Inheriting My Dad’s Apron: A Death But Also A Joy

Hello hello.  Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and are hours deep into a lovely holiday weekend. These past two and a half months have been officially the longest stretch of non-writing on the blog since its beginning all the way back in 2012. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you. And I’ve missed all the fun topics that we like to discuss here. I wish I could say I was off on a magical adventure, like Ms. Jeannie, traveling the world and collecting fantastic food stories to bring back home to share with you. But the truth is not as glamorous and the circumstances definitely not as joyful.

At the end of April, my dad passed away. It has been hard and sad and writing has been difficult.  I wanted to spare you all a bucketful of emotionally awkward and sentimentally teary-eyed posts that I started to write and then abandoned. All apparently a part of the grieving process which, ironically, is similar to the writing process too.

It has always been one of my goals for the Vintage Kitchen to keep things happy and interesting by featuring positive stories and positive people. We all know there’s enough heartache and negativity already shuttling around the world, who needs to add to it?! Especially when we are talking about such pleasurable topics as food and cooking and kitchens. The vintage kitchen is my joy and I’m always hoping that it is yours too.

That being said, it has taken me a couple of months to wrap my head around the loss of my dad and what that means, specifically, to my happy, healthy and still very much alive spirit. Especially when it comes to cooking and eating – two of my dad’s most favorite past-times.

All I could really muster in the writing department immediately following his death was his obituary and then two brief stories on Instagram about him here and here. Whenever it came to settling down to write a proper post about him and this whole experience here on the blog, each attempt fell apart, and the words turned into a jungle of wild declarations, rough meanderings and that dreaded word that tends to get over-sentimentalized these days … nostalgia. For two months I’ve mulled over what to say, how to say it and why it would be important. Then, just the other day, I looked at the apron and suddenly it all made sense.

When my sister and I closed up my dad’s house in early May to head back home to our lives, I took five things from his kitchen… his crock-pot, his orangey red dutch oven, two handfuls of 1960’s Air France ceramic nut dishes, an all-in-French cookbook featuring recipes from the Riviera, and his black striped apron. Like any good family heirloom passed down from one generation to another, I knew these five items would help make the memories I had of him last.

The apron was originally part of a set made by Now Designs in San Francisco in the 1980’s. It was from their Paris Bistro collection which also included a matching apron in white and grey stripe and a trio of coordinating potholders and oven mitts. Whether he bought it himself or it was gifted to him, I’m not sure, but the Paris theme matched his French airline executive career and the black cloth matched the color of his hair.

I have looked at this apron so many times throughout my life that I don’t really notice the label or even the stripes so much anymore. Whenever I look at the apron I see my dad in a bevy of situations. Standing at the grill on the back deck,  when I was 5 and he was 40. Scurrying around the kitchen readying a weekend dinner party when I was in my teens and he was in his 50’s. Shaking martinis for Christmas cocktail hour when I was in my 20’s and he was in 60’s. At each turn of thought, the apron is always there, with him, with us, an active member of the family at mealtimes for more than three decades.

Looking at it now, you’d never guess it is over 35 years old. Probably this is a testament to the quality of the fabric, and the talent of the maker, and my dad’s neat and tidy ways. But as they say, appearances can be deceiving. This apron is definitely no amateur. It has lived in a suburban family house overlooking New York’s Hudson River, in a golf course bachelor apartment overlooking the Connecticut border and in two houses in Florida both overlooking lakes where alligators may or may not  have roamed. As my dad’s go-to uniform in the kitchen and at the grill, it was instrumental in whipping up many of his favorite house specialties like apricot glazed Cornish game hens, cheddar chive biscuits, and barbecued chicken. It’s been a part of holiday parties, birthday parties, house parties and most every everyday dinner in between.  It’s been dressed with shorts, suits, tuxedos, jeans, pants and even a bathing suit or two. It’s adventured through snowstorms, rainstorms, heatwaves, hurricanes, bad food, good food, burnt food and best foods. And best of all, at one point or another it has at been worn at least once or twice by every member in my family – my mom, my sisters, my brother and me for various cooking tasks. But most often it has been worn by my dad.

