Here is the third guest author, Mike Drizik, from Robin's Somers' writing class at UCSC, "The Meaning of Food." Her students are offering up their memoirs of childhood food, and it's my pleasure to publish them here.
[That Robin and I ran into each other in the emergency room at the hospital last night should tell you that things have been a little crazy for us both, hence the gaps in posting. (Nothing is wrong with either of us—family members are ill, and prayers and good thoughts are appreciated for Charley and Mary.]
About Mike, Robin writes (forgive me, Anthony Bourdain):
Mike Drizik, a sophomore, has the distinction of being the only student who came to the course knowing of Anthony Bourdain (he finds Bourdain entertaining, but doesn’t think much of his writing). Mike offers a story riddled with angst and wry wit about his Jewish heritage and his love/hate relationship with family dinners.
By Mike Drizik
I dreaded sitting at the table from the very moment I heard a relative call and invite us to the dinner, almost to the point of fearing calls from my Aunt and Grandma. Any chance they had to come up with anything even remotely worth noting, much less celebrating, they would call up the entire family, knowing that undoubtedly at least a few would show up. Come the time of the year that we’re approaching now, I become particularly distressed knowing that I will soon again have to be in the company of my family, around a dinner table, much more often than I would like in much less time than I would like. Truly, there are few more frightening notions. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with my family! Don’t get me wrong! They’re kind of closed minded, money obsessed, and rude, but they’re all right. I got used to it. It’s just that when you put ten of these Russian-Jews around a dinner table with a couple bottles of vodka and endless wine, all hell ensues and I desperately want to shoot myself.
I’m exaggerating, yes, but only slightly. The food of my heritage and my life is forever tied to the memories of experiencing this very unique food with my family around the dinner table. As true as it is that I really do not at all enjoy sitting around the dinner table with my extended family, it is doing just that that led me to where I am today, a lover of food and eating and cooking. The reason for this is a little backwards, however. I very rarely enjoyed the food that I was served by the various cooks in my family, though I do have to admit I was occasionally pleasantly surprised. Also, I did not at all enjoy the company that is my family when together and drunk around a table. My love came from seeing how food was able to bring people together and to entertain. I love cooking because of my Grandma—not my real Grandmother—who married my Grandpa. To me she’s always been my Grandma. Her enthusiasm for the food, for the family, for the drink, and for the experience is incredibly infectious. She loves to entertain, to make all of us happy, to feed us until we explode. No, not just up until right before we explode; I’m convinced that she wants to see one of us pop considering with how much energy she exerts begging and pleading her grandchildren to eat more and more. And more.
She planted the seed.
I love to bring people together and cook for them and watch them enjoy themselves. This is why I started cooking. (In addition to it most often being the only way to feed myself well.)
My Grandma is head chef/caterer/planner/organizer of every event in my family. Even if it is not she who has the idea for the gathering, she immediately takes on the responsibility of taking care of everything. If she is invited to a dinner, she arrives as early to possibly to help with the cooking. She’s the only punctual member of our family.
She was in the kitchen when we arrived at my Aunt’s fiftieth birthday party. The party was scheduled for three o’clock but of course we got there at four-fifteen and happened to be earlier than most of the rest of our family. I think its something in the Russian genes. Who knows. My uncle was showing off his fancy new pool, dragging my adorable little cousin around by the hand with every step. She’s four; her brother is twenty-four. I walked into the kitchen to give my Grandma a hand and to see what was on the menu for the evening, though I knew full well exactly what was on the menu, for it has not changed at any family dinner yet.
I’m exactly like her in the kitchen. We both hate help and interruption from others and would never think to take advice regarding our cooking. She gave me a hug and a kiss and told me to get lost.
The drinking had already begun. The big men (I don’t know how I turned out so small. Neither do they) were standing in circles holding wine glasses in one hand and pouring vodka into shot glasses with the other. The noise level was beginning to rise. The kids began getting excited at the lack of supervision only to be suddenly called to the table by my incredibly loud, incredibly small Grandmother. By the time we all sat down my Grandmother had single-handedly managed to bring all of the dishes to the center of the table. When the wine and shots were poured, the toasting of my Aunt began and soon afterward the ravenous eating.
The dishes at these gatherings that I enjoy are few, so I stick to eating food from only three or four platters. The peroshki, flaky pastries stuffed with spiced peas, were particularly good that evening. The pielmeni, on the other hand, boiled spiced pork and beef dumplings in dough, turned out terribly bland and over cooked, and I absolutely hate overcooked pasta dough. When I was younger I had wondered what this nasty smelling clear stuff that made the grown ups louder was. Now the wonder has turned to annoyance. The conversation revolves around money and belonging and being Jewish, despite the fact that so many of my family know nothing about Judaism and, indeed, are not good Jews. I grab a couple galupchikee, spiced pork and beef stuffed peppers, eat them quickly, and go outside. I still smoked cigarettes then, and need one then as much as ever.
Now that I am older and do not have to go to all of these family gatherings, and am allowed to drink, the ones that I do go to I enjoy. The memories in retrospect are silly and fun, and the reason for my love of food. Nowadays, I cook for people as often as I can and enjoy it immensely.
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THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Family jokes, though rightly cursed by strangers, are the bond that keeps most families alive." — Stella Benson
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