Food, Childhood, and Forging Friendships

When the guests arrived, the night went from being familiar to a bit more formal.   invited their friend Nina to the dinner, and she brought her friend Bob, whom nobody had met before, along with her.  After introductions, conversation stopped and started erratically.  We didn’t know each other yet, but by the end of the night, we would all be friends, and conversation would flow like the filling of Grandma Ruth’s apple pie: rich and smooth.  

That pie is how I first heard of Grandma Ruth.  The Strohls, my girlfriend’s family, have been trying to replicate that pie recipe ever since Thelma Ruth Patrick—known in the family as Grandma Ruth—passed away in 1998.  They lament over how difficult it is to get the crust as flaky and golden brown as their Grandma Ruth did on a consistent basis for so many years.  However, Layla (Michael and Madhavi’s eldest daughter) has recently taken the pie-making torch, perfecting the apple pie’s filling and crust.  I can’t say I was surprised when Michael—who organized the dinner to commemorate his Grandma Ruth—told me that there was one caveat for cooking this meal: even though she wouldn’t be able to get to the meal, Layla had to make .  Anybody else couldn’t do Ruth or her pie justice.  So Layla made the pie the night before and froze it for us to cook without her the next day.  

The pie though was only a part of what Michael Strohl had planned to celebrate his grandmother.  Michael’s strongest memories of his Grandma Ruth took place at her cozy home in Seattle where she would have dinners with everybody in the family on Sundays.  Although Michael did not have any particular stories of those Sundays spent at Grandma Ruth’s, his memory of those meals has less to do with sights, sounds, and smells and more to do with abstract feelings and emotions: a nostalgia of familial comfort, warmth, and company.  Michael planned four other dishes for the dinner, each of which were staples at Grandma Ruth’s house:  a dip called Shrimp Patrick, “Chicken Legs,” twice-baked potatoes, and pressure-cooked green beans.  The Strohl family takes food very seriously, always trying new recipes and exploring different cuisines.    However, the meal that Michael planned is simple American comfort food, something that was unfamiliar to me at the Strohl dinner table.  Michael’s departure from the typically adventurous cooking shows how this dinner was much less about intrigue than it was about recreating the familiar and familial setting of those Sunday dinners in Seattle.  

The meal that Michael planned to commemorate his grandmother not only helped Michael reminisce about his childhood in Seattle, but it also gave the guests and I opportunities to relate to one another by offering similar stories about childhood and family meals.  After the slightly uncomfortable introductions and early conversation with Nina and Bob, we all sat down on a couch in the living room.  Madhavi brought in the first dish to commemorate Ruth Patrick: Shrimp Patrick.  Shrimp Patrick is a strange but comforting dip comprised of chopped shrimp, sour cream, and scallions to be served with plain Lays potato chips.  Madhavi explained to us all that the dish is a little bit “white-trash” (she meant this endearingly) and named after Michael’s maternal side of the family, the Patricks.   that Grandma Ruth used to serve for everybody to eat before the real meal got started.  Sarina (my girlfriend and the youngest in the Strohl family) makes this dip for holidays and family occasions.  The roots, name, and use of the dish connote a sense of family.  I got the sense that the dish, regardless of whether people liked it (which I did), is a tradition in the family and is made every year as an unquestioned staple that contributes to the family atmosphere at the Strohl house.

Such an atmosphere made everybody more comfortable and conversation became easier.  I spoke about the onion dip that my mom likes to make on Sundays or on Thanksgiving when we watch football; Bob spoke about his Polish mother’s stuffed cabbage; Nina contributed a memory of her childhood meals. Because of the Shrimp Patrick and the ways in which it conveyed family and nostalgia, were laughing and talking over one another.  We were getting to know each other.  

After gorging on some Lays with Shrimp Patrick, we moved into the kitchen while he assembled the “Chicken Legs.”  The “Chicken Legs” are actually not chicken at all: they are pieces of cubed veal and pork that are skewered, breaded, and baked, resembling shake-and-bake chicken legs.  While he assembled the skewers, Michael repeatedly commented on how he hadn’t cooked the “chicken legs” before.  He actually didn’t even remember how Ruth used to cook them, asking his sister over the phone whether to fry or bake the meat skewers.  Nonetheless, Michael remarked with how well they resemble his grandmother’s Sunday delicacy.  The nostalgia though was contagious.  Soon, Madhavi laughed about the mayhem at Ruth’s house during those large family gatherings as the children became adults and had kids of their own to run around the house; Bob  and offered a small anecdote about his Polish grandmother’s handmade potato dumplings.  Nina’s eyes glistened as her mouth widened in nostalgic delight.  Nina didn’t speak much but she was happy in this commemorative space, celebrating childhood friends and family.  

