Dad’s Day

Pam’s Pictorama Post: So, I have been arguing with myself about this post and whether or not I was going to write it. This is fair warning to anyone out there who doesn’t want to read a somewhat downbeat Father’s Day post, this one probably isn’t for you. It is the only thing on my mind though as the marketers (everyone from my drugstore to where I buy my running shoes) remind me to think of my father today – and he remains very much on my mind. It’s a small story but seems to be the one for today.

As those of you who have followed this blog (or my and Kim’s real lives) know, my Dad died last August, just shy of a final birthday and after several painful months in hospice. As you lose people in your life, especially to illness, it gets hard as the year spins closer to the anniversary and there are landmark dates or, for me, seasons that remind you of where you were in the previous year. I wrote about bringing my father ice cream on Father’s Day last year (in a story that remains a bit amazing even to me that can be found here) so I know exactly where I was this time last year, although the early summer weather had been telling me for weeks.

I remember that these were the last few relatively good days he had. And I have a clear memory of sitting next to his bed, eating ice cream and him suddenly asking me if this job that I had taken at Jazz at Lincoln Center was going to work out. He always enjoyed hearing about the ins and outs of my work life – the travel I did and the people I met. It tickled him that, like his career as a cameraman, I enjoyed my work and it took me all over. He was proud and marveled that he had a daughter in business as he would say.

I was just over a year in my job responsible for fundraising at Jazz after thirty years at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and it was a fair question. In fact the challenge was at times overwhelming me, a real tiger by the tail, and I did wonder what on earth I had done in taking it on. However Dad spent those last months of his life worrying about me and my brother and asking for reassurance about the future. I would tell him that I would make sure my brother and mother were okay and would take care of everything.

So I was tempted to lie and gloss over it, but in the end, I told him the truth – it was very hard and the jury was still out on whether or not I would pull it off. A challenge is just that and you might fail. Sometimes hard work and sincerity weren’t enough and I just didn’t know yet. He was never much of a conversationalist, which was made worse by the labored breathing of his illness, so he nodded his head, listened and thought about what I was saying.

A year later a lot has happened and as these things do, the job got harder and more difficult before there were any signs of it getting better and that only very recently. Somehow though, through a dint of unstinting hard work and some good luck in these last weeks, we are starting to see some traction. It is possible that after two years of unrelenting effort there is some real daylight as I look around. With the help and hard work of some many people, a sense of order is starting to prevail. I have learned a lot and Dad would be pleased I think – I can see a nod of approval. Meanwhile, I will be eating ice cream later today in his honor.

Peggy and Ruth

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I just found this photo, purchased a little over a year ago. Somehow it has been overlooked, but today seems like the right day for it finally. For many of us this past week was smacked with a weather front we now refer to as a polar vortex. While it plunged our compatriots in the midwest into negative double digit weather, closing offices and schools and terribly even killing a number of people, here in New York it was just very, very cold, requiring many more layers of clothes than we wanted to wear and waddling like down covered penguins as a result.

In the midst of it we experienced something called a snow squall, which I admittedly liked the name of very much, but the experience of a bit less. I saw it from a conference room at work, overlooking the south end of Columbus Circle and within view of the southwest most corner of Central Park. We could barely see out the window and the wind was so bad it snowed upward! For a little more than an hour it poured snow and pounded Manhattan. Visions of pioneers struggling through sudden deadly storms came to mind, although we remained safe in our office tower perch. It resulted in a sheet of ice covering all the sidewalks which somehow the denizens of buildings responsible for snow removal didn’t see fit to address.

Of course my relationship to bad weather was quite different as a child, as I am guessing is true for at least most of us who experience childhood in the suburbs. For me, childhood hurricanes brought floods caused by the nearby river and had a holiday effect, a cause for excitement as water rushed around the house and under the floors, chilling them, ducks quacking at the backdoor. (I think about that now and how my mother was often home alone with us, three small children, when it happened – Dad off at work in New York or traveling as often as not. Mom was and remains, one tough cookie.)

Snow was of course the best because it resulted not only in a day off from school, but in ice skating (that same river flowed into smaller tributaries that froze solid) and sledding. Now, before I create an image of a sylvan childhood of Rockwell-like jolliness, I will state that as a child the meteorological conditions seemed to rarely result in weather that both closed school and was prolonged enough and appropriate for skating and/or sledding. It seemed to be something you were always waiting for that rarely occurred – making it all the better when it did.

