Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mort's Favorites

Over the years I've shared with you food I've made for or with my dad, Mort. I've done it because his love of food was contagious and inspired how I cook, market, and enjoy eating out. He was an adventurous eater at a time when Chef Boyardee and Swansons frozen dinners were more popular than crepes or tempura, just two of the dishes he introduced us to at L.A.'s few French and Japanese restaurants when my siblings and I were growing up in the '60s and '70s. He instilled that adventurousness and his happiness in the kitchen in his children. For him food and family were his greatest joy and totally intertwined. I think I've written here that my first memory is of him holding me carefully over the stove when I was about three, teaching me how to make scrambled eggs.

My dad suffered from Alzheimer's and Lewy Body diseases for the past few years. He lost his battle with them last Sunday, September 4, and my heart is broken. I always loved going out to eat with him or cooking him meals, but those activities became especially important to me as a way I could still connect with him as dementia took greater hold over his mind. He loved going out for burgers at The Habit, for Thai food at Supannee House of Thai or for sushi or Chinese. He got a kick out of visiting my friend Tommy Gomes at Catalina Offshore Products, who treated him and my mom like VIPs and gave them samples that could serve as a meal. Although he always was a big story teller, especially about his family, the conversations over the meals we shared in his last years often surprised me with new bits of information that his long-term memory could still dredge up. And he could always make me laugh, up to the end. He wasn't a joke teller, but a smart, naturally funny person who relished having the right comeback.

It also became a pleasure to prepare special edible treats for him--things I knew he'd love.

When I look inside my mom's refrigerator, there are still a few jars of preserved peaches I made for him early this summer.

He was delighted when I made him pickles--both bread and butter pickles and dill pickles.

The pickles are long gone, which makes me happy since he enjoyed them so much.

I even made him pickled beets--even though I detest beets. He was thrilled. This falls under the category of "anything for Dad."

But I was tickled--and so was he--that I found one of his favorites, sand dabs, at a local fishermen's farmers market. I dusted them in flour before pan frying them for a big meal that made him so happy.

Then there were his Tom Aches. These are Dutch pancakes made with beer that come from our long-time family friend in Amsterdam, Tom van Leeuwen. For years all I had was a list of ingredients, no measurements. Dad knew what the proportions were and I was able to work with him, while he was still able, to make them and create a precise recipe. Now it's something I can make for friends or my nieces and nephews.

Dad taught me how to bone fish, eat artichokes, and marinate and roll flank steak into delicious broiled pinwheels. My mom and I just discovered tucked away in the living room bookcase a recipe book he had created for himself, complete with a hand-written table of contents for dishes like Turkish Spinach Salad, Cooking Guy's Frittata, and Chocolate Toffee Matzoh. He learned as a boy from Rosie, the cook at The Park Manor, his family's catering business in Brooklyn, how to make appetizers and carve fruit bowls for weddings and bar mitzvahs. It was something he did for dinner parties he and my mom held. Dad took us both to fine dining restaurants and to the original Tommy's on Rampart and Beverly Blvd. to get big, messy chili-laden Tommy Burgers--and we were expected to know how to behave and enjoy ourselves at both.

We loved the nights he'd come home from work with a big pink box in hand. It meant that he'd been in L.A.'s Chinatown, back when he worked downtown, and had pork buns for us. Sometimes, his secretary's mom and aunt made extra tamales for us over the holidays and we'd devour them as the rare treat they were. I can't think of too much he wouldn't try or encourage us to try back when these foods considered exotic--if they were considered at all.

There were so many ways I enjoyed my father. We shared so many interests--in jazz, college football, The New Yorker, politics, shopping. Even in the depths of his dementia, we'd reminisce about the restaurant meals or street food we enjoyed back when I lived in New York. Sharing a meal together? That, ultimately, was everything. He--with my mom, of course--turned me into a person who lives to eat, and eat well. Even as I'll miss him, I'll always be grateful for that.

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