The Two Tias

recipes #12 and #15 repeated; # 20 french toast (not from fanny at chez panisse)

On a recent Friday night, just as I was about to start making pasta aglio e olio, Luca asked for risotto instead. “If you want risotto, you have to make it yourself,” I responded, expecting this to put an end to the matter. Instead Luca’s eyes lit up. “This is my best Friday ever!” he said. Then he tied on his apron and got to work, all the while repeating the admonishment that he would make the risotto all by himself, except as it turned out, where the onions were concerned (not even swimming goggles helped the stinging and Luca was compelled to announce once again, “I am NEVER working with the onions!”).

Thus began a series of recipes in our house that end in “all by myself,” actually pronounced something more like “Aaaaaall By M’self.”  Luca’s risotto was not mushroom risotto, but “Mushroom Risotto All By Myself.” The next night he was moved to make “Cherry Tomato Pasta All By Myself,” and the next morning he made French Toast,” you guessed it, “All By Myself.”

Luca's second risotto

The weekend of Luca’s cooking spree, my sister, Lexi, and her partner, Art, had been with us for a few days before embarking on a bicycle trip down the coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. They live in Vermont where Art, who has cycled across the Himalayas several times, bicycles up a mountain to his job as a ski instructor during all kinds of weather. He will do anything not to get into a car and owns a T-shirt that says “Cars R Coffins.” When they travel to places like Newfoundland and Cuba Lexi and Art pack up their tandem, checking it into baggage in a box and then put it together in the airport before riding off with all their belongings in a trailer. I suppose the tandem has its practical purposes but I can’t get past the sheer adorableness of the two of them riding off into the Cuban countryside on a bicycle built for two.

The next time they come west, they plan on riding south into Baja, camping out and foraging for firewood on the beach. In a startling intra-family contrast to how Lexi lives and travels is my other sister, Fre, who spent her winter vacation in Baja as she does every winter. For Fre there is no question of foraging for firewood however, because the private beach outside her luxury hotel suite would have been pristine and empty except for the waiters shuffling across the sand to deliver 24-hour room service. It’s hard to imagine two people more different than my two sisters in personality and lifestyle. One lives on a farm where she raises lambs and grows her own food. She writes poetry and investigative journalism about environmental issues, owns no cell phone and tries to generate as little garbage as possible. The other lives in a Brentwood mansion, and drives her BMW to her private pilates lesson. She recently had three hundred tons of snow hauled onto her lawn for her daughter’s 18th birthday party, and is never more than a few inches from her Blackberry which emits a steady stream of blips and beeps. She also enjoys taking large groups of people out to very expensive dinners and when thanked will say something along the lines of: “We can afford it.” In other words she remembers where she came from.

I am the moderate in the family, or so I like to think. I ride my bicycle often and try to pick Luca up from school at least a couple of times a week on the bike with the tagalong attached. I would love a bicycle trip down the coast but instead of camping out, I’d probably prefer to spend the night in some small, family-run hotels. When I travel I find that the bigger the hotel, the greater the obstacle to contact with real people. So increasingly I try to arrange trips to places where I can stay with someone I know. I would not, however, turn up my nose at a private suite on the beach in Cabo San Lucas whereas Lexi would be miserable in such a place.

We often laugh about the extremes in our family; how unlikely it is that we should all get along as well as we do. The thing is that, aside from sharing a childhood of memories and an ironclad loyalty, we genuinely like each other. As we have unfortunately learned more than once, we come together rather uncannily in a crisis. But mostly we crack each other up. My sisters are the reason I sometimes get a pang that Luca is an only child; he will never have the sense that a person can be as different from him as night from day and still feel like an essential fifth limb. There are smells and jingles and bad jokes that bind my sisters and me. There is the memory of my mother’s French Toast, appearing miraculously as it did from the wasteland of our mostly unused kitchen.

