“Planning a big Seder dinner?” Ivane, my favorite check-out lady at Whole Foods asked as I unloaded the 10 boxes of matzo from my shopping cart.
The pound of pork tenderloin, the 5-lb ham, and the 2 packages of bacon which I also unloaded were a clear tell that no, I was not celebrating Passover. I was merely stocking up on my favorite seasonal cracker before the lack of demand would take away my supply.
“You only like matzo because you don’t have to eat it every day,” my Jewish friends always tell me.
Maybe. Arguably, us Catholics get off easy. “No bread” is one of the many paths to self-denial we can chose from during the Lent season. And since I’m an “Only When She Flies” Catholic, giving up bread for 40 days is less about religious doctrine and more about getting ready for beach season.
Then again, if Catholics had to replace every slice of bread with communion wafers during the 40 days of Lent, and I saw a friend willingly consume the tasteless disk of starch, I’d probably think she was crazy too. But a communion wafer doesn’t come close to matzo on the utility scale.
Matzo’s chalky tastelessness and sturdy physical presence make it a great vehicle for anything you could possibly want to stack on top of something before you eat it. Peanut butter and honey. Chocolate and caramel. Smoked salmon and chives. Aged Gouda and ham. A slab of butter.
Or you can crumble it into stuff, like soup.
Matzo’s lack of flavor means it doesn’t interfere with what you really want to eat. Its crunch is an appealing bonus characteristic.
As I unpacked my groceries and tried to make space in my pantry, it occurred to me that 10 boxes might have been excessive. Apparently, besides making a lot of crumbs, the big drawback to matzo is that it’s packaging doesn’t fit in a breadbox.
I know, I know. What I’m about to say is un-American. Sacrilegious. Blasphemy in its definitive form. But I can’t pretend any longer: I hate turkey.
Cranberry relish? Can eat it all year, goes particularly well with pork. Mashed potatoes? God’s food. But turkey? If it’s not semi-synthetic and deli-sliced on my sandwich, accompanied by sharp mustard, gouda, and bread & butter pickles, then I’m not interested.
“My mother’s turkey was always usually good,” my own mother said, trying to convince me that the oversized poultry really is delicious. “Except for that time she put all the cayenne pepper in the stuffing. She was a lot like you — always experimenting in the kitchen.”
I never knew my grandmother, but clearly, she and I were a lot alike. She understood what I understand — turkey is bland and needs all the help it can get. She may have been heavy-handed with the cayenne, but she meant well.
Organic Free Range.
There isn’t a bird on the market at any weight we haven’t tried and tried again. Some have more “turkey taste” than others, but even after tons of culinary TLC, all have proven a disappointment.
There have been test turkeys in October and re-test turkeys in early November. Sometimes, we walk away hopeful. Most of the time, we end up with a lot of unsavory leftovers (thank goodness “turkey is bad for dogs” is an urban legend.)
We’ve bounced from method to method, hoping something would finally produce a succulent dinner centerpiece.
For years, we clung to the “tent and baste” system in which my father slathers butter all over the bird, creates a tin-foil tent to shield it, and we all take turns basting it on the hour. But after several rubber-like final products, we began to experiment.
There was the brining experiment gone terribly wrong. The garbage bag leaked in the fridge, spreading salmonella-laden water over all the vegetables and side dishes. There was only turkey that year. And far too much of it.
We then tried the cheese-cloth soaked in wine and butter method. Wine and butter are flammable when not properly watched. Luckily, we keep a compact fire extinguisher in the kitchen for just such incidents.
Over the years, some of these approaches undoubtedly produced a bird worthy of a Norman Rockwell illustration, but all resulted in an entrée better left forgotten.
The best turkey we ever made was the result of an extended hospital stay – my mother broke her rib while vacuuming. The whole family rushed off to the hospital where we passed the next 7 hours. Luckily, before we left the house, we turned the oven down and quietly forgot about the turkey.
“Mum, can’t we just have a chicken this year?” I asked as we stood at the holiday order counter at Whole Foods.
“No. You want stuffing don’t you?”
To this I could of no retort. Thank goodness I’ve at least mastered the art of a delicious gravy.
Some mothers are content to spend Mother’s Day at brunch followed by an afternoon at the spa. But sitting down and relaxing, even after two hip replacements, are not activities my mother believes in.
When my family and I awoke to a perfect spring morning, I thought I just might be able to trick Mum into spending a leisurely day sunning ourselves in the garden. I baked orange-current scones, cooked-up Spanish-style fava beans, scrambled some farm-fresh eggs with cheese, and the three of us gathered outside under the umbrella to dine in the fresh air.
As she sipped her iced-tea she looked uncharacteristically at ease. “I think we should pull out the Adirondack chairs so we can sit and survey our ‘estate.'”
I was encouraged. Could it be possible that I’d get to spend the rest of the day reading David Sedaris and catching some sun while she sat peacefully and color-coded her calendar?
We’d been kicking back not 5 minutes before she turned to me and said:
“By the way, your father and I went to Home Depot yesterday. We have everything we need to till and reseed the lawn. There’s a pile of dirt under the plastic over there.”
“Are you telling me that you want to spend Mother’s Day digging up the yard? Don’t you want to watch the DVD of our summer vacation I made for you?”
“No. I want to dig up the lawn. Ask dad for the shovel. Let’s get to work.”
I felt a gardening glove hit my shoulder. I knew it’d be a long time before I’d be allowed to sit down again.
Over the last 2 years, I may have cultivated a new interest in gardening, but let me tell you, digging up a lawn, hauling dirt up stairs in a wheelbarrow, and spreading peat moss over grass seed is not gardening — it’s back breaking work that should be left to professionals.
At the end of the day, after we had finished the lawn and I finished cooking dinner, my father, the dogs, and I collapsed into heaps on the couch.
“That was a great mother’s day! I got everything I wanted — a new lawn!”
Next year, forget the homemade, thoughtful gifts. I’m buying her a landscape gardener named Carlos so I can spend Mother’s Day at the spa.
As I write this, my mother is in the kitchen, listening to Riverdance and banging two wooden spoons together. Her clacking is not in time, but rhythm has never been one of my mother’s strong suits — they took the triangle away from her in grade school. She’s had both hips replaced but that doesn’t stop her from doing her most inspired Michael Flatley impression. She’s a Tobin after all and it is St. Patrick’s Day.
Despite being a conglomerate of Italian, German, Scot, and Irish heritage, we take St. Patrick’s Day fairly seriously in my house. Come to think of it, we take being Irish pretty seriously in my house, even though we’re 2 generations removed from the family homestead in County Clare. Well, we take Irish food and music very seriously. My mother makes a mean boiled potato and there’s enough Irish oatmeal in the pantry to lead the nation through another potato famine. My favorite song growing up was “The Orange and the Green,” I was more interested in playing a reel on my fiddle than Mozart on my violin, and my first concert in New York City was Gaelic Storm at the BB King.
In honor of the holiday, I’ve put two loaves of traditional Irish brown bread baking in the oven. Meanwhile, my mother made green jell-o and we collaborated on cabbage rolls and green Scotch shortbread cookies. My father contributed with a 6-pack of Irish Red in the basement fridge. We’re ready to party in a way our ancestors would be proud of… maybe.
I went to Ireland once, when I was 7. That trip was the first time I’d ever stayed up past 9PM and first time I’d ever been to a bar. My father was on business and my mother used it as an excuse to met up with her favorite Irish cousin and her son. Julie drove us from Shannon into a small town hidden among fields and knolls. It was like the setting of JRR Tolkin book. The sky was black and clear and the only light illuminating the streets was the glow from cottage windows. We stepped out of the car into a informal parking lot outside a pub. Music and laughter filled the air and it was clear we were in for a rolicking good time.
The whole world seemed to be crammed into the small, smokey public house. Pints sloshed as joyous patrons slammed their glasses down in time to the music, which was provided by a group set atop a rickety stage. The tables and chairs had been cleared from a section of the floor, and men and women reeled around in circles, stomping and spinning, pulling in new partners at will. An older gentleman with a white beard and cap, straight off a postcard, threw me into the middle of the floor, determined that I would learn how to step dance before the night was through. As a kid, I had chalk white skin, rose bud cheeks, and thick blond curls. In my cable knit sweater, I looked as local as anyone else there. I would eventually learn that the Tobin farm, tied up in family feuds for a half century (how typically Irish), was but a mile away — I was as local as anyone.
We rolled into our cousin’s B&B at 2AM and slept till late afternoon. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.
It’s true what they say about Ireland — it gets under your skin, you become part of a family, and you start to pine for it. Sometimes, I feel like pulling a John Wayne in “The Quiet Man” — retire from this fighting life, move back to my people’s farm, fix it up, marry me a nice Irish bloke, and dance a jig to the tune of a happily ever after.
In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for my home baked bread, a pint, a warm memory, and a toast to my Grandma, Anna Tobin.