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LEFTOVERS

LEFTOVERS

How many frogs does it take to cook a turkey?

Only one; it’s genetic and she’s damn good at it!

Our kitchen was always fragrant with onions, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme… one of the neighbors from around the block would walk up the driveway and comment,

Whatever you are cooking smells wonderful! Even the flies are gathered at your kitchen window screen…

Mom took this remark as it was meant to be; a compliment. She was normally preparing a holiday or family dinner.  Often, the flies had gathered on the days she was preparing the farce, a traditional meat stuffing combination of beef and pork, cooked with the seasonings, then ground very fine with her hand grinder clamped to the side of the chopping board.  Stale French bread soaked in milk and squeezed almost dry, an egg, and some salt and pepper – Voila! Farce; smelled absolutely divine and scented the entire driveway and two doors down in both directions.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas, turkey would be one of two main entrees.  Ham was normally the second, unless Daddy decided to barbeque a leg of lamb. All Daddy had to do was normally clean and ready the old round charcoal barbeque; then wait for Mom to tell him the lamb was prepped.  Daddy’s station was the backyard.  The rest of the meal was in Mom’s kitchen.

Preparing a dinner was always an exhausting effort; no matter the year, the turkey dinner had to be perfect and complete. Thanksgiving might be an American Holiday, but the cuisine had definite French overtones. Nearly every dish took two to three days to complete.  There were no shortcuts in Mom’s kitchen.

At one time, a first course soup with a small amount of pasta was served. Mom made the bouillon from scratch.  End of the first day, she’d place the pot on the dryer to cool down overnight.  Next morning, she’d skim any beef fat that might have congealed so to clarify the broth for serving.  On the holiday, she’d boil the entire pot once again, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and then add the very tiny pieces of vermicelli.  The plates of soup began the meal.

Somewhere between the bouillon and crab salad a bread basket arrived, a bottle each of red and white wines, and the antipasto plates; one plate included salami with prosciutto, and the other was a sectioned glass dish of pickles, black olives, and pepperoncini.

Time to prepare the individual, molded crab salads.  The crab mixture had been made the day before. It included canned crab, finely chopped hardboiled egg, minced celery and parsley, held together with Best Foods Mayonnaise, a bit of lemon and dash of salt and pepper.  Mixture was moist and stored covered the day before. Plates were readied with endive and escarole, and then light vinaigrette was spooned over each.  We watched our aunt don her cobbler apron and team up with Mom; they each knew the others’ actions because they had assisted my grandfather in his kitchen “down the house”.  Our aunt and Mom always enjoyed working together; it was just like old times for them. One was as much a perfectionist as the other, so they got along just fine.

As we grew older, Mom would let us mold the crab mixture in a small demitasse cup, just the right size for a dinner menu this grand.  PLOP! The small little hill would sit in the middle (if all went well) and then one would sprinkle a bit of paprika on the mound for color.  A black olive on top, a lemon wedge on the side. Perfect! The salads were stacked inside the fridge, on tops of jars and other glass containers to remain chilled for serving.

Years later, we convinced Mom to skip the soup; none of us younger generation missed the clarified broth very much; personally, I thought the final dish was not worth the effort. The individual crab salads were so colorful that Mom finally omitted the first course soup and we placed the salads directly on the dinner plates.  They looked so pretty and became one of the last finishing touches before calling everyone to sit down.

Petit Pois (peas) seasoned with green onion, garlic and bacon were prepared; as were Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, yams simply glazed with some brown sugar, and cranberry sauce – both whole berry and jelly (these were the most American recipes on our table; American was defined as anything non-French looking, possibly from a can, sweetened, easily served and didn’t take much fuss.

Cheese, bread, coffee with brandy and a store-bought dessert ended the meal; homemade pies came much later once Bro married a gal who could really bake!

No course or detail was omitted when the aunts and uncles came over.  The entire dinner was served on a linen table cloth, with matching linen napkins that Mom had “done up” herself, another expectation that she fulfilled having inherited the French Curtain Laundry gene too.

What is the ONLY reason to cook a turkey?

Leftovers… of course!

I remember the one Thanksgiving that Mom was rather relaxed in the kitchen.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed this.  She even decided that we girls could help with the hors d’oeuvre plate and whatever we did to make the items look pretty would be okay.