Born in February blizzard, I have experienced many snowy birthdays. I will not opine on them right now, but frequently canceled birthday plans created a love-hate relationship with the white stuff. However, I do remember getting a new sled for, I believe, my eleventh birthday, and even without snow on the ground that year it remains a splendid gift that lives in memory.

While this photo was taken twenty-one years before I popped onto the scene, it could very easily been me and my sister Loren, and our cat Snoopy. We owned this very type sled and peaked caps, just like Peggy and Ruth. Snoopy was white with black cow spots, instead of this nice tabby type, and I believe Loren and I at 19 months between us, were closer in age than Peggy and Ruth appear to be. (A nod to Edward who would have shown up on the scene later in the game.) I have trouble imagining a photo of us this angelically posed – I believe most of the snow photos of Loren and I have us fighting, appropriately enough. Still, I purchased it thinking of us.

Unsurprisingly, at the moment the long-range forecast has precipitation predicted for my February 11 birthday. Last year it was a torrential, icy rain – none of the jolliness of snow I am afraid. I am working next weekend, but taking my birthday off to enjoy with Kim and cats here, snow or not, at Deitch Studio.

 

Wedding Photo

Pam’s Pictorama (Family) Photo Post: For those of you who tuned in yesterday for my post All in the Family (which can be found here) this is a companion post. I apologize for the length, but rambling family history is a hard tale to tell in a brief and cogent way.

This fragment is the wedding photo of my great aunt Rose (née Cittadino) to a man named Al Mazza, whose wedding feast held in the backyard I decades later knew as my grandmother’s, which was shown yesterday. (I am a bit stunned by the poor condition of both of these photos, but this is clearly a case of taking what you can get. Like yesterday, this is a photograph of the photo I took with my phone.)

I never knew Mr. Mazza, who I am told was from the French provinces of Canada, but of Italian lineage, as were the Cittadinos. As it stands now I know nothing of their courtship and can only say after they were married he went to work in my family’s bar and ultimately had one child, Frankie. My great-grandfather, Nikolas, came to this country to marry Mary and I was surprised to find out that his was a fairly affluent, professional family in Italy. I had always assumed the family had immigrated impoverished. (When visiting the south of Italy a number of years ago I remember thinking it was so very beautiful it must have been hard to leave, even for the pretty coastal New Jersey town they settled in. I visited Russia a few years later and thought instead of the other side of my family, this was a tough place to live and no wonder they worked so hard to leave!)

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My great-parents Nickolas and Mary in their wedding photo, undated

 

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Nik and Mary in later years. Mom says Nik, her grandfather, used to say, “She had her hand in my pocket even then!”

 

Rose, the bride, was the oldest, my grandmother Ann was a middle-ish child, the third of five and she appears to be in her late teens in this wedding photo. (She is on the end of the right side of the photo, holding a large bouquet of flowers, the youngest sibling, my great-aunt Margaret, or Mickey, is standing below her.) There are two brothers and they have not been identified for me, but I would guess that the older one, Phil, is in the white gloves and seated next to that absolute babe holding a bouquet and wearing a tiara, who I am lead to believe was the maid of honor. Ben, the younger brother, is probably standing next to my aunt Mickey. Phil dies young, at 36. I’m not sure Ben fared much better – this is the heart disease curse for that part of the family at work.

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The women however all live large in my memory. I remember Rose (Ro Ro to my tiny tot self) as a sort of parallel universe version of my grandmother in my childish mind. By the time I arrived conscious on the scene, my grandmother and her older sister were of a similar short and round build. Both were known for producing the most amazing and prodigious amounts of Italian delicacies. (Although my grandmother, having married a mid-westerner whose family hailed originally from the South, also mastered some distinctly American delicacies and her fried chicken, bread and meatloaf were unmatched.) In my memory, Ro was a bit sterner and more no nonsense than my grandmother, although she always had some excellent homemade cookies for me and my sister – this was before my brother was born. (Mickey, was the youngest sibling and remained wiry with red hair – she was cut from a slightly different cloth. She died over a year ago, well into her 90’s.)

As I have mentioned, aside from my grandfather, Frank Wheeling, who worked at Bendex and repaired outboard motors for a living (he was an epic tinkerer and could fix or build anything), all the men in the family, including those who married in and ultimately their sons, worked in the family bar. The women were tasked with cooking of course. My great-grandmother would have lead that effort (see my post about the blue plate special here) and in addition to the Monday-Saturday buffet, I learned recently that on Sunday, when the bar was closed, she cooked an additional midday meal that the regulars at the bar could subscribe to. Her daughters obviously helped with the endless cooking and learned at her knee. My grandmother was good with numbers and grew up to keep the books for the bar, but learned her cooking lessons well too. The bar still exists as a restaurant/bar on the site today, as far as I know. I have never been inside, but walked by one afternoon several years ago with my father.

