This is the first post in a series: January Dreaming. Click here for the rest of the series.
My late Mom always hated January. For many reasons.
The emotional let-down after the excitement of the holidays.
The dreary, gray, chilly days.
The lack of a real identity for this also-ran of months. Nothing big happens. All the other months get the glory.
Mom was a warm weather person, and grumped her way through all her Januaries. I think she kind of enjoyed putting down her least favorite month, and she had a real patter going about it “too cold, too damp, too boring, no spice to it!”. She spent her January days dreaming of warmer good times and letting everyone know about it. I miss that, and her.
That’s Mom above at the beach where I grew up, in Gilchrist, Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. The floppy hat illustrates her personality so well – she definitely marched to her own drummer. So in Mom’s honor, I’m going to do some January Dreaming posts about warmer days. First up will be scenes from a Paris taxi ride in July (my next post – stay tuned).
Update: the January Dreaming series ended when January passed its chilly baton to February, but you can dream of good times in warmer months at any time by clicking here.
I love it when folks reach out to me for advice about cooking and entertaining; it feeds my soul (pun intended).
It also gives me good topics for the blog and the impetus to pull together a post – from memory, experience or my own food mentors.
So, for the friend who asked for input on an antipasto tray she’s bringing to a party, here’s a special treat: advice from my Mom. She was an amazing cook and hostess and antipasto platters were a foundational appetizer for her parties. I am so grateful for everything she taught me about entertaining and cooking. If I’m guilty of ascribing to the “food is love” philosophy, it’s totally her fault.
Mom has been cooking for the angels since September of 2000 and my Dad joined her in heaven this past summer, but they left me with a wonderful legacy: a cookbook they compiled of their favorite recipes, with additional entries collected from friends and family. The Great Tastes from the Texas Coast cookbook project took place in the late 80s and was intended as give-away for clients at my Dad’s real estate office on the beach in Gilchrist, Texas. (Dad was a weekend realtor and a high-tech salesman for Motorola during the week.)
You know the kind of cookbook I’m talking about, paper-bound with a plastic binder, worn and torn, stained with use, stuffed with other recipes from family members on note cards and sticky notes that probably should have been in the cookbook (and probably would have been in the next version of Great Tastes from the Texas Coast if there was one). Oh my gosh, I just got a great idea: that’s the name for my first cookbook, whenever I publish it.
I didn’t realize at the time what a treasure Great Tastes from the Texas Coast would turn out to be, and now feel so blessed to have many of my parents’ recipes at my fingertips. That’s my Mom’s drawing there on the front, too. This bounty of family memories and codified parental cooking advice was the impetus for me to start on the Glover Gardens Cookbook (which eventually became the blog), so that our boys could have the same bounty of family recipes.
While Great Tastes from the Texas Coast is long on value through recipes and their associated memories, it is very, very short on words and and almost devoid of style (other than the cover art). Note Mom’s entry, Antipasto Ingredients, below. No one could accuse her of being verbose or flowery. This was serious business.
But what Mom lacked in creative writing skills, she more than made up for in the cooking and entertaining department. Here’s how she did the antipasto.
See the basket on the wall below, in the repeat of the kitchen picture? It was about 24 inches long, 15 inches wide and 3 inches deep, and was perfect for Mom’s antipasto treatment. I loved that basket and think I might have inherited it, many moons ago. It must have fallen apart, or I would still have it. But I digress. Mom lined that venerable old basket with plastic wrap and then covered the whole thing with overlapping red or green leaf lettuce, or both. (Leaf lettuce is good for lining a platter, because it is easy to flatten.)
After lining the basket, she stuffed it full with ingredients from her list, not neatly in little rows or stacks, but bunched together by type in a way that conveyed a sense of plenty and hospitality. She was careful to distribute the colors – a pile of kalamata olives would never be next to anchovies, smoked mussels or marinated mushrooms because those colors would be too drab together. You could almost see her artist’s mind working while she assembled, taking care to mix the textures, too: the kalamatas would go much better next to bright red roasted and marinated peppers, which in turn would be nestled next to generous chunks of provolone with big, fat, garlic-stuffed green olives on one side and her garlicky, pink marinated shrimp on the other. If there was a dip, it would be in a small ceramic bowl and garnished with parsley or dried herbs. Bunches of sliced mortadella, ham and salami would be strategically placed opposite each other, perhaps next to glistening sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, artichoke hearts or fresh, crunchy, pungent radishes. Breadsticks might be vertical in a pretty glass or two, and whole green onions would cut a bright green horizontal swath across the top. Mom would then drizzle a bit of vinaigrette on her masterpiece where appropriate and call it done.
I wish I had a picture to share – words cannot do justice to the welcome and hospitality that Mom’s antipasto platter conveyed. However, I found a photo in the site Honestly Yumthat gives me the same feeling.