Okay? This from the same mother who told me that the way I chopped carrots made her laugh?

I was starting to be concerned… Mom was smiling,  laughing with us in HER kitchen,  and whatever we did was OKAY???

Then it hit; no aunts or uncles were coming; we’d be just the immediate family this year.

Brat and I told Mom we liked her much better when the relatives weren’t going to have dinner with us; that she was much easier to be around.  She took this all in, and didn’t even get angry.  I think she realized just how much she had worked all those years and wasn’t even sure herself if she needed all the fuss to enjoy the day…that was a nice moment of awakening in Mom’s kitchen for us all.

Must be genetic; in true Rubberneck Avenue fashion, I have exhausted myself cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner.  Mine is updated; no soup,  a crab salad appetizer, some tweaks here and there.  Oh yes; bread dressing a la Americaine.

So, I must console myself this Friday After with only leftovers … it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to keep up the family traditions…

A Family Affair

I remember walking around the corner shoe store repair, heading back up the street on the way home with Mommy that day…she was really excited! Mommy had her carryall filled to the brim with lots of good things.  An aunt and uncle who lived very far away would be coming to visit us in the next few days.  I asked who they were.  My mother told me that I had been too young to remember when they last visited.

You know your little pink rocker, Annette?

Ohhhh…the light bulb was beginning to turn on…  They were the ones who had sent me the small rocking chair with its rattan seat; something especially for me from very far away.  So, I knew of them by the little rocker that was mine.

One thing about listening to my mother – you got a textbook history in any and all topics – and their story was no exception.

Originally from Georgia, my uncle had been stationed in California many years before. This Georgian absolutely loved kids and noticed a little guy in the neighborhood playing all alone.  Apparently, my future uncle asked the little guy’s mother for permission to play ball with him; that’s how my uncle met my aunt, who was my father’s baby sister, a young WWII widow.  Eventually, the two adults fell in love and married.  Years later, my cousin would follow in his new father’s footsteps and also choose a Navy career.

Mommy continued on…Uncle was now a Lieutenant Commander.  Mommy stressed how very important his new position was.  Actually, my mother stressed about almost everything!  Aloud, she hoped she had picked up enough French bread and that the meal she was planning for the night at our home was different than what another sister-in-law would be serving, and that she hoped we had enough cheese and salami on hand…Mommy’s excitement was absolutely infectious!

There were a few times that I “connected” well beyond my four years of age, with the particular significance surrounding our household events.  Hence, I was starting to pick up just how very important their visit would be, so I asked Mommy:

Will we have to salute him?

Naturally, that made the rounds pretty quickly once their visit had begun.

By the time I was growing up, Armistice Day had been renamed Veterans Day; my mother made sure that I knew the historic background of our country’s holiday at a very early age.  I had a cousin who was born on Armistice Day when it was Armistice Day.  I was born on Christmas Eve; thus far, no one had renamed it.

This would be the first of many visits from Uncle Bake and Auntie that I would actually remember.  So, I listened quite intently as Mom explained that because Uncle was still in the Navy, they couldn’t visit us very often – like around the holidays – when most families gathered.

Because their visits with us were always limited, the days took on a holiday feeling when these two returned to the West Coast.  Each visit might be short, but that wouldn’t stop any of the siblings from filling it as full of family good times as the suitcase full of comfort foods returning with Auntie.

One of the things that Auntie missed most was the sourdough French bread; no matter where in or out of the country they had been stationed, she still claimed nothing ever came close to the bread from California.  Over the years, the older siblings would chip in and help fill up one suitcase going back with Auntie and Uncle to their next post; it would be filled to the brim with Larraburu French Bread and enough salami to feed a company!

Each May Americans remember Memorial Day with a quiet moment of reverie for the family members who have passed on; the same ones we used to hug and kiss goodbye, then send off with a suitcase full of Home.  Today, there remain several opportunities for those of us who want to support our living Veterans and current military men and women; they, too, would appreciate receiving “a bit of Home” now and then.   None of us need wait until May or November to remember our military.  Their calendars have twelve months, just like ours do!