Luca's welcome message to Art (note the trailer)

Luca has special names for my sisters, or “tias” as we have come to call aunts in our family. Fre is “Poopy Tia” because when Jim and I lived in London with two year-old Luca, Fre had the genius to lace every phone conversation with Luca with references to poop and farts and other bodily functions. If Luca said he took a bus that day, Fre would respond with: “Did you go poop on the bus?” If he said he did a drawing, she would ask if it was a poopy one. He would laugh until he turned red. Her master plan, of making him remember her despite the time and distance, of course worked brilliantly. She became forever more Poopy Tia. When Lexi found out about all this poop business, she was jealous. “Why didn’t I think of that?” she moaned. How could Luca maintain a clear picture of the quieter aunt who he sees much less often, who is more apt to make something beautiful out of origami than make poopy jokes?

It’s not a competition of course, but this is how: This is a photo from Lexi and Art’s farm, one they call Family Portrait.

Family Portrait

And then there is the fact that as Luca learns to play piano (on one given to him by Fre), Lexi travels with her sheet music and plays The Moonlight Sonata for us. She draws beautifully detailed drawings of fire trucks and, when making up names with Luca for Star Wars podracers, she came up with Muffin Detonator. I really think you have to be a poet to come up with Muffin Detonator. So while Lexi once was “Musical Tia,” she is now “Muffin Detonator Tia,” a mouthful to be sure. Luca is ridiculously lucky of course. While Fre takes him to Legoland for the weekend (staying at the Fours Seasons), Lexi gives Luca handcrafted little painted boxes from Cuba and all the best books (and this) he owns.

Luca cooking w/ step stool

It’s too bad that Muffin Detonator Tia missed Luca’s big weekend of cooking. She would have enjoyed eating his food and watching him up on his step stool working away with his apron on. For my part, I am loving the determination. It’s clear that he has a goal: total independence in the kitchen. How else to explain his insistence on going back to dishes he has already made rather than racing to the finish of Fanny at Chez Panisse as fast as possible? Yesterday as we were buying fish so he could make Lemon Sole Fried With Breadcrumbs All By Myself, he did remember about the Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf and said, “I thought we were doing everything in the book!” But mostly he seems intent on becoming fluent with the dishes he knows. Perhaps learning how to do this will help him with other pursuits. The next time he tries riding a bicycle without training wheels maybe he can be reminded of how in the kitchen he started out not knowing how to crack an egg and now his parents can sit around drinking cocktails while he whips up a nice risotto and fricasseed chicken with Jerusalem artichokes. Fantasy aside, it’s clear that he is driven to learn how to do this, and to do it well. Here, again, is the fire.

Or maybe he just likes to eat.

On the morning I taught Luca to make French Toast, I was reminded again of those certain Sunday mornings when my siblings and I would awaken to the smell of it and the sound of my mother singing in the kitchen; of the improbability of its arrival on the table in a house where TV dinners were eaten without the benefit of a working television and “ratatouille” was zucchini fried with canned tomato sauce. On such a morning my mother would make incredibly thin and delicate pancakes called palichinken which she learned how to make in Austria. She made scrambled eggs and bacon, loads of strong Puerto Rican coffee and the thick French Toast which was probably the only recipe she ever taught me. Such are the consequences of oral recipes that, because I never looked it up in a cookbook, it was only years later that I learned that vanilla extract was not my mother’s “secret ingredient” for French Toast.

Luca cracked two eggs into a bowl perfectly. Two months ago he had trouble with this task. Years from now it will be embedded in his physical memory, automatic and perhaps laden with associations. He added milk, cinnamon and then too much vanilla and soaked the bread in the mixture. Then he lobbed the wet bread onto the pan and the kitchen filled with the same cinnamon sizzle of eggy bread that transports me back to Brooklyn every time. Surrounded by my sisters, my brother and I, is the table laden with the fruits of my mother’s only happy labors in the kitchen; there is the smell of the impossibly strong coffee and the hours passing by eating and telling jokes and asking for more.

Luca's first French Toast

Next time Lexi and Art come to visit, maybe Luca will make French Toast for them before they head down to Mexico on their tandem. Lexi will no doubt find it delicious; it tastes just like our mother’s.


  1. I loved this post. I want to visit the sheep farm. Maybe one day I’ll have a sheep and a goat in my back yard. I know I could have a chicken here, but they’re not as much fun.

  2. While she raises sheep in the backyard, I’ll be at the Four Seasons near Legoland.

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