People often ask me how I fell in love with cooking. I followed my nose, with my heart and stomach not far behind. It was the magical late autumn of 1969.
I’ve always been drawn to the heat of the kitchen. It was where all the action was when Irish people got together to drink and eat like we did back then. For me, the kitchen was the place to be if you wanted to hear the stories of the olden days from the elders that were still around. The food was just the starting point.
The early lessons I learned in Grandma’s kitchen were among the most important I’ve ever learned. When she put together a Sunday shindig for the whole gang, her butcher said a prayer of thanks.
In the Brooklyn of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, people liked getting together and celebrating. In our living rooms, basements and parlors, our grandparents, uncles and aunts told stories of this party or that dance where someone did something outrageous. All the older folks laughed. It was all funny and dressed up for public consumption. It all seemed so harmless.
The Jets game played on the big Zenith console in the large living room. Uncles and friends moaned or cheered with each play. Nuts and chips disappearing from bowls on the TV table. Tin beer cans of Rheingold clanked a long Namath to Maynard touchdown pass that tied the game. Woohoo.
Our whole family was there along with some of our cousins and sorta’ cousins. The nearly dozen younger kids played safely on the stoop and street in front of the brick row houses. Mom and a few of the other young mothers smoked on the top steps and chatted. Most of the men gathered around the television watching football. I drifted toward the kitchen to see what was going on.
Grandma Duffy had a big Sunday roast beef going in the oven and she was busy at the aqua-colored Formica counter prepping sides.
The kitchen casement windows steamed up fogging the glass on a sunny, cold early December afternoon. Her lace curtains dewy with condensation but spray starch stiff and Clorox white clean.
I was always a restless and curious boy. And I was usually hungry. The aroma of the beef and roasting carrots was rich and drew me to the kitchen. Grandma was chopping fresh herbs on the counter. Aunt Peggy helping by peeling spuds for the mash. She tells me she adds sour cream and fresh chives that she grew in her backyard during the summer.
I asked Grandma if I could help. She smiled and waved me towards the radiating heat of the oven.
“Respect the heat. If you do, it will be the most honest relationship you will ever have in your long life.”
She opened the oven briefly and a let strong wave of heat licked out at us…I was impressed.
“Heat will do the same thing every time. It will burn you. No shortcuts, no wet pot holders, and no flimsy implements. Same way every time. Be mindful.”
I was. The dragon’s breath of the 450 degree oven made a clear impression on me. I saw what it did to 15 pounds of round roast beef, charring the succulent layer of fat that coated the giant hunk of meat. There were plenty of folks who were fans of the burnt ends and crispy bits.
The Jets beat the Bills or Dolphins on a late field goal and marched on towards their only Superbowl victory that coming January. Combined with the Mets recent World Series win still fresh in our hopeful thoughts, we were indeed breathing rare air.
After the game ended, the happy lads gathered around the big table, with all the leaves inserted for maximum eating space. That was the cue for Granma to start bringing out heaping plates of mashed potatoes, roasted carrots with butter and honey and a pile of biscuits. Chairs were arranged to accommodate the big group.
I loved how the food brought everyone together for a half hour, before everyone went back to their respective cliques. Old and young, men and women all passing plates in a synchronized dance. Once everyone was situated we took hands and thanked the Lord for our bounty.
The bonds that I recall with those people so many years later were formed at that big Macy’s lay-away oak dining room table. Then, the chatting resumed full tilt as plates of food were passed about. Everyone was sitting together and happy, eating like royalty and sharing real laughs.
Well-done was the order of the day for most steaks back then, but roast beef needed to have a pink interior core. That’s when I’d line up for a few slices, when I saw the blood. A crispy coating of fat on my beef, a ladleful of the earthy brown mushroom gravy, a fresh buttermilk biscuit tick with creamy Irish butter, a few crispy carrots and a glass of milk or an apple juice and I was as happy as a clam.
Soon after eating large amounts of food, men would drift out to the front porch with their scented tobacco pipes to talk about the war and Nixon (that bastard). Democratic ward bosses, union workers, cops, clerks and drunks alike, they all hated Nixon.
At six years old, I was tired of hearing about Vietnam. The six o’clock news was enough. I gravitated toward the kitchen once the dishes were cleared to hear what they were all talking about.
The kitchen radio played Do-Wop oldies from the Fifties and someone always tried to sing along to the crooners. Some jokingly bad, but often enough someone would step up and knock one out of the park. People would come in from the front room to see who owned that fine voice.
Sometimes, I’d have to completely re-evaluate a person when I witnessed them demonstrate their unseen gift and art appeared before our very eyes. You just never knew they had it in them.
Willie Duffy, Grandpa on my mother’s side was a kind, dapper quiet drinker. His silver flask would appear and disappear, flashing in the dying sunlight to steel him. Everyone looked away. It seemed right and a little noble.
Grandpa would summon up an old rebel Fenian tune and sing with true, pure God-given tenor.
He sang aching ballads that brought alive the clear streams, the green rolling hills, the winding roads and smiling faces of his beloved Ireland. He would follow that with either “Danny Boy” or “Whiskey in the Jar”. Maybe after that he would lead a rousing Republican hymn to get the blood up, often enough brilliantly leading to “The Fields of Athenry”.
After a few songs he would usually get sleepy and Uncle John and another of the men would lead him up to bed. He would be snoring like the rumble of a slow moving freight train within minutes. This was usually the beginning of the end of the long day.
The kitchen held the last embers of the party as people began leaving. Grandma sent them off with care packages of her beef enough for their lunch sandwiches for the next couple of days. My Mother would call out for us to wrap it up. Brothers and sisters gathered for departure, each kissing Grandma goodnight.
Take people and good food, apply warmth. Spice to taste. Add a spoonful of butter and a dollop of honey. Bake for one hour at 350. Baste often. Let cool before serving. Turn off oven.
I remember the heat of the kitchen. I remember the warmth of the people. I remember how the food brought us all together if only for a little while. I knew that I wanted to always be in the kitchen.