When my parents divorced in the mid-1990’s, my dad really took on home cooking with gusto. He was a world traveler by that point in his life, the consummate jetsetter, living a glamorous lifestyle while visiting glamorous places. But he hadn’t really traveled around his own kitchen with that much intrepid wonder yet. Always good at outdoor grilling,  the indoor kitchen was new uncharted territory. One day he decided to change that. He read up on back issues of Gourmet magazine, bought a bunch of kitchen gadgets and got to work. What he produced, over time, were incredible meals fit for lavish occasions. His palate was vast and varied and nothing was off-limits, especially when it came to entertaining and indulging his friends and his family. When all this joie-de-vivre came about in his kitchen, I was teenager and a curious gourmet myself. We would spend weekends together, my sister, my dad and I trying out new recipes, new wines, new techniques while singing the night away to Frank Sinatra as we whisked and whipped and boiled and blanched our way through a plethora of recipes over a plethora of years.

My dad was fun to talk with about cooking because he almost always had a story to back up a food. Pigeon in Africa, pasta in Italy, lamb in New Zealand, croissants in Paris, rice in Kuala Lumpur… the adventures were endless.  Plus we traveled a lot together so we each brought our own memories to the conversation of what we tasted and how we felt. My dad understood the power of food and the emotional vibrancy it brought to an atmosphere unlike anyone else I had known. Probably because he had attended enough work dinners and cocktail parties to last three lifetimes let alone one.  Those experiences helped him craft the subtle nuances of cooking for others and added art to the act of entertaining. He knew that a pre-dinner cocktail could loosen the mood, that a dinner wine could bring out new flavors in the food and that a new style of cooking had the power to ignite curiosity and expand horizons. Once he got the hang of it all, he entertained with abandon. Almost every weekend his house was full with a party or two. And on the quiet nights, he ate just as interestingly.

When he became sick a few years ago my dad stopped cooking altogether. This transition came on slowly. A packaged Trader Joe’s food dinner here, another one there, “for convenience,” he said, when he didn’t have the energy to cook. The phone conversations between my sister, my dad and I became less about what we were all making in our kitchens and more about what he was eating in his. Week by week, it became more clear – convenience was in and cooking was out. By that point, his favorite apron became buried in a drawer beneath the oven.

In these new normal days, my sister and I would fly down every few months and prepare multiple meals for his freezer so that he could pull them out when he was hungry, defrost them and taste something homemade. We made all of his most favorites – French Onion soup, Split Pea, Chicken Cassoulet, navy beans, meatloaf, brownies, chocolate cake, cookies… whatever sounded good to him. Each time we cooked, I’d begin by opening the drawer beneath the oven and pulling out his apron. Within minutes the apron would be full of flour and food splashes, damp with water, as my sister and I dived into preparing our recipes. By the end of each of these cooking holidays, the kitchen, a war-zone of scattered pots and pans and ingredients, would get cleaned up and the apron washed and dried and returned back to the drawer. It seemed like every time my sister and I put it away, we would be surprised by how great the apron cleaned up. How it could still look so spotless and practically brand-new after days of flurried cooking and decades of use.

When his frozen foodstuffs inevitably ran out, my dad would resort to indulging his cravings with things he’d discovered at the grocery store… rice pudding, root beer, peanut butter, cheddar cheese popcorn, danishes.  Over the phone, he’d fill my sister and I in on his new store favorites including a fast-food sandwich –  Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s. All this from a guy who never ate prepared foods or fast food in his entire life, who almost never ate dessert unless it was homemade, and whom prided himself on eating a well-rounded diet. Out of fear that he was going to launch himself into some sort of sugar -induced coma, my sister and I would suggest greener alternatives like kale and granola, grass-fed beef and tuna fish to balance out his sweet tooth. But anything that involved even the lightest amount of prep work was usually taken off the grocery list. There was no way his apron was coming out of the drawer on a regular basis anymore.

This past January, at the end of another big cook-a-thon,  I installed a hook on the back of my dad’s kitchen pantry door and hung the apron there, hoping the sight of it would help inspire him to start cooking again. Unfortunately, by that time, he was hardly spending any time at all in the kitchen let alone in the pantry. When I found four beautiful vintage French wine glasses from the oldest vineyard in France for my shop, and called to tell him about it and get some stories, he said he didn’t remember anything about the company or the vineyard and quickly went on to change the subject.  I knew then that his foodie days were flickering. That the hook for the apron I recently hung, wasn’t going to be able to work any wonders.

My dad died on a Saturday morning four months later. He was in his bed, in his house the way he wanted to be. It was peaceful and calm.  My sister and I were there with him right to the very end. The next few days and weeks passed. My wonderful husband took over kitchen detail and cooked all the meals while my sister and I made arrangements and plans. I felt anxious during that time in his house, like an impostor secretly living someone else’s life. Every activity felt strange, uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous as we witnessed life carrying on in his house, among his things, without him.

I never thought that release from those feelings would ever come in the form of 44″ inches of 35 year old cotton fabric. But when my sister and I sat down to make a list of the few things we wanted to take home with us, right away, my first pick was the black striped apron. Somehow, in some weird testament to its abilities, this apron has always felt the same to wear no matter how old I was – 8 or 18 or 38. It always fit my dad well too – no matter if he was thin and trim like he was in his executive years or stooped and slightly paunched in his senior years. Everything about it just fit right and felt right, always.

I wish I could remember the last meal my dad made for himself in this apron before he decided to stop cooking altogether. It must have been sometime in 2017 or maybe early 2018, when he experienced a brief burst of energy that had him not only talking about food but actually cooking a few dishes too. Stoic and loyal, the apron gives up no clues. There are no stains or spots that might have said he made bolognese sauce or grilled shrimp or chicken pot pie or lamb chops dolloped with a fresh mint jelly. There are no holes or burn marks or ripped threads from an adventure gone wrong. The apron tells no secrets. Instead it just quietly ties together and holds onto a lifetime of one man’s food stories.

I’ll never have the chance to cook alongside my dad or for my dad anymore, but as long as his apron hangs around my kitchen, I’ll always be able to cook with him. He may not physically be here but he’s also not really gone either. That’s the joy of inheriting his apron. Somehow, when I tie the strings of black stripe around my waist and get to cooking it feels like a hug. A hug from a dad to his daughter. From one cook to another.

Funny enough, I couldn’t locate one photograph of my dad in his apron, even though I know there are several somewhere in his photo collection. So in its place, I’m including this one, where he is neither cooking nor apron-ing but instead smiling big and happy, which is even better. As I said earlier, this post took a long time to write. There is still lots more to be said about this big man who led a big life in a big way. I look forward to sharing more about him in future posts. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote by Anthony Hopkins which I think wholeheartedly sums up my new philosophy, especially after going through this experience…

Cheers to eating the delicious food, to aprons that wrap us up in memories that last and to my dad who taught me so much stuff I can hardly know where to begin.

The Snow Day and The Simmering Stove: Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

There is something magical that happens when your cooking and your reading and your weather all line up together. It’s 14 degrees today (for the high!) and it’s snowing big, fat flakes in every direction (for the second time this week!). With pure delight, I write this because it has been a very long time coming. Winter weather in the South is never usually this charismatic, so for an eternal snow lover like myself, these past few days have been absolutely fantastic.

I’m eighty pages into Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, where it is also winter. Ruth is writing about the freezing temperatures and the snowy landscape in upstate New York and how the seductive aromas of long-simmering onions and butter and chicken and wine have the ability to both warm the stomach and the spirit.

From Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, published in 2015

Today, its Ruth’s birthday, so we thought it would be fun to make one (or two) of her recipes to compliment both the winter landscape we are reading about and the winter landscape we are actually experiencing. If you are unfamiliar with Ruth Reichl,  she has been around the food scene since the 1970’s as a writer, chef, food critic, host and magazine editor in all realms of media from print to television to radio.

Ruth Reichl

I first heard of her when I was a teenager, riding up the West Side Highway with my dad and my sister. At that point, in the early 1990’s, Ruth was the food critic for the New York Times. Her restaurant reviews would air on the morning commute segment of the local classical music station favorited by my dad as he battled his way through New York City traffic. The spot, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, contained her latest restaurant review and was, to put it politely, very honest. More often than not, she disliked a restaurant or the food or the service and she wasn’t afraid to say so. She’d sign off every review saying “I’m Ruth Reichl” and my sister and I used to mimic her voice in the car.

Growing up in New York, where most endeavors get scrutinized on a daily basis, I was used to reading about reviews and hearing criticisms on a variety of subjects when it came to the creative arts and emerging trends. But the way Ruth talked about food and service and presentation was elevated to a whole new level of description. Her words were candid but also sophisticated and humorous when it came to observation.  Each review was a brave, opinionated tale of her own experience that flew through the air seemingly without care as to whom it might affect at the restaurant of concern or what impression it might make of herself. The three us, my dad, my sister and I  thought she was pretty audacious. We used her name as our own descriptive tool when it came to trying out restaurants in the city…”Well it’s no Ruth Reichl…” and all of us made special note to remember the names of the restaurants she lauded because certainly, they didn’t come around often.

Fast forward a decade and a half later, I spotted Tender at the Bone, a memoir she had published in the late 1990’s, for sale at an outdoor book stall in Philadelphia.  I bought it,  took it home and immediately called my sister. “I’m Ruth Reichl”  she said and we both laughed over memories of driving with our dad on the West Side Highway. And then I actually read the book, which was marvelous and to my surprise, very vulnerable and humbling. There was no restaurant critic in her voice in these pages. It was all heart and humanity when it came to discussing family, food and growing up. And there were recipes – good ones, homey ones that everyone enjoyed – brownies, deviled eggs, pot roast, fruit tarts etc.  I loved it so much, I immediately read her other two books which followed – Comfort Me With Apples and Sapphires and Garlic. Those books covered her young adult years in food, job and relationship explorations and then those famous years as a restaurant critic when her job was no easy slice of pie.  These stories slashed through all my pre-conceived notions of who I thought Ruth was when I was a teenager and she was sponsored by a champagne company. And most importantly her books were my first introduction into reading food memoirs… not so much for the recipes but for the stories behind them.

For a long while, lots of things coming out of my kitchen stemmed from Ruth either in the form of recipes from her books or ones from her magazine, Gourmet, where she held down the fort as editor-in-chief.  The food she featured always contained simple elegant ingredients that looked pretty on a plate and satisfied all the senses in a most appealing way. Even though I’ve never met her, Ruth has been a reliable companion in my kitchen, which brings us back to this post featuring her birthday celebration on today’s cold winter’s day. I selected these two recipes because, like the lively lady herself, they are full of depth and require some care and attention in a fun and fulfilling way. Also, they make the kitchen smell like heaven.

Chicken Fricassee and Show-Off Salad

The vintage recipe, Show-Off Salad (aptly named because you prepare the whole thing at table in front of your fellow diners) is from Tender at the Bone and the classic yet modern day recipe Chicken Fricassee is from her latest cookbook My Kitchen Year.

Both recipes are a great representation of my memories of Ruth – they might seem a little fussy at first but at their core, they are just real, simple and basic dishes that have universal appeal. Hope you enjoy them just as much!

