Culinary Childhood Memories

My first fancy dress came from Neiman Marcus. It was a pink and white gingham long dress purchased for me to wear at my cousin Judy’s neimanmarcuswedding, where I would hand out pink silk roses filled with rice.

I was four. Even at four, I understood that every day play clothes didn’t come from Neiman Marcus.  Back in the 70’s, they sewed tags in all the clothes that said “Neiman Marcus” in their signature script and I can remember being scolded by my mother when I told my cousin to LOOK AT THE TAG.

In my work blog last week, I wrote about the visits from Ghosts of Christmas past and the struggle with remembering happy memories from my childhood. In truth, I know the good memories are there, waiting to be uncovered.

So, today, I visited the “tea room” at Neiman Marcus in hopes of capturing some happier childhood recollections would surface if they were  fueled by the culinary memories.

After the purchase of my first fancy dress, we visited The Zodiac Room of Neiman Marcus about once a year. It was designed to feed “Ladies Who Lunch” and even as a young child, I knew that it wasn’t just about the food, but the entire experience.

Upon being seated, along with a glass of iced water, you are given a tiny demitasse cup filled with chicken broth. That sip prepares your palate – and sets the tone – for the rest of the meal.

Though I know I must have ordered different things over the year, the main thing I remember ordering was the Three Salad Plate  – a scoop of chicken salad alongside an orange jello souffle and a tiny fruit salad with poppy-seed dressing.

Then. There are the popovers. Fresh from the oven popovers served with strawberry butter.

The Tea Room here is called the Mariposa and there is no chicken salad, so I order a crab salad with Green Goddess dressing. I enjoy not one – but two – popovers and use every bit of strawberry butter.

I am hundreds of miles away from Dallas, Texas, yet the flavors bring back those childhood days of feeling special and eating with ladies who lunch.

And, for today, that is enough.

Southern Comfort

The radio alarm pulled me out of dreamland at 5 AM. I drew closer to JB, rested my head on his chest and listened to the thump thump of his heart as he stroked his hand down my back. Even on the nights we sleep entangled into each other, the twilight between dreaming and waking biscuitsandgravytogether are sacred.

But there was no time to linger this morning. JB is managing a class this week which calls for being out the door before six. I was ahead of the curve this morning and was halfway through my first cup of coffee when he exited the bathroom, leaving behind a cloud of steam and the scent of shaving cream and Old Spice.

It’s a busy week for both of us, actually. In addition to my coffee, what I am needing is food.

What I am seeking is comfort.

We spent the Thanksgiving holidays with his family in Chicago. His family is big and boisterous and funny and overwhelming. Yet, I am growing used to the fact that dinner with the immediate family means twenty-five or so people. There is a huge difference between being one of two – who seem to have no commonalities as adults –  to being one of five – most of which talk to each other daily.

His family seeks reasons to celebrate and be together. My family saw holidays in a haze of “musts” and “shoulds“.

It was our fifth Thanksgiving together and with each passing holiday, I am less homesick for soft slurring voices than I was the year before. I’ve become accustomed to the nasal twang of the Midwest accents, a preference for pumpkin pie over pecan, and appetizers of crackers and cheese over a traditional cheese-ball studded with pecans.

What I miss, though, is my mother’s cornbread dressing and giblet gravy.

Once my grandmother stopped cooking, my mother was responsible for bringing the dressing and the gravy to Thanksgiving. She never allowed us to help with the cooking, so I remember watching from afar as she crumbled cornbread into a pan and mixed in a host of onions and celery cooked in a stick of Parkay and heavy handed dashes of sage. I remember that the consistency of the dressing was like that of a cake, which means there had to be lots of chicken broth in there, too.

I don’t have the recipe. My mother was notorious for hiding her signature recipes – or else leaving out an ingredient (or two) if you were able to pry it from her. Neither my sister or I have traces of the recipe anywhere. My mother’s oldest sister is still living, but she is approaching ninety and is forgetful. I’ve tried to replicate the recipe and the closest I’ve found is a recipe from Southern Living, but the flavor profile is missing something. And the gravy? Yep, haven’t figured that one out, either, though I know it had not just turkey giblets, but a boiled egg in it.

I don’t miss the drama the holidays inevitably brought around in Texas, but at the end of the long weekend with people I love, yet still haven’t quite accepted me as part of their family, has me craving comfort.

So, after JB left for work, I quickly dressed and by 6:05 AM was seated at Cracker Barrel. Though I am thinking about my granny’s okra fried in cornmeal and my mother’s sage dressing drenched in gravy, I know that any facsimile will just make the longing deeper, so I settled for a Southern Breakfast: fried eggs with sausage patties and biscuits with cream gravy.

I was seeking the comforts of childhood. I needed a taste of being a child, before I understood that my mother was just a little crazy. Oh, I guess I always knew that my mother was a little delicate (the Southern way of saying she was unbalanced), but there was always comfort to be found in the form of food. Despite the normalcy, it was my normal.

Biscuits and gravy was what I needed this morning. A touchstone to my childhood and the comforts that food can bring us. I needed the comfort of the past as I move into my day of writing and errands and household chores. Because when the harder memories weigh on my mind, I remember the warmth of JB next to me in our morning hours and know that even though there’s no cornbread dressing, I am wholly loved for who I am.

And I am safe.