So, when a few extra dollars can be found, at any time of year, send them on…the internet makes it easy to find a favorite charity, adopt a soldier, gift a military family, or send a donation to your local VFW or USO.  Then pack that picnic lunch and give thanks for another holiday in this precious land…

Caramel Apples and Popcorn Balls

Like many kids in the fifties and sixties, the kids on Rubberneck Avenue enjoyed the Halloween season with school parades, PTA festivals, and bake sales; all culminating with the actual Trick or Treating around our initial neighborhood.

Since a majority of us were raised in the Catholic Church, our families had no problems celebrating Halloween.  None of us were exposed to the actual, historic beginnings that were less than church-like.  Some of us had been Brownies and knew that the Girl Scouts of America’s founder, Juliette Gordon Low, was born on October 31st.  For many of us, that was enough validation to stamp Halloween as an “approved” holiday for participation.

Of course, Daddy always told the story that as a boy in West Oakland, he was invited to a Halloween Party in which the invitation said to bring five cents for admission.  Money was dear to many immigrant families; a nickel could buy something of value in the early nineteen hundreds. I can’t imagine too many parents obliging this request but apparently my grandparents did.  So, Daddy and his buddy decided that in order to get their money’s worth, they would each have to take a bite out of all the apples floating in the water bucket that was readied for the traditional Bobbing for Apples game.  He never mentioned being invited back.

Daddy’s newer tradition was taking inventory of our candy bags when we returned each Halloween evening.  This was for the sole purpose of making sure that he got a piece of the good candy, not “the crap that your mother buys” (to hand out).  I grew to understand that I’d lose at least two to three Snickers or Musketeers on average from each year’s haul.  Not a problem.

No one worried about the safety of unwrapped or homemade goodies.  Neighbors knew neighbors; merchants often lived in the same area as their small shops.  Since our homes were only a few houses above the major boulevard, we kids knew just how far and in how many directions or streets we needed to cover to rake in all the special treats that awaited us.  One of the first stops was to pick up our caramel apples with nuts, made ONLY for the Rubberneck Avenue Block Kids. Once we ventured across the street to 3668, we’d show off our costumes, pose for photos with the entire group, and then return our apples to our respective homes before continuing on.  Thankfully, Daddy didn’t realize that we’d left them unguarded.

Around the corner and up a few houses directly opposite our elementary playground were the homemade popcorn balls ready for pick up.  This house was where one of the five and dime ladies lived; she always made sure to have popcorn balls set aside for us children she knew from frequenting the store.

No Halloween was complete until Mom had trudged down to the boulevard earlier that week and purchased fancy cupcakes with black cat and jack-o-lantern plastic décor on top!  Mom didn’t bake, so she always purchased cupcakes for the school bake sale and saved two for us baby girls at home.  (I guess Daddy wasn’t aware of this; we never had to give up our cupcakes.)  The ladies at the bakery across the boulevard were wonderfully kind.  If we accompanied Mom into the bakery and behaved (not that we had a choice), one of the grandmotherly clerks would pull a butter cookie that had drizzled pink and brown icing on it.  They were a wonderful treat and we thankfully nodded, smiled and stayed as polite as we could, gobbling them up quickly before anyone had a chance to utter Not before Dinner!

We were allowed to trick or treat in specific areas and on only certain streets.  As we got older, the parents would let us go as a group.  Some years, we’d split up, depending on how late a parent was in getting home that evening or, if indeed, someone was in trouble and allowed out with his parent only.

One year we took turns ringing doorbells.  Some of us knew that one mother in particular was especially good at losing count and allowing her child to ring most of the bells.  We learned not to repeat that exercise the following year.  As the kids began to move away and less of the original gang lived on Rubberneck, only my baby sister and I were left to carry on.  But the caramel apples appeared each year on schedule.

I was lucky enough to watch our neighbor put the caramel apples together one year; I used to visit her often just to chat; she liked girls and was appreciative of the company in the kitchen as her boys were normally not interested.  She was another particularly neat cook – not a drop or mess anywhere when she prepared meals or desserts for her family.  The counter space was limited, so she deftly used each inch and fifteen minutes later, one would never know that any ingredients had even been removed from the refrigerator or the adjoining overhead cupboards!  Except for the individual green salads with radish slices that graced the four place settings at her kitchen table most evenings, one would have thought no one was even home or that they didn’t cook!  The kitchen was always pristine.

