foods his mother had made when they lived in Czechoslovakia. Dad asked her to teach my mother how to make some of the dishes. And so, we also ate roast pork with sauerkraut and bread dumplings. Or roast duck with the same side dishes. And not sauerkraut straight from the package or can. Mom learned to pour off the juice into a saucepan and then she thickened it with flour and added caraway seed before stirring in the kraut. The dumplings were another matter and of great interest to us kids. She stirred up the yeast dough and added cubes of bread to it before forming large spoonfuls into round balls. These she placed into boiling water where they expanded like balloons. They were so big that two or three would feed our family of six. When they were cooked, Mom sliced them in one inch rounds. We topped them with the rich brown gravy she made from the roast drippings. We were American enough that green beans might appear on the plate that night, too. Dad relished every bite, as he told us more stories about Uncle Jimmy and how he came to America when he was a child of three. For dessert, we had kolaches which were bought at the bakery--square pastries filled with pureed apricots or prunes and then dusted with powdered sugar. Pure Heaven!

Dad’s love of Chinese food meant that we had take-out once or twice a month. My mother made an American version of chop suey that tasted nothng at all like the real thing, so most of our Chinese meals were purchased. Mom and Dad put their heads together to decide what to order from the menu we kept at home, and Dad drove down our brick street and farther on to the Chinese Take-Out place. Sometimes, he let me go with him. I loved to walk in the door of the tiny little shop where the aromas of so many exotic foods met me immediately, tickling my taste buds. The people who ran the place were all quite small, quite shy and very accommodating. Lots of smiles as dad ordered the meal we’d take home in little white cartons with metal handles. Sometimes, they threw in some fortune cookies for free which pleased all of us kids. These people hadn’t been in America long, but they knew what to do to keep the customer happy and keep him coming back. When we got home, the table had been set, the milk and water poured into glasses. Mom opened each little carton and we watched the steam rise into the air. She spooned out the rice and the Sub Gum or whatever we’d ordered onto our plates. Chinese restaurants don’t normally serve bread with their food, but my dad never ate a meal without his bread and butter, and Chinese food made no difference. We never tried to eat with chopsticks, forks worked just fine for us.

From my mother’s side of the family, we learned to eat Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, a favorite of mine to this day. Our Corned beef boiled with potatoes, carrots and cabbage wasn’t reserved for St. Pat’s Day. We had it often. Dad made jokes about the English and Irish food that he, a good Frenchman, had to eat, but he loved every bite. As long as he had plenty of bakery bread and butter to go with it.

Even now, when I eat some of the foods I’ve described here, I think of my dad who enjoyed them all so very much. And of my mother who spent many hours preparing these special meals for our family. When our parents have left this earthly world, memories like this bring them back if only for a short while. I can still hear Dad oohhhing and ahhhing over what we had for dinner. He definitely lived to eat, not the other way around.

I married a man of German heritage, so early in our marriage, I learned to cook the German foods he liked, and I introduced him to many of my family’s favorites which we still eat to this day. Now, my children have taught their children to savor the dishes their great-grandfather loved so much. My dad would love to know that his appreciation of many good ethnic foods has been passed down the generations.

Photo 1: My Dad in 1939. He loved cars as much as food.

Photo 2: Dad, Mom and me around 1942. I was about 2 1/2 here, I think