SHOW-OFF SALAD – Serves 4

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup cubed stale French bread

1 egg, organic, farm-raised

1 small head of romaine lettuce

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire

1/2 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

1/2 of a large lemon

4 anchovy fillets, cut into quarters

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese or more if desired

Make the croutons. Crush one clove of garlic and add it to two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium size pan over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and saute until the bread is crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

Set a small pot of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is boiling, coddle the egg by dropping the entire egg (in its shell) into the water and boiling it for 1 minute. Remove the egg from the water and set aside.

When you coddle an egg for a salad dressing like this you are heating it  (but not cooking it) really fast just below the boiling point, so it’s important to use a trusted organic farm egg as opposed to generic grocery store eggs for salmonella reasons.  Uncooked eggs are dangerous carriers of bacteria, so make sure your eggs are from clean, natural and reputable sources. Otherwise skip the egg part altogether.

Wash and dry the lettuce and then tear into bite-sized pieces.

This next step can be done in your kitchen – or in front of guests, it doesn’t matter either way. If you prepare it in front of guests, put all the salad components on a tray and carry it out to the table to make.

Ruth Reichl’s Show-off Salad

Peel the remaining clove of a garlic, cut it in half and crush one half in the bottom of a big salad bowl. Add lettuce leaves and remaining olive oil. Toss thoroughly until each leaf is coated. Add the Worcestershire,  and then the salt and pepper to taste. Break the egg over the lettuce and toss until leaves glisten. Stick a fork into the lemon half and squeeze the juice over the salad. Toss the leaves until the dressing begins to look creamy. Then toss in the anchovies and mix again. Adjust the seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon juice) if need be before adding the cheese and croutons.

Now that the salad is ready, consider serving it on individual salad plates rather than next to the Chicken Fricassee which is saucy and is more suited for the crunchy bread as far as plate companions go. In addition to a dinner side, this salad also makes a lovely meal just on its own too.

CHICKEN FRICASSEE – Serves 4

(A small note: I varied this recipe a little bit just because of what we had on hand as far as ingredients in the Vintage Kitchen. Find our modifications in italics)

1 whole organic, free-range chicken, cut into 10 pieces or 1 package organic, free-range skinless boneless chicken cutlets 

1 medium carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 cup white wine

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

salt

pepper

5 tablespoons butter or 1 tablespoon butter + 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth

fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 lemon

Shower the chicken with salt and pepper. If using a cut-up whole chicken: Melt two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large casserole over medium-high heat. Place the chicken skin-side down and brown for five minutes on each side. Remove to a plate. (If using boneless skinless chicken cutlets… melt one tablespoon butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.)

If you choose the skinless boneless cutlet version, this is what your chicken will look like after the quick saute.

In the same pan where you cooked the chicken, add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until vegetables are fragrant and soft- about 10 minutes – stirring occasionally.

Add two tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring continuously until all the fat has been absorbed. Add the white wine and stir until the liquid has thickened slightly. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the broth. Add a few sprigs of parsley, salt and pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes – 45 minutes until chicken yields when you pierce it with a fork.

In a separate pan, melt two tablespoons of butter (or two tablespoons of olive oil) and saute the mushrooms. Salt to taste and set aside.

When the chicken is ready, remove the lid and remove the chicken to a separate plate. Discard the herbs. Let the sauce mixture simmer for few more minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and cream together. Slowly add a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of the hot liquid to the eggs and cream and whisk quickly to temper it. Stir the egg mixture into the pan mixture, stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the mushrooms and the chicken. Add the juice of the lemon. Add one tablespoon of butter (or one tablespoon of olive oil).

Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

Remove from heat and serve in a large bowl for the table or plate individually. Pool extra sauce around the chicken. Garnish with fresh parsley sprigs. We served this with warm crunchy French bread, the show-off salad and chilled  Pinot Grigio.

In My Country Year, Ruth said this recipe reminded her of when she was living on an island (Ile d’Oleron) off the coast of France in the 1960’s. This recipe will forever now remind us of the back-to-back snow days that finally arrived after many years of anticipation. Cheers to good memories, good cookbooks, and long acquaintances. Happy birthday Ruth Reichl!