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Food, Remembrance and Bond No. 9 Little Italy
Earlier this month my husband had a milestone birthday, so I invited my family over for dinner to celebrate and while we were eating my niece said to me, “We finally figured out which movie person you are, Aunt Suzanne. You’re Julie from Julie & Julia. You look like her, you talk like her, you like the same things as her—you even cry over your food the same way as her.”
“I don’t cry over my food,” I protested.
“Almost,” said my other niece. “What about the Christmas ham?”
Oh. The salt-cured, country ham that I paid forty-eight dollars for and chapped my hands over as I spent a week soaking it in numerous changes of cold water. Only to end up with a dried-out hunk of meat covered with a burnt glaze because I thought I could cook it in the time-honored way I always have and thus ignored the instructions that came with it to parboil it. (Who boils a ham? That’s crazy talk!) Judging by the smirks of laughter going around the table, the Christmas ham fiasco was still fresh in everyone’s memory, but since it bought me a comparison to Amy Adams playing Julie Powell, I didn’t care. While I don’t harbor the illusion that I resemble her, finding out that my nieces viewed me as similar felt deeply validating. Other women might wish to be compared to another type of movie character or movie star, but I’ve long known that I will never have a femme fatale’s womanly voice, steely calm, or ability to effect a French pout. I smile too much, my sense of humor is slightly zany, and I occasionally cry over spilt milk. Like Julie, I have a romanticized way of thinking that sometimes veers off into melodrama. But also like her, I tend to think about things intensely and explore them passionately—and I have a perfectionist’s love of anything that is beautifully executed, from writing to music, from perfumes to textiles, from spoken poetry to food.
And I, too, once had a role model who profoundly influenced the way I approached cooking. A woman whom I came to know in the early ’80s, courtesy of her son—my boyfriend all through college—an Irish-Italian boy who loved to play soccer and to bake. He was one of those sweet Catholic boys (you know the type) who adored his mother and was attracted to the kind of girl he could take home to her—and take me home he did. I spent Easter holidays and long weekends and summer vacations at his home in New Jersey, and in my senior year, at the vacation home they built in Cape Cod. He was also the boy who would one day cheat on me with his ex-girlfriend and whom I made the mistake of never fully forgiving—teaching me the hardest lesson I’ve ever come to know: simply, that if you love someone you forgive them everything, even the kind of indiscretions that the rest of the world would have you believe you should never forgive. But that is a story for another day, and this one is about the love I did know when I was with him, which extended to his entire family and particularly, as you'll see expressed here, to his mother.
Petite, wiry, full-blooded Italian, and whip smart—her degree was in biology and she worked at the formidable laboratory of Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals—his mother didn’t teach me how to cook so much as she challenged my notions about what cooking was, both by example and by the enchanting, entertaining way she made it a running dialogue between us, always pulling up a stool for me so that I could watch her prepare supper during my stays at her home. Cultivating a mood of enjoyment was foremost to her process, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was or whether her workday had been harried or not, the first step to every supper she prepared began with a glass of sherry fetched from the basement by one of her three sons or her husband, whoever was close at hand. Dry Sack was her brand, and I often wondered why she didn’t just keep a bottle in the kitchen, but now I believe it was one of the ways in which she also cultivated a distinct air of respect in a house where she was the only woman. “Greg, bring me my sherry, would you?” she would call out, and once the glass was placed into her hands there would be no further calls for it. She only ever drank one glass per evening, sipping it slowly as she prepared the food.
The secret to her cooking did not lie in complicated sauces or complicated anything for that matter: she favored simplicity in the form of the freshest meats, fish and vegetables available, seasoned to perfection and cooked with a very deft wielding of the flame of her grill, broiler or stove. While that might not sound radical now, in the 1980s when most working-class families were making do with casseroles cobbled together with canned mushroom soup, taco dinners from a box, and iceberg-lettuce salads afloat in Ranch dressing, she was turning out elegantly simple gourmet meals that seemed bathed in light and almost laser-like in the way their flavors hit one’s pleasure center—and doing it in no more amount of time than it took to cook a meatloaf. In an hour’s time, she could turn out dinner for six—a favorite being a main dish of filets of sole wrapped around a filling of rice and asparagus spears, baked in a lemony sauce and garnished with a simple chopping of Italian parsley or cilantro. Often she took a substantial but inexpensive cut of meat, usually a flank steak, pounded it with a cleaver and let it marinate overnight in a vinaigrette of garlic, olive oil and lemon, and then the next night simply seared it on her grill; beneath that thin veneer of char on her London Broil, the meat was juicy, red and yielded like butter as she sliced it on the diagonal into thin little strips.
On a week night, the most time-consuming thing she might cook was a ratatouille and the shortest thing were her salads, a simple assemblage of dark leafy greens with no accoutrement other than a chiffon-like dressing of lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. Unless it was a holiday, she rarely made dessert but took great pleasure in making me Irish Coffee, showing me how to use the back of a spoon to carefully spool a layer of Bailey’s Irish Cream such that it perfectly floated on top. She favored the Italian cooking of her birthright, but bought me my first French cookbook—and when I was living in my first apartment and could not afford a lot of things, she sent me The Elegant, Economical Egg Cookbook, which I still have and still use.
She sent me lots of things, in fact. Knowing I liked cats, she collected various things for me that featured a cat motif. Old-fashioned tins, greeting cards, an elegant pillow that was sewn into the silhouette of a cat. They were never big things and there was never too much or too many of them, but enough that I had a little collection that reminded me of her and affirmed that she knew something about me.
For five years she was in my life, and then my boyfriend and I went our separate ways and I never saw her again. But there are people you can know for most of your life who will never move you, never know you, never influence you to any degree. And there are people you can know for five minutes who change everything. She was one of those people.
Today I’m wearing Bond No. 9 Little Italy and swept up in thoughts of her. It is a lemony scent that to my nose offers up a distinct, accompanying whiff of cilantro in all its soapy herbal goodness. There’s not a lot to tell about it because it’s a fairly linear fragrance: what you smell on initial application is pretty much what you smell the entire time it’s on the skin. Little Italy is as immediately joyful as a child’s drawing of the sun, or of sunlight itself, or of a lemon vinaigrette whipped into light frothiness in a big wooden salad bowl that bears the permanent stain of salad greens. The Bond No. 9 website compares it to gelato and lists its notes as clementine, grapefruit and mandarin, but lemon and coriander is what I get, in a formulation that is not at all sweet or syrupy but zest-like and airy. It’s the kind of fragrance that will not appeal to femme fatales or anyone attempting to raise an eyebrow and effect a French pout. But it’s the perfect thing to wear on a sunny day when your mind is uncluttered and you are contemplating a spring salad and the blue sky calls up faces of those who charted the most direct route to your heart.
Bond No. 9 Little Italy eau de parfum is available from the Bond No. 9 boutiques and website: $160 for 50 ml. My sample came from a friend not affiliated with the company, who knows I like the fragrance and has sent me a nice little supply of it.
Images: Amy Adams playing Julie Powell in the 2009 film Julie & Julia is from BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Bottle image is from the Bond No. 9 website.
Posted by Suzanne Keller, 3/29/2011.
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