While Michael’s attention to detail in replicating Grandma Ruth’s “Chicken Legs” contributed to this joyful nostalgic atmosphere in the Strohl home, oddly Michael was not as concerned about making the green beans or exactly as his grandmother had done so many times before.  Michael added white wine to the pressure-cooker for the green beans and used a magazine recipe for the twice-baked potato.  The magazine recipe can be excused because it appears that nobody knew exactly how Ruth used to make the potatoes.  However, the white wine was a clear transgression of Ruth’s otherwise supremely plain green beans.  Michael’s incorporation of white wine was done on a whim, without planning, well into the party.  I’ve tried to make sense of this, and ultimately, I think that the exact replication just was not important to Michael.  What mattered most was the nostalgic atmosphere and the fun that everyone was having in that moment.  By the time Michael had added the white wine, we were all laughing, all sharing.  The “Chicken Legs” and Shrimp Patrick had already created the energy pulsing through the room.  The green beans were only complementary at this point.  

After the twice-baked potatoes, we all gathered about the table, took for my project, sat down, and shared the Strohl family’s dinner ritual of holding hands in silence for about five seconds, feeling each other’s presence.  We passed around the food, ate everything in sight, and went on giddily gabbing about family and food from our childhoods.  Conversation was effortless and had been—despite being relative strangers when the night began—since Madhavi brought out the Shrimp Patrick on Grandma Ruth’s platter.  The ease of conversation was undeniably related to the intentionally commemorative and nostalgic dish and following meal.  

Everyone has a childhood to look back on with some sense of appreciation of simpler times. One of the major differences between life as an adult and child is that as children we are cared for, while as adults we are responsible for others around us.  In our individualistic American society, adults are taught to be entirely independent; dependency is a weakness.  However, we all miss the affection we received as children and cooking was one of the most common ways that our elders show their love for us.  In a strange way, the food that Michael and Madhavi cooked that night was representative of Grandma Ruth’s loving role as the family’s matriarch, even though Ruth’s physical absence was felt throughout the night.  

Madhavi shared one especially heartfelt memory of Grandma Ruth.  Grandma Ruth had always loved Madhavi’s pizza, something that Madhavi makes every Sunday for her family. It was always a highlight of Ruth’s trips to visit Michael, Madhavi, and her great-grandchildren in Queens, NY.  Unfortunately but inevitably, Michael and Madhavi got a call from family in Seattle suggesting that they should visit Seattle to see Grandma Ruth, perhaps for the last time.  Ruth, being as old as she was, could no longer cook for the whole family like she did every Sunday when Michael was a child.  Michael and Madhavi planned to leave on Monday but on Saturday, Ruth gently wrapped her fingers about Madhavi’s wrist and told her that she would be honored if Madhavi could make her pizza for everybody on Sunday before flying home.  Sadly, Ruth passed away shortly after that final trip to Seattle.  As fleeting as that moment was, I could tell that the memory of Madhavi’s last encounter with Ruth is indelible, something that Madhavi keeps close to heart by the way that her eyes swelled and glistened without releasing a single tear.  More than just pizza, Madhavi’s food (like Ruth’s) is her way of expressing her love and affection for those around her, and she is forever grateful that she was able to care for Ruth one more time by cooking.  

Michael’s dinner was his way of honoring somebody who for so long had shown her love through those of Shrimp Patrick, “Chicken Legs,” green beans, twice baked potatoes, and apple pies.  Bob, Nina, and I could not contribute much to Ruth’s commemoration because we did not personally know Ruth (Nina had met Ruth several times but it seemed like not enough to have any significant memories of her own).  However, the dinner that Michael cooked and the air of nostalgic familial love that oozed out of that oven with the “Chicken Legs” gave us the space to ourselves honor our parents and grandparents—the people who cooked and cared for us as children—with stories about the food and family of our childhoods.  Coming from very different ethnic, geographic, and economic backgrounds, the people about the table had little in common, but Michael’s dinner let us all forge relationships with one another through storytelling and food.  By sharing memories of the family meals of our childhoods, we were able to develop friendships in only one night.  

Michael and Madhavi Strohl

Ruth’s famous apple pie, made by designated family pie-maker Layla Strohl

Shrimp Patrick and Potato Chips

Bob, Nina, and I huddled around the Shrimp Patrick

Michael assembling his grandmother’s “chicken legs”

Michael breading the “chicken legs.”

Bob telling us stories about meals with his Polish family growing up.

Twice-Baked Potatoes

Madhavi refilling the potatoes to be baked a second time.

Michael, Nina, Bob, and Madhavi around the dinner table

The plate: Chicken Legs, twice-baked potato, and green beans.