la vida comida

food. life.

Tag: American food culture

A culinary tribute to my father on his birthday

* This post was originally published on April 22, 2011. I’m reposting it to honor my dad, who would’ve been 87 years old today.  

April 22, 2011

This is only my third blog post, and already I’m straying off-topic… but I have good reason, I promise.

Today, April 22nd, is my father’s birthday. He would have been 83. We lost him to cancer six months ago, after a valiant two-year fight that only highlighted his strength, grace and dignity. I still struggle to accept that he is gone. It’s like accepting that I’ll never see the moon again. 

Today, I celebrate my father with food… because while my mother apprenticed me in the skill of cooking (for which I am eternally grateful), it was my father who taught me the art and pure joy of eating.

My father was Swedish, German, and English. His first loves were cultivated at home, and early: smoked salmon, pickled herring, fresh fish, dark rye bread, creamy wursts and pâtés, sausages, thick stews, strong cheeses. And candy.

He grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and worked for over fifty years in Midtown East Manhattan.  The Lorson family business had been located in an office suite in Rockefeller Center since the early 1900s (which my dad sadly vacated in the 1980s, when he semi-retired). We’d sometimes accompany him to work on Saturdays.  We’d talk to the impassive elevator-man, plunk on the massive typewriters, spin each other on office chairs until we were nauseous… then run to the café downstairs for lunch and hot chocolate (and do a bit of skating, if it was the season).

When we lived in Pelham, he would pick up teawurst and still-warm onion bread every Sunday afternoon from the German deli. I dreaded church… but eagerly anticipated the earthly reward for behaving during mass! For a rare treat, we would go to the Italian deli in New Rochelle, and get bread and fresh mozzarella – and sometimes, a grapefruit-sized manteca. We dug out salty butter and spread it on fresh-baked Italian bread, and topped it with slabs of pungent cheese… there is no better definition of heaven. Yes, Sundays were good when I was a child.

For our birthdays every year, each of us got to pick any restaurant in Manhattan and have a “date” with just our parents.  We dressed up, took the train to Grand Central, marveled at the constellations. We ate at the Rainbow Room, the Brasserie, Flutie’s, other places which have faded into the landscape. It sure made each of us five kids feel like we were the center of the universe, if only for one day.

He was on a first-name basis with the people at Caviarteria while they were in Grand Central. When they left, he had a steady stream of shipments arriving almost weekly.  In his later years, crème fraiche and caviars were a staple of his diet. And mine, thanks to him.

Manhattan is my father.

Later, after he and my mom moved to Connecticut, and ventured into the city less often, Dad found a wonderful cheese shop, The Villa Gourmet in Milford. The delicious treats – and Linda, the sweet owner – offered my father a brief respite from the devastating rigors of chemo. I truly believe that for a while, those rich, fattening cheeses helped to keep his weight up… and looking forward to them helped sustain him in a way no other meal ever could have.

My father definitely had caviar and champagne tastes… but he didn’t like pasta, rice, vegetables, and most fruits. He replaced those with junk food.  Cheese puffs, potato chips, and his all-time favorites, M&Ms and Reese’s peanut butter cups, were never more than an arm’s reach away. His constant working and striding across Manhattan kept him from ever becoming heavy; it also helped that he was 6’2” and absolutely never stopped moving.

My dad knew pretty early that I was his snack-mate. I liked everything he liked (except scotch, thank God!). When we grilled steak, my father would share the rarest, juiciest pieces with me; and would give me a big slab of “bread and gravy” (salty blood-soaked bread). When he discovered a new cheese, a new pâté, a new gourmet shop – or got a fresh batch of Andes mints – I was the first to know. I inherited his mash-up tastes:  when I first started learning about wine, my first impulse was to find a dessert wine to accompany my Hostess cupcakes. I never would have become so fascinated by food – and certainly not so adventurous – if it hadn’t been for him. He has made me who I am, in so many ways – but this particularly was a precious gift that continues to shape my life… and the life of my daughter as well.

While my heart breaks a little every day that he is not here – and every day that passes carries me further from the time that he was on this earth – I know how very lucky I am to have had such a wonderful father for 42 years of my life. Whenever I miss him, I can share one of our much-loved treats and smile, knowing he is looking on approvingly (and with a bit of jealousy).

So today, I’m going to nibble a bit of caviar and good cheese, scarf down a Reese’s and a handful of M&Ms, and sip a glass of wine (for which he longed since quitting drinking nearly 30 years before he died, but refused even on his deathbed) to honor the memory of a kind, loving, neurotic, quirky, impatient, passionate and utterly human father… who made colossal mistakes, but gave his complete unconditional love without a second thought… who lived every single day without looking forward or back, with the pure joy of a child, and the savoring appreciation of an old man all at once. He made every simple moment special.

Skål, Dad. I wish you were here.

About me

Let me tell you a little bit about myself, and how I became so enthralled with Latin American and Peruvian cooking.

I’m a second-generation chef. My mom was a catering chef; and every one of her five children has been involved in food service since childhood – in just about every front and back of the house position you can imagine. Even now, my brother Ted and his wife Sheila compete in national barbecue competitions; my brother Cristiaan is a restaurant owner / manager in Chappaqua, New York; and our sister Kathleen works in the front of the house there.

I myself began catering with my mom at the age of eleven; and later worked with her at Estherwood Mansion in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I continued to work in restaurants and catering, even throughout college and a very rewarding foray into the human services field. I’ve been a dishwasher, busser, waitress, and hostess. I’ve butchered, prepped, line-cooked, and expedited.  You name it – if it involves food, I’ve probably done it. I fulfilled a lifelong dream in 1998, when I finally attended the Culinary Institute of America. I graduated in 2000; then worked in New York, Connecticut and Vail hotels till 2003, when I returned to be with my family in Connecticut.

Then, while I was Pastry Chef at Zinc in New Haven, I reconnected with an old friend – and married him. My husband, Eduardo, came to this country from Peru in 1988; we met at work in 1993, and kept in touch. I left my completely awesome job at Zinc (which I still miss!) to return to Albany, New York to live… which I swore I’d never do.  But you make sacrifices for love that you would never consider otherwise. (No offense, Albany-ites….)

So now I was jobless, living somewhere I really didn’t like, and – since my husband worked long hours – pretty lonely. To pass the time, I started indulging another passion of mine, cake and sugar art. (I’ve moonlighted as a cake designer ever since, even doing it as a full-time job on occasion.)

Around this time, a late wedding present arrived in the mail. My sister-in-law Susi sent me The Art of Peruvian Cuisine by Tony Custer, so I could learn to make my new husband’s favorite meals. I was happy to have another cookbook – what chef isn’t? – and I was more than happy to spoil my new husband with food. But I figured, hey, I’m a chef. What’s to learn? Since I had nothing but time on my hands, I dove in.

Choclo? Ají? What the hell is lucuma? I was immediately stunned by the multitude of ingredients I hadn’t even known existed. The more I read, the more I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about world cuisines, other than the brief overview I’d received at school (which at that time centered on European and Asian cuisines, though I am happy to see that they have begun to remedy this wonderfully in the last few years). Soon, I was pretty shamed by my own sheltered ignorance. (I had a lot to learn about being married to a Peruvian-American man, too. But that’s another story!)

I was completely won over by our very first Peruvian meal. It was amazing how a few simple ingredients could be transformed in a way that I’d never experienced before. Sure, it was exotic because it was new; but that wasn’t all. It just worked. It was fresh, vibrant, eclectic and just plain good. I was totally hooked.

I’ve spent the last nearly eight years researching and testing Peruvian and Latin American foods and recipes. