The couple wavered in front of a Fairway shelf that made my heart stop.
There before me were rows of Lion’s Golden Syrup, digestive biscuits and tucked away at the bottom was Robinsons Orange Fruit Squash.
“There’s spotted dick.”
“What’s spotted dick?”
“A kind of pudding.”
The man, clearly English, swallowed his tongue as he mouthed the title of the familiar British dish, a cake with spots with a title that raised eyebrows in a crowded aisle of the Fairway at 125th Street.
Orange squash, digestive biscuits, chutney, and even spotted dick once filled the pantry of my grandfather’s farmhouse in a county called Suffolk. Not Suffolk, Long Island, but Suffolk, England. He is gone, the house is gone, the mother that once shared all these delights with me in our English summers today asked me “What Thanksgiving?” because she too is gone, gone into the world of Alzheimer’s.
My English mother, a journalist for Gourmet and a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef, once wrote an important magazine article when the publishing industry of expense accounts, fine dining, and groundbreaking food journalism existed. It was about her first Thanksgiving in America in Wilton, Connecticut with her new husband in a red barn with our cousins diving into turkeys, as they sat on a bed of haystacks. It was almost Kennedy-esque. Mollie E. C. Webster admired the snow that year. And she wrote about her excitement of bringing a baby into this beautiful place, this wondrous country. That child is me.
Year after year as the great seasonal feasts would come upon us, I had no idea when I sat at the kitchen tables of James Beard, Daniel Boulud or Robert Carrier– either indulged with a spoon to stir or a coloring book to occupy me while my mother interviewed, exchanged, laughed and systematically identified the magic in each dish– that I was in the midst of food royalty. I knew I was surrounded by genius, prowess, by the great creators. I knew she was at work. And we were happy. We lived in a sort of food heaven of constant euphoric discovery intertwined in art and science always in preparation for the next grand holiday in those kitchens.
My mother also wrote a celebrity Thanksgiving food column for the New York Post and so often I never knew who was coming over that holiday. She loved to prepare their favorite dish. One year, we cooked for Olympic show jumper Joe Fargis. I remember Mummy tearing her hair out when Joe told her a few days earlier he usually eats cereal. This maven of cuisine would not be stopped and we spent a weekend with Joe at Long House Farm in New Jersey, turning an athlete into a genuine gourmand for a day.
When the couple in Fairway moved on to gather other items for their Thanksgiving feast, I began to sweep my fingers across the labels. I picked up jars of jams, powders, and cans of condensed milk. I brought them close to my chest and eventually placed them in my cart. I went on unconsciously moving through cheese, dairy, meats on to gather leeks, carrots and my heart leapt as I saw the stores pre-prepared soup greens. I smelled the dill through the plastic. Thirty minutes later I would uncap that squash, pour it into a glass with some New York City tap water and have a small taste of a delicious memory. A thousand experiences, hugs, adrenaline, love of my childhood. The leeks, carrots, soup greens and a BBQ chicken would be thrown in a lobster pot.
Before I left the checkout, I took a minute to look around me and noticed that everyone was shopping for Thanksgiving. Their Thanksgiving. Their Channukkah. In this international city, we all seemed to be honoring a heritage, family and friends both past and present. We were experimenting with a new family or honoring an old one, creating new traditions out of a warehouse of ingredients from Jewish potato latkes to Italian burrata.
The last thing I heard before leaving with my groceries was a young lady telling her beaux, “Oh we don’t have to get that flour, she’s eighty years old, she won’t remember.” But he gave us all a nod that indicated she would indeed remember. I do hope that Thanksgiving comes out just right.
I’ve been sharing a bastardized version of my mother’s hardy winter stew with friends all week and I remember my love for her with each bite. Now I also studied at Le Cordon Bleu, I am mother’s child but I’m also American. My vegetables are chopped way too big for her taste and I even threw in a whole pre-cooked Fairway BBQ chicken! I’m using the American phrase this Thanksgiving: Go Big or Go Home. I didn’t cook for good looks but I’m definitely getting a little healing in the kitchen.
Featured image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Camilla Webster