This is the fourth in a series on the Kitchen Goddesses:
Friends who cook and can coax major culinary experiences out of a
handful of fresh produce and a few utensils. Each of these women over
the years has inspired me in some way. If I can’t exactly follow in
their footsteps, then they’ve encouraged me to gimp along behind as
best I can.
A moment etched in time: Early ’90s. Christina Bess (nee Thompson) and I, sitting on the porch of her 100-year-old apartment building in rural Hopewell, NJ. It was summer. Sticky, hot and green. Very unlike the summers I grew up with in Southern California. We smoked cigarettes and fretted over loves lost and loves unrequited. When it was time for lunch she took me to her garden in the back and plucked a few plum tomatoes off the vine and gathered a handful of basil. She threw them into a bowl with some olive oil and seasoning. It was perfect. We ate it with the bread she’d baked that morning. And although I’ve tried several times, I’ve never once been able to recreate that taste experience.
Chris is a poet, once silencing an entire basement-level bar in the East Village with just a few words written on paper. She is passionate about everything. She has a sprawling, crazy Italian family who fell upon me all at once one Christmas with food and questions and more food and what could I do but eat? She’s lived abroad, in England, Ireland, Italy. She was the one who first said “There are two kind of people: Pie people and bread people.” (she pronounced me a pie person.) From her I learned the value of an old iron skillet and the versatility of Haiku. Before her I hadn’t realized that it was possible to make an entire day out of preparing the evening meal. Before her I didn’t know about the hill towns in Tuscany or about the Jersey Shore. I didn’t know about Michael Ondaatje. I really knew precious little about living well until I’d met Chris Bess.
Never mind that her first comment to me was about my advanced age (I was 27. She was 22.) She’s since caught up. She’s been nothing but inspiring from the start.
What’s the first dish you remember making by yourself?
Cherry pie, the summer I was 11. I had worked on it all day–picking the cherries off my grandmother’s backyard tree, making crust, etc. I tried to pass it out onto the porch (through an open window) where the family was eagerly anticipating their dessert, and flipped it upside-down onto the porch floor. Broken glass. Broken heart/ego. We picked out the shards, ate it anyway, and very soon put a door in where that annoying window had been.
What’s your earliest kitchen memory?
Mixing up a batch of cornbread when I was about 4 years old. I was standing on a chair with my 2 year old brother at the counter. Mom walked away for a moment, and my brother and I elbowed each other to get control of the wooden spoon. I suddenly ended up on the kitchen floor with the bowl over my head, with grainy yellow batter dripping into my ears. Mom returned and my brother instantly began protesting “I didn’t do it!” over and over, while she carried us to the tub (bowl and all) and stuck us in there, laughing like a lunatic. Looking back, it may have been then that I learned that no “catastrophe” in the kitchen ever really matters that much. Kind of liberating, no?
Who inspired your love of cooking/baking?
My Italian-American mom and grandma. They really know how to throw together a few ingredients with garlic and olive oil and make people happy. I learned a lot of the nitty gritty from my mother-in -law who worked in the Nabisco test kitchens and will try any recipe at least once.
What’s your favorite dish to make right now?
Hard to say. Once or twice a month my husband and I and our 10 and 8 year old try to make a soup to nuts meal together. These are always the best, no matter what we make, but lately we have been having a lot of fun and great results w/ our ice cream maker..But , if I absolutely have to choose, it would be a pasta sauce made w/ bacon, garlic, Tabasco, white wine and cream. Heart-cloggingly amazing, and known throughout NY and NJ to make even my Jewish friends taste the pig on a cold winter night. There is never any leftover, which is always satisfying for the home cook.
Are you a bread person or a pie person?
Pie. I actually know quite a few folks who don’t/won’t eat pie. I don’t get it. Life is far too short not to embrace pie. I love to bake bread too. But bread is deceptively complex, being the staff of life and all. I prefer the sweet simplicity of pie. All kinds.
Describe a dish you botched badly.
A lovely French creamed fish soup that involved creating a rich stock with crustacean shells, multiple strainings through cheesecloth, etc. In the final moments before the guests arrived I added the sherry. But wait! It wasn’t sherry — I grabbed the wrong bottle and it was actually the triple sec that I had set out for that refreshing fruity aperatif! YUCK.
Your favorite cookbook of all time?
Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom by Julia Child. Slim yet generous (what I constantly strive to be.) But I am addicted to my Cook’s Illustrated subscription, too.
If you could be anywhere in the world, eating anything you wanted, where would you be, and eating what?
At the top of Monte Morello, a few miles outside Florence, at the Vecchio Ranch, eating a Pizza ai 4 Formaggi. Think farmhouse in the woods with a view over the Tuscan countryside, stone fireplaces big enough to stand in, long family-style scarred wooden tables and pitchers of cold beer to go with pizza that has the thinnest crust, and richest cheese you can stand.