However, Rose was the real cook to emerge from the family and she later owned her own restaurant located on the Long Branch pier, before taking a series of jobs cooking,  those included being private cook to wealthy families, and running the kitchen at Monmouth Park race track. (Where despite Rose’s eagle eye my college-age mother met my camera toting father one summer, but that is a story for another time.)

My memory of Ro was being at her house late in her life. She lived in the upstairs of a small house with her daughter in-law and granddaughter in residence downstairs, retired from the last of her positions, but commandeering her younger sisters to execute in tandem the most extraordinary holiday meals. Quite literally, the card tables set up in a line in the living room of the apartment groaned, and I believe I remember the long strands of fresh pasta drying on racks all over the apartment prior to the cooking.

When I entered my own nascent professional cooking career after college, I wondered if those shared genes were at work. I had done stints waitressing and as a short order cook, but even with that wasn’t entirely prepared for the overwhelming physical grind of that work. I came away with an even greater respect for Ro, and the other Cittadino women, who for several generations churned out those meals in addition to feeding their families – and the occasional festivity like the wedding feast shown yesterday.

The same cousin who unearthed these photos (Patti, granddaughter of Rose) has discovered a cache of her recipes. I look forward to going through them and hope in particular to find the recipe for certain Christmas cookies and bread. I am told the original recipe for Poor Man’s cake is also there – I am anxious to compare it to my recent recreation project. (The recent post devoted to that can be found here, called Having Your Cake.) Many of the recipes will sadly be of less interest to me – we are largely vegetarian here at Deitch Studio and Pictorama, and our consumption of pastry is modest. Yet I will be pleased to see them, in her handwriting, and indulge in a few.

 

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Rose seated, the era I remember her from, shown with her daughter in-law Grace.

Having Your Cake

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Photo of the first piece of the first try – too many raisins and before adding a dusting of confectionary sugar

 

Pam’s Pictorama: The holidays came late this year to those of us at Pictorama and therefore I ask for your indulgence as tidbits continue to pepper these posts in coming weeks. One reason for this is fairly self-evident – generally I am a cheerleader for making the most of what is good about the holidays, but with my dad’s death in August, none of us much had the stomach for it and we approached Thanksgiving gingerly. Setting the bar low helped, and we limped through without any group weep-a-thons, although I guess that would have been okay too.

At some point in the days before Christmas, I found myself reading the electronic version of the New York Times (something I do early in the morning over breakfast while Kim is already grinding away at his pages at the other end of the table) and as usual continued reading on my (usually) brief train ride on the Q to midtown. I believe I was on the Q when I read an essay about a lost fruit cake which had been sent to the author by his father several months before the father died. The cake was from a company, not homemade, and never arrives, but the son ultimately orders another and eats it. I had two reactions to this essay. The first was to get weepy – believe me, when I started the essay I had no idea a father was going to die in it or I wouldn’t have chosen it. However, more important to today’s story, it carried a reference to Poor Man’s cake which is something I have not thought about in years, and frankly thought was a term that might only be known to my family and that I had no idea was in general use.

A Poor Man’s cake, also known as a Depression cake, is one that doesn’t require the use of eggs, sugar or butter – all things that were in short supply during the war and Depression years. Like fruitcake, it will keep in your refrigerator or freezer for a long time – although as my mother pointed out when asked, we never put it to the test as we always consumed it in full immediately. It was a staple in my grandmother’s repertoire, at the heart of an ongoing rotation of recipes and it was as likely as not that she’d throw one together if she was in the house. (So often did she make certain recipes – this one, her one for bread which was heavenly and some of her Christmas cookies – that actual recipes seemed to elude her when asked. My sister Loren did work on writing some down. It was all a bit of this and that, done by touch and texture.) As I teased out my memory of her version of the cake, I remembered that it utilized boiled coffee, margarine (or bacon fat as an alternative) and molasses.