Each year, Laurel School held its Halloween parade after lunch in the early afternoon.  This was our time to shine, walking up and down the side streets and in front of the five and ten, the soda shop, the theater, then back up toward the school.  The route was always the same, so the ladies at the five and ten and our neighbors knew exactly when to expect to see us passing by.

Each class walked together, the younger ones holding onto a rope to stay in line.  It was rare to see a store bought costume, except for the simple masks or princess hats or tiaras.  The costumes were normally homemade; either sewn from a Simplicity pattern or pulled and assembled into the final character from the “dress up” drawers each year.

Dress Up was a popular pastime and fairly cheap; especially if a Big Sis used to sew or had been a bridesmaid several times. There were usually some really good skirts and formals to choose from.  Mom was very creative when it came to costumes.  Unfortunately, her creativity didn’t kick in until the last minute each year…we never knew what we were going “to be” until we “became” a teacher, a ghost, a princess, whatever Mom convinced us we looked like; and believe me, Mom could convince you!

I’d have given my eye teeth to have had the Red Riding Hood costume that a friend’s mother had made for her in the third grade!  She had a red hooded cape with a basket of goodies, including the obligatory napkin covering the contents; just like all the story books!  My friend was a sweet girl to begin with. I could almost believe that she had indeed been Red Riding Hood at one time!

By sixth grade, when our cousins had outgrown some really neat stuff, I was lucky enough to wear a Spanish Senorita black lace dress.  That was particularly special.  With my dark, long hair allowed to hang loose instead of braided that day, I felt very pretty, very Spanish, and very special.  A mantilla over my tresses and this was enough to satisfy this little girl’s fantasy at eleven years old.

I was now in sixth grade, so this would be my swan song. Mom was adamant.  Once I entered junior high, I would be too old to trick or treat.  My role would transition into staying at home, being more “adult” and handing out candy to the little critters from thereafter.

 

A Fork in the Road

I wanted the silverware more than I ever imagined, and they have proven to be magical wands full of memories.  I do not mix a can of tuna or turn a slice of meat in the pan without remembering the mannerism that I watched and absorbed all those years in the kitchen next door.  Our Italian neighbor could cook an entire meal and never have one dirty dish or pot left to show for it!  She was incredibly clever at keeping the counter clear and clean.  Unfortunately, neither her daughter nor I picked up that particular good habit.

But there is not a time that I pick up one of the forks that I don’t recall the tuna and red onion, or the breaded zucchini in the sizzling olive oil; or brains breaded and slowly browned on top of the stove; or anchovy paste, rubbed into the bottom of the salad bowl; or the celery sticks laced with her special cheese spread that decked the holiday table year after year.

Picking up a piece of the old silverware has nurtured my heart and comforted me when money was tight; I could always mix a can of tuna and smile. With a bit of luck and planning,  I can even go out into my own summer garden and cut fresh chard with the well worn, mis-sharpened blade of their old kitchen knife…and once again, transport myself next door…

Keyboard Harmony

Had I been asked back then, I’d have defined my parents’ definition of  “good music” as restricted to songs written before 1959, up to and including all Elvis gospel recordings and the weekly Lawrence Welk Show.  Period.

Beneath Daddy’s fatherly exterior was a former barbershop quartet singer who not only knew all four parts of any barbershop tune by memory, but also had performed at the Orpheum Theater during the thirties.  This was quite an accomplishment for young, first generation Americans.  Their quartet was billed as the Four Loose Leaves from the Book of Harmony. No recordings existed and the four had long since parted ways, but Daddy’s love for music remained.

Mom could sing, too, so as we grew and learned the words, we baby girls joined in.  Singing in the car became the norm, whether it occurred on longer trips to Livermore or shorter ones to visit our cousins.  So, you could imagine the folk’s excitement when at age nine I expressed interest in taking music lessons. I mentioned that my best friend at school was taking accordion lessons from the music store on the boulevard.  My parents agreed to speak with the store and an elderly gentleman wearing a hearing aid came to our home to “test” my musical ability.  He had me hold a guitar and I strummed it however many times.  Yes, their daughter definitely had talent. I expressed interest in the guitar.

