“Timothy I don’t want you to come.” I had never been dis-invited to a birthday party. I was preparing to fly out for my Mothers 60th birthday when she called me. Was it because of the expense? No, it was because The Sisters would be there and she didn’t want the distraction of her children.
The eldest of five girls and one boy, my Mom is extremely close to her sisters. When they visit, Dad parks himself in a corner with a very thick book. The last place he would dream of venturing is the kitchen. We grew up knowing if our Mom wasn’t around and The Sisters were – one or all would become Mom. They are a tribe within our family – and a powerful force, especially when it comes to food.
They swarm about the stove talking nonstop, never bumping or stepping on each others toes all the time finishing each others sentences. It sounds as if 20 people are talking at once and looks as if a game of musical chairs is being played without chairs. Each dish they cook hearkens back to a time and place before we were born, back when the tribe of The Sisters was united under the same roof, around the same stove stirring the same pot.
Rori is not a part of the tribe in the same way as Mary, Cathleen, Aileen and my Mother – Ann are. She had a breakdown some years back, but even before that she was somewhat apart from The Sisters. The wages of a tough childhood sometimes don’t pay out until much later in life. The Sisters still care for her, Cathleen works tirelessly to shepherd her through the disconnected islands of her life. Of course their brother Ed is not invited to the kitchen cabals, he’s a boy like me.
The stories that come out of their kitchen always include food and are inevitably outrageous. Their Father Eddie Boy was not only an amazing chef but a fantastic failure as a businessman. His clam farm was swept away in a storm leaving the family broke. He went into business with a friend who had invented a revolutionary way to can shrimp cocktails. The Sisters worked there, as the cans went down the line each daughter plucked out her share of shrimp out. Shrimp-less shrimp cocktails are not very profitable, the business failed fast.
Every recipe they talk about evokes at least a few stories, usually the names sound like characters from Grimms Fairy Tales. “Remember that Christmas we got the white carpet in honor of Big Thea’s visit? Dad worked so hard on the turkey – and then the chimney caught fire.” Inevitably the story ends in a tragedy that returned the family back to its natural working class state of struggle.
It always comes back to food, how it connects them and kept their family afloat. My Mother laughs as she recounts her father tying a salami to her leg. She worked with him, preparing salads at a fine hotel. Nobody saw the sausage beneath her long dress, it likely fed the family for a few days.
One of their favorites stories was of a Thanksgiving after they recently went broke. Earlier that year the family embarked upon one of their 2am relocation adventures. Unable to pay rent Eddie-Boy found a new home in a different part of the Bay Area. Late one night they loaded everyone up and moved. Who knows how many landlords they’d burned that way?
Aileen had a job serving Thanksgiving dinner at a large private family dinner later that year. It was the kind of affair where all the relatives and their friends were invited to gather around rented tables crammed into the dining room of a somewhat upper class home. The host was a beneficent businessman of modest success who decided to share his bounty with loved ones in honor of the Holiday Season. In this instance the businessman was a landlord, who’s bounty had been only slightly decreased earlier that year by one unscrupulous tenant who’d left one night at 2am without paying back rent.
Eddie-Boy didn’t know the victim of his latest relocation was the host of the party he had agreed to carve the turkey for. It was a last minute request from his daughter: Aileen knew Eddie-Boy was a master carver and if sober, would do an excellent job. What a wonderful idea to have her father join her on this day! It may have even warmed the Beneficent Landlord’s heart to know that the kitchen help had family there.
The Beneficent Landlord didn’t recognize Aileen, she was just the girl the agency sent to serve the meal. He would however recognize Eddie-Boy at first glance destroying all of his seasonal thankfulness. I don’t know what expression crossed my grandfathers face when he realized the pickle he was in. The veteran of many epic debacles he apparently kept his cool, not running from the scene and abandoning his daughter to deal with the consequences.
Instead he resorted to tactics that have held Bugs Bunny, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardey, and Charlie Chaplin in good stead. Whenever a Beneficent Landlord family member would enter the kitchen, Eddie-Boy would find a reason to stick his head in the fridge or a cabinet, or better yet step out to the car for one last bit of essential equipment. His skillful execution of this technique must have been extraordinary as it was completely successful. The game changed when the Beneficent Landlord insisted he present the glorious turkey to the guests before being carved.
This was a huge bird. Of the two people in the kitchen, only Eddie-Boy was physically suited to enter the crowded dining room and hoist the bird high for all expectant guests to gasp at in awe. Which is exactly what he did. His vaudevillian instincts must have been finely tuned back then, Aileens weren’t to shabby either. Opening the door and stepping forth into the dining room she announced the presence of the turkey. Eddie-Boy took two steps into the room, the bird held high enough to obscure his head, paused just long enough for the collective gasp of approval to fill the room, before backing up into the kitchen. His turkey mask was a complete success.
If judges from the Guinness Book of World Records had been present in that kitchen they would have witnessed the fastest carving of a Thanksgiving turkey in human history. Before the first plate hit the banquet table the turkey’s skeleton was laid bare and Eddie Boy was burning rubber down the road. The beneficent landlord never knew his holiday celebration had been graced by one of his most reviled former tenants.
With a childhood made up of events like this, its not surprising my Mom and her sisters bonded so deeply. It is a tribe of unassailable strength that will last for at least as long as any of The Sisters are alive. When my Mother chose to spend that birthday with them, after I got over feeling bruised, I understood.
Its impossible to talk about food without talking about Mothers. Many women understand food in ways men never can because to all of us they are food. For nine months before we are born we are a part of their bodies drawing all nourishment from them, once we’re born some of us are blessed to nurse at their breasts. Food weaves together bonds of survival, love and even spirituality.
In The Sisters I see the beauty and the darkness of that gift. Their fathers cooking must have felt like love embodied. They became nourishment to each other when he and their Mother were lost in their alcoholism. Three of the sisters have their own children. Rori’s breakdown came after two sons and numerous attempts at a daughter. I’ve come to understand that we are my Mothers second set of children, as she felt so responsible for her younger sisters growing up. The toll of nourishing us all has weighed heavily on her at times, it seemed to exhaust her almost to the point of breaking a few times when I was young. Parents are childrens primary sustenance, though based in love it is not without a price.
Aileen had one son and has grown to embody the mothering energy everyone feels around the Sisters tribe. She is a caregiver for the ill and dying, adopting anyone in need. Cathleen has helped to raise a granddaughter and cares for Rori with a dedication that is super-human. Mary cares for animals as if they were born from her own body.
Like a slow cooked stew its impossible to separate out the flavors to figure out what makes The Sisters feel so nourishing. They hold us all and sustain us, yet they are always a little separate from us. The memories of their childhood bind them together in secrets as well as the hysterical stories that they love to share. Perhaps without their secrets they couldn’t nourish us all so well. The most important ingredient of all great alchemy is mystery.
Below is one of the many recipe’s they’ve shared over the years. Inexplicably a song reference is scribbled at the bottom of the worn page. Perhaps you should play it while mixing the ingredients? Run-ons and misspellings translated to the best of my ability.
Walt’s Roquefort Dressing
1/3 cup of gr. onions
2 cups mayonnaise
1 clove garlic or 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
4 pieces chopped bacon
2 cups parsley
1/2 cup Roquefort cheese
1 1/2 tbs.
anchovy past 1 cup sour cream
2 tbs. lemon juice
1 teasp Worcestershire sauce Tabasco sauce
4 light shakes salt, pepper
Beat with wire beater