If you want to analyze a character—or a culture—start with the food. The way we eat reveals whether we’re poor or wealthy, open or repressed, even how we raise our children. I thought about this recently, when I went to Richmond, Va., to babysit for my grandson, Alan, while his mother attended a three-day yoga workshop.
"What should I fix him for lunch?" I asked as Mara headed out the door. She just laughed. "He’ll tell you what he wants," she said. "And when he wants it, too."
Really? At two-and-a-half? At that age, my children were plopped into high chairs around noon—two hours after a mid-morning snack—and served something easy but nutritious. But Alan, who is a cheerful little advertisement for the virtues of a child-rearing style called "attachment parenting," which includes sleeping in your parents’ bed and setting your own schedule, dines in a different style.
He did accept my offer of bananas and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast—as long as he got to peel all the eggshell off himself—but a few hours after that, he led me back to the kitchen, where he grasped the refrigerator door handle and chanted, "Pull, pull, pull!" Finally, he managed to swing the door open; then, puffing and panting, he ran across the room to his little table and chair and dragged the chair over to the refrigerator.
He carefully positioned it in front of the open door, then sat down and surveyed the shelves. Eventually—Mara tells me he sometimes sits there until his lips begin to tremble from the cold—he pointed to a container of yogurt and said, "How about that?" After he polished off the yogurt, it was back to the chair for more deliberation and a second course of string cheese.
That’s how every lunch all weekend was assembled—when he didn’t see what he wanted in the refrigerator, I had to lift him up to look inside the cupboards. But shocking as it was at first, I ended up seeing that it made perfect sense. He happily ate everything he chose, and since Mara and Matt keep mostly healthy food on hand, it was just as nutritious as the sandwiches and warmed-up leftovers I used to make for my children.
I remember skipping home from grade school in our little Illinois town every day for lunch, usually a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Scotch broth soup and chocolate pudding, served by a smiling mother in a 1950s-style apron. Alan’s memories of ripping the paper off string cheese or nibbling on strawberries while chatting with his smiling mother (dressed in yoga pants and a hoodie—no aprons in that house) will probably be just as comforting to him.
Since our city attracts people from all over the world, our collective food memories are richer and more varied than many. I asked some Sarasotans from near and far about the food they loved most as children.
For English-born actor and media personality Cliff Roles, it was the fish and chips with pickled onion and malt vinegar that he would buy on rainy Saturday afternoons after his school football matches. "They were wrapped in old newspaper, with vinegar and oil seeping through the paper," he remembers, and the ravenous young player savored every bite. Just thinking about that archetypal British treat still summons up memories of "being part of that team, part of England in the late ’50s, and feeling the warmth of the coal fire and my mum smiling at me when I walked through the door," he says.
Asolo marketing assistant and actor David Valdez comes from a Greek family that fiercely guards its baklava recipe. "It’s very hush-hush with secret ingredients," he says, and only one member of every generation inherits it. Growing up in Tampa, he would watch his mother spend hours making the baklava every Christmas morning. "I always admired how delicately she handled the fragile phyllo dough and how patiently she built the layers," he says. When the pastry came out of the oven, she’d pour the family’s secret syrup into the hot pan, and he’d jump back as it sizzled. Now David is the keeper of the recipe, and he dazzled his friends with it this Christmas.
By the time our contributing food and wine editor Judi Gallagher was three, she was standing on a stool cooking with her grandmother in Manchester, Conn. At five she was the ecstatic owner of an Easy-Bake oven. The little oven "looked gigantic to me," she says, and it came with such exciting accessories as a one-and-a-half-inch rolling pin and tiny cake mixes. The cakes, which were baked by the heat from a light bulb in the oven, were "pretty vile," she admits, "dry, and with the consistency of a devil dog," but she topped them with raspberry jam and proudly served them to her family. By six, she had moved on to a real oven and was turning out the oatmeal-raisin cookies that became her trademark years later in her dessert business in Boston; but that little oven forever "branded me as a cook," she says.
"My dad tried to turn me into a soccer player," confesses Netherlands‒ born Roberta Druif, executive director of the Animal Rescue Coalition. "He failed at that, but he did turn me into a fan." That may be why her fondest food memory is linked to the weekend afternoons the two of them spent watching Dutch soccer matches on TV. Her mother would prepare tuna-fish sandwiches and cheese. Roberta especially loved Leidse kaas—a Dutch cheese studded with cumin seeds. "We would eat thick slices of that cheese on rustic bread with no preservatives and wonderful Dutch butter and drink big cups of tea," she says. "It was a great time of family bonding." Jose Martinez, chef and owner of Longboat Key’s acclaimed Maison Blanche—and a 2010 James Beard semifinalist—grew up in Morocco, but his mother was French. In the summers, she would take him to visit her parents, who lived in a pretty little village outside Paris. He fell in love with the village patisserie. "You could smell the croissants and baguettes and pastries 100 yards away," he says. "You cannot pass that store and not buy something!" That "something" for him was usually a croissant. Like Proust rhapsodizing over the madeleines of his childhood, Martinez describes the French croissants that he first tasted at that bakery: "They were light, crispy and buttery, but not greasy, and you didn’t have to chew them because they melted in your mouth." Has he come across a comparable croissant in this country? He shakes his head and says, "I did not find it yet."
When senior editor Bob Plunket was a teenager, his father ran utility companies in a number of different countries in Latin America, and the family lived in a series of glamorous hotels. "My favorite was the Hotel Avila up in the mountains in Venezuela overlooking Caracas," Bob says. Since their suite did not have a kitchen, they would go down to the elegant dining room every night for dinner. "I soon discovered that the best thing on the menu was the lobster," he says. "It was so good, in fact, that I stopped ordering anything else. Every night I would have a big lobster. I still remember getting all the lobster meat out of the shell, piling it on top of the rice and then pouring melted butter over it. Those were the days."
We hope this Food & Wine annual will help you form some wonderful new Sarasota food memories of your own.