Daddy’s response was both immediate and adamant:  a guitar was NOT an instrument. An accordion,   Daddy pursued, now THAT was an instrument. I wasn’t following all the nuances in this conversation, and I’m sure neither was the elder gentleman, so Daddy further explained.  In simple terms, an accordion could carry the entire melody.  The discussion ended.  I should take accordion lessons.  The gentleman left and it was forward march, literally, as I learned to play simplified renditions of John Phillip Sousa.

What was good enough for me was also good enough for my baby sister.  We actually excelled at the accordion, having slowly absorbed the old world musical rhythm, harmony, and appreciation for the more traditional forms of music, i.e. waltzes, polkas and the before mentioned marches.  It wasn’t long before we girls could identify our country’s armed services’ theme songs – all five of them – and knew at least the first verse from each.  One can imagine just how “cool” it was to play an accordion during the Pepsi Generation…and while Coke was teaching the world to sing…  NOT!

By the time performers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins sprang onto the music scene, I once again considered playing guitar.  Secretly, I pictured myself a stage performer or, better yet, the voice of a Disney character in a full length feature film.   Because I normally carried the melody on car trips, the idea seemed feasible.  I braved it and shared my thinking with the folks. No go.  Parents ruled in our household.  I would stay with the accordion, even if it meant Mom still having to help me carry the heavy instrument down to the boulevard… Daddy had discovered another two loose leaves and he was not about to let us drift away on some musical tangent.

“You call that music?” was the rhetorical question during my junior high years, especially when four young Englishmen first invaded our American household.  So, I learned to hedge my bets and glean the best arrangements I could from the current circumstances.  It was Daddy’s musical generation that he shared with us and, if we played it just right, we could get out of doing the evening dishes.  Keep the 1930 top ten melodies coming and Mom would soon join us in harmony, dish towel in hand.

Some children survive parochial school; I survived accordion lessons. Two decades later, we two daughters fully appreciated being the only ones under forty years of age who could share nostalgic moments at a piano bar with AARP octogenarians.

Now THAT was cool.

Kitchen Hopping

On a regular basis, Winnie eagerly climbed the fence two doors away to spend time with Butch and her poodles.  I had many choices:  I could visit with Alice and her father, Mr. W., and sit in the kitchen learning embroidery under Alice’s tutelage, or cross the street to visit Anastasia while she prepared the evening meal for her family of four.  She liked having me visit because she had boys.

I could also venture up to Marian’s house and visit in the kitchen there, too, if her grandmother were visiting.  Mrs. L would be cooking, and would still talk with us while she did. I never knew my own grandparents, so I often found others’ grandparents truly fascinating; I’d surmise just how my own grandmother might have fit in to the various personalities of the older ones I met. I liked Mrs. L. She had white hair and dressed like a grandmother.

The woman with reddish-tinted hair who rented the upstairs apartment was not my idea of a grandmother, yet she had several grandchildren. For sure, my grandmother would not have worn formals in which she had to stuff herself into them and ask neighbors (like my mother and me) to zip her up so she could attend the next installation at her club events!  I found this wholly vile; of course, I was extremely opinionated at age eight regarding just how a grandmother should conduct herself.  How would she hug her grandchildren if she wore scratchy formals???

But most of the time, I simply walked across the driveway to our Italian neighbors back door.  They were like my second family, and I could sit on the kitchen stool, pour my heart out on all the serious issues facing me at so young an age while she finished preparing that night’s dinner, and wait until the mechanic came home from work; when he came through the kitchen door, I always got a big hug and kiss! He was always happy to have me around.  I could even sit at the kitchen table and have a bite of dinner with them.  I couldn’t eat so much that I wouldn’t be able to eat dinner when I returned home.

Hah! Like that was a problem for this food-loving little girl…

Rejoicing on Rubberneck Avenue

Fifty years ago, in my small little world of Rubberneck Avenue, I understood that families with German heritage “were Lutheran only” and the remaining European descent around the block were customarily of the Roman Catholic faith.  Obviously, I’d lost something in the finer details about the Reformation.

Not to worry…on our block, one of our families had Native American blood; this was particularly significant to a few of us! Wow…imagine having bloodlines to the Old West!  At that time, a term like indigenous didn’t describe people, only landscapes.  This particular favorite family hailed from the Midwest and were of the Protestant faith; Presbyterian actually.  They shared their church and fellowship with me at an early age.  I was frightened a bit on my first visit; hearing one give a testimony regarding his born-again experience during a church service was almost foreign in concept from my familiar milieu, the Mass; no one spoke out in Mass unless the priest spoke first!  But I was intrigued, none the less.

I have old Kodak photos in my childhood album from earlier Easter times.  Big Sis would dress me up in my Easter finery, complete with bonnet and lace-trimmed little white socks to accessorize the requisite party dress for a toddler.  We would then walk up the street to the local elementary school for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.  Memories of well-meaning adults pointing toward the evergreen hedges and whispering,

What do I see there???

helped toddlers like me and my “big” friend on the block, Marion, find enough eggs to return home smiling from our cloud nine experiences!  There are photos of Marion and me, proudly standing together on Rubberneck, still clutching our baskets and comparing our precious findings.  Marion was a beautiful little girl, with thick bangs and perfectly formed curls.  She too was dressed in her Easter finest; only her braced leg is a reminder of the very real polio epidemic that persisted still among children of our generation.

Another favorite photo of mine is of a later Easter with my cousins. The boys are in suits and the girls all with bonnets and bows, standing near the fishpond in my neighbor’s backyard, smiling for the camera.  I am at my happiest, standing among my most beloved cousins.  (The Brat was obviously too little so is not included in this shot; yes, my smile is wide…no sad feelings about my little sister missing from the moment)

As Winnie and I grew older, we would plan our own Easter egg hunts for our first little nieces and nephews.  John and Big Sis would come by early that Sunday morning so we could run our hunt, then they’d leave to enjoy Easter at their own dinner table.  When the kids were too old for egg hunts, they sometimes joined us in the evening for an Easter visit and dessert.

I think back on the many Easter tables filled with wonderful food and drink.  Traditional dishes graced our table; there was barbequed leg of lamb and a ham, with the requisite side dishes that Mom insisted must be included to complete a proper, holiday dinner.  One or two might not eat lamb, but they’d work around it.  Hospitality in our Rubberneck home was plentiful though not very flexible; food allergies aside, any recently announced vegetarians could really throw Mom’s balance off …

Are you sure that the potatoes, cheeses and the green salad are going to be enough for you?

Aunts and uncles arrived each year, early and with wines and sometimes a dream cake for dessert!  Only Bro and his family would also be there for dinner, (normally running late but Daddy had learned to expect the phone call from Only Bro telling us that his all girl family were still getting ready) so our two littlest nieces were the next generation to experience a homemade egg hunt!  They walked in the front door dressed like little dolls, much credit to their mother who not only sewed beautifully, but also baked the absolutely best homemade pies for dessert!  Being a reasonable man, Daddy eyed the pies and immediately forgave the late arrival; no penance was necessary!  Only Bro often brought a bottle of his favorite white, Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, chilled and ready to enjoy during the first course.

Ours was a home to drop by; Might be slightly nerve-wracking, but the loving intentions easily obscured the initial shock waves from the daily Punch and Judy reruns, compliments of my parents.  Cousins originally in bonnets, bows and suits were now old enough to drive; they’d stop by to wish Auntie and Uncle a Happy Easter; this was not a have-to visit despite the family dictates…being around my folks was a want-to, if only for the cheap entertainment!

We shared our casa croute (translated loosely as the house bread) with whoever honored us with a visit on Easter Sunday. Daddy would set up the bar in the kitchen and stay out of Mom’s cooking territory.  Neighbors walked in and out, enjoying a cocktail before having to drive over the hill to be with their daughter’s family, or walk back across the street to prepare for guests of their own.

We passed along traditions, not hatred, on Rubberneck.  We were several different families, celebrating our common heritage in our homes, unencumbered by protocols, politically correct admonishments, or charlatan’s accusations…our credo was simply: Live and let live.

The static photos in my album are black and white; but the shared good times and humble simplicity of expectations still play vividly in full Technicolor brilliance in this writer’s reverie…

He is Risen!