Mom left out a few of the items that I remember from her antipasto, so perhaps they came later: cornichons, grapes, halved cherry tomatoes, pepperdew peppers stuffed with bleu cheese, fresh vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower (although we are moving out of the antipasto neighborhood here and it might be controversial that French cornichons or bleu cheese would even be considered on this originally Italian spread).
If I was doing an antipasto platter, I’d probably add a couple of my go-to favorites, such as my super-easy treatment of grape tomatoes below that provides a composed, bite-sized, super-fresh yumminess.
And the picture below is from a smorgasbord night here at Glover Gardens, which on that night looked a bit like an antipasto platter, although heavy with crostini and bruschetta. Gosh, I’m getting hungry!
And so, to my friend who requested some information about antipasto platters, I hope the advice from Mom with a little more info from me is useful for you. Thanks for giving me a reason to spotlight Great Tastes from the Texas Gulf Coast and travel through the taste memories from Mom’s kitchen.
Labor Day weekend of 2000 was the last time I saw my Mom, so many years ago now.
She died just two weeks later, peacefully, in her sleep. She had been ill for so very long. She was only 60.
My family and my brother’s family joined Mom and Dad at their beach home in Gilchrist, Texas that last Labor Day weekend. With three small children between us, we balanced our time between going to the beach and hanging out in the sunroom with Mom and Dad, she in her wheelchair and unable to speak beyond a whisper because of “frozen” vocal cords, and he so grateful for the company. They both reveled in the noisy, joyful chaos of children. Dad grilled several different meats and served cocktails that weekend; Mom sat, surrounded by all of us, with a quiet and wistful smile.
Like always when our family we got together, the background music was the soundtrack from our childhood, an eclectic mix that included The Kingston Trio, Simon and Garfunkel, the soundtrack from Guys and Dolls, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Smothers Brothers and Manhattan Transfer.
It was a great time: comfort food, comfort music, comfort people. All these years later, I have two really strong memories from that Labor Day Weekend, that final time my family of origin was all together: recollections of cherries and empathy.
We brought fresh cherries to share, a late-summer harvest probably shipped from somewhere in the Northwest to our local grocer. Mom hadn’t had cherries in years; the grocery stores on the Bolivar Peninsula stocked the basics but didn’t have fancy mustards, gourmet cheeses or produce from out of state. She loved those cherries. She ate them with joy, the dark red juice staining her lips and her thin, worn fingers.
Mom was so happy in those moments, maybe reliving a memory of her own, another special time studded with fresh cherries and loved ones. We put on the Smothers Brothers record (yes, an actual record!) to hear their song “Apples, Peaches and Cherries” – take a listen below; it is a really sweet tune. We might have sung along; I can’t remember now. But I will never, ever forget Mom’s face as she reveled in those cherries. It was an awesome feeling to bring her that simple pleasure.
Getting ready for our final trek to swim and make sandcastles on Labor Day, we were four 30-something adults herding two toddlers and a 6-year old, making a lot of mess and noise. Mom and Dad didn’t mind at all. We collected sunscreen and beach towels and water shoes and sippy cups (and probably beer) and set out to walk the 200 yards to the sandy beach.
Something made me turn back, telling the others I’d catch up. I ran up the stairs to give Mom a hug. She was in her wheelchair, in the sunroom, with an open book in her lap, but not reading. She was just staring out the window at our ragtag little group headed toward the beach, every child hand-in-hand with a parent.
Was she remembering the days when she was the parent holding the hands of unruly, eager children anxious to make sandcastles and dive headfirst into the waves? Or maybe just sad that she couldn’t go with us to body-surf and look for starfish and sand dollars? Mom loved the beach so much, and before becoming an invalid the last few years of her life, took a walk there almost every day.
I bent down to hug her, saying:
I know you still want to run and jump and play, Mom, and I’m so sorry you can’t.”
She gave a little sob, and squeezed my hand hard, her fingers still cherry-stained. She was so stoic through all of her illnesses, never indulging in self-pity, never complaining, never allowing anyone to feel sorry for her. If she could still talk, she would’ve shrugged and said, “I’m fine.” I only saw her cry once in the 38 years we had together. But on that last Labor Day, when I offered my clumsy empathy, she accepted it and allowed me to share her pain, just for a few beautiful moments, squeezing my hand while we both cried just a little. And then she motioned for me to go join the others, and I did, not looking back.
I knew she would watch me all the way to the water’s edge.
My “run and jump and play” comments weren’t quite the last words I said to Mom, but they are the ones I remember. I’m so grateful for those few moments on our last day together, when she trusted me enough to let herself be vulnerable, and gave me a glimpse of the ache in her heart about the brokenness of her body.
Labor Day is About…
To me, Labor Day is about appreciating the meaningful and challenging work I have always been blessed with, and of course, barbecue. But since since 2000, it will always remind me of cherries and empathy, too.