I became mildly obsessed with re-creating the cake. Maybe I needed a holiday distraction of sorts. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t familiar with my origin story – when younger I actually did time as a pastry chef (and a garde manger) working under, among others, Jean Georges Vongerichten at his first restaurant in Manhattan. That is clearly another whole post, but I mention it to say, while I definitely know my way around pastry, I haven’t made so much as a loaf of banana bread in years. Here at Deitch Studio, we’re pretty maniacally careful eaters (green smoothies, largely vegetarian) and while we might happily eat a bit of cake or pastry out in the world, I do not buy it, let alone produce it. Suffice it to say that the baking muscle has seriously atrophied, and executing even this simple cake required some both metaphorical and real dusting off of things.

In addition, the Pictorama kitchen is a tiny thing. I have often lamented that if we got a large dog it wouldn’t even fit in our kitchen. With some forethought I can claim a space of about six square inches to work on our limited counter space. Ironically, working in professional kitchens in Manhattan was good practice for this as I never had more than about a foot of space to work in – real estate is at a premium for them as well. Storage is another issue and as I did a quick assessment I realized my cooking supplies are somewhat pared down.

As I remember, my grandmother often used a Pyrex loaf dish. I know I owned or had owned one of these – I actually did make banana bread in it at one point. A quick search did not however turn it up. It either wandered out of the house in a cabinet purge, or has skulked far out of reach. (I did however find a pastry scale – so serious were my past baking endeavors – and the possible purge of a Pyrex dish while keeping that does seem somewhat ironic.) Undeterred, I turned to eBay and within 48 hours and for $5 I had one that was identical to what I remember. There were things I decided I could forgo, such as a flour sifter and a cooling rack.

Happily in the age of Google it took no time at all to find a number of recipes and by piecing them together I began reconstructing my grandmother’s version of the cake. The recipe I offer below is an amalgam of several recipes. I have replaced sugar with molasses, butter/bacon fat with margarine, water with coffee. Additionally I have changed the seasoning. There was much debate about the use of ground cloves and my mother remembers my grandmother using them, but I found them overwhelming in my first go at this and struck them out subsequently. I cut the amount of raisons – the original recipes called for two cups which seemed absurdly heavy. I realized that the recipe I took most of this from used baking soda and I used baking powder – I’ll probably try baking soda next time. As you can see from the photos, it is a pleasant looking cake, but not a real beauty. It is some rib sticking coffee cake – vegan for that matter as well.

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Cake two in the Pyrex loaf pan – yum!

 

I finished the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar which was what my grandmother did most often. (Oddly, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was literally sold out of powdered sugar. After trying Whole Foods and Gristedes, I purchased the very last bag at Fairway. Holiday cookies I assume? Weird, right? I began to wonder if people had stopped using it.) I have a memory of her occasionally using a chocolate glaze on it as well, although mom doesn’t remember that.

Even with my first try, the cake emerged as something close to what I remember. (I credit this with it being pretty much a no fault recipe!) Years of after school snacks, in evidence at every holiday and many weekend mornings was this cake. It had been a part of my life growing up that was a constant and I never really thought about until it was gone. My mother has never been a baker and when my sister died much of the family baking lore went with her. While asking about the cake, my mother and I have had several wonderful talks about other food we remember my grandmother making. She and her sisters were all gifted chefs – one sister owned a restaurant and was a private cook in wealthy homes.

Cake #2, shown with sugar at the top and made yesterday, is now tucked in my bag as I head to New Jersey this morning. I am anxious to show it off to my mother and cousin who will be stopping by for a piece later. I don’t know that it will become a staple here, but I suspect we can count on my making the occasional one now that I am getting the hang of it. There’s always my office, ready to consume some additional carbs if we are overwhelmed by my new cake ambitions.

Reading the recipes online I saw some complaints about some of the recipes running dry. I have not had that issue at all and suspect that the replace of sugar with molasses helps with that. I also think the loaf pan is better than the suggested two small cake pans as thinner cakes will cook faster and be more prone to drying out. I have included the nutritional information although I would imagine that it is a bit skewed with the adjustments I have made, likely lower calories and carbs with fewer raisins and no bacon fat!

Recipe:

  • 4 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 cups coffee
  • 2 tablespoons margarine
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • Confectionary sugar to taste for topping

Directions:

  1. In a medium saucepan combine the molasses, coffee, margarine, and raisins, over medium heat. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease and flour a loaf pan.
  3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Add the ingredients, a little at a time, from the saucepan and mix until well blended. 
  4. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes in the preheated oven. (Test with a knife to see if cooked through.) Cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack (if you own one!) to cool completely.
  5. Sprinkle confectionary sugar or add chocolate glaze once cool.
Nutrition Facts:
Per Serving: 174 calories; 1.4  39.6  2  1  158 

Handkerchiefs

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The only physical possessions of my father’s I brought home after he died are a series of white handkerchiefs. Dad was a devoted cotton handkerchief user. That was just a fact of him, like having greenish hazel eyes. I never thought about that never-ending line of handkerchiefs, for example when he started using them – why he preferred them to Kleenex. I wish now I had thought to ask, but as I said, they were just a fact of him. I think he would have found the question perplexing anyway, and he would have given me a look he reserved for those occasions when I would zip a question like that in out of left field – eyebrows raised and a shake of the head before probably saying he had no idea.

These handkerchiefs are not of a decorative, natty nature, peeping out from a suit pocket. These were practical and daily used, workaday hankies, always fresh and white though. I have no idea where he purchased them or how frequently. Presumably there was a very long line of them, the tatty ones ultimately pulled out by my laundry doing mother who also put herself in charge of thinning out all his worn out clothes with an eagle eye. (Dad was never very good at de-accessioning things. He was a keeper of all things – an accumulator in fact if left to his own devices.) I wouldn’t even know where to purchase such a thing, although I assume these days Mr. Google would accommodate me if I attempted it.

I brought dad some freshly laundered clothes from home shortly before he died and one of his handkerchiefs fell out when he went to put a shirt on. We both stared at it. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I hadn’t thought about them, those handkerchiefs, in a long time. It seemed incongruous to see it in his hospital bed. After he died I packed up those handkerchiefs that remained in his drawer and brought them home with me. I began carrying one, without the intention of using it, but just to have it like a lucky penny. Yet, like some heretofore unknown law of nature, if you carry a handkerchief, you will ultimately find yourself using it and I have.

This brings to mind a myriad of points about hygiene and maybe even the ecology of the disposable versus the washable, but frankly it doesn’t really matter. It seems a case can be made either way and I will leave it at that. Privately I think of them as my own stack of crying towels, a bit unkind perhaps, but there is some truth behind that. And I am learning that, after all, there are worse things than crying. Meanwhile, they are a talisman, albeit a practical one, tucked away in my handbag.

 

Toy Sleuth

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I write today from an airplane, speeding (or so they say, feels pokey and small today) across the country to catch up with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Santa Barbara, California. I am nibbling a square of dark, mint, organic chocolate I packed for the occasion and contemplating a rather satisfactory toy interaction I had earlier this week.

A number of months ago, maybe as long as a year, my good friend Eileen was opining on a toy she had as a child, but had long lost track of. She described it as a mouse playground which puzzled me – what the heck did that mean? Nothing came to mind. I began asking questions. Eventually Eileen located one mouse and I used the photo of it to do an image search on Google. Bingo! Turns out it was a German company, Kunstlerschutz. Wagner Kunstlerschutz produced sturdy looking toys in conjunction with Max Carl Toys of Germany during the years of 1951-1965. These figures were “flocked” rather than made of actual felt. I recognized them from my childhood, but have no memory of actually owning any.

I believe that most, if not all, of the world’s toys pass through the wondrous portals of eBay so next I began searching for said playground to see if it could be purchased. I found Kunstlerschutz animal houses (vaguely European in design), a school, a sort of a farm and of course ultimately the playground as well. However, while the animals are widely available, probably a tribute to their fairly indestructible nature and popularity, the buildings and playground are much harder to find. They seem sturdy enough, but still with pieces that could be lost or broken. I found record of one that had been sold on eBay previously for a large sum of money. Nonetheless, knowing that anything can happen on eBay, I put an alert on my account for Wagner Kunstlerschutz and playground and waited. I never heard a word until the other morning when at 5:30 AM this little gem popped into my inbox – complete, mice and all, for a fairly reasonable price. It was meant to be.

Other than a few books (my posts on A Cricket in Times Square can be found here, but I have also written revisiting my childhood favorites in The Story About Ping and Push Kitty), I have not largely pursued acquiring toys from my own childhood. I understand the thrill  and emotion of being able to experience them again however. Our books and toys were how we constructed our childhood worlds and possessing them again gives us our portal back to the past in a special way. Coming home from California on the airplane I watched the recent documentary on Fred Rogers which left me weeping. (Yep, sitting next to a pleasant seeming young German couple who were wondering why. I should have gone to a theater like everyone else.) Meanwhile, I wish Eileen (and her cat Apollo, who is meeting the Mouse Playground for the first time in these photos) much enjoyment with their newly re-acquired toy.

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Wagner Kunstlerschutz playground now in the Eileen Travell collection! All photos by Eileen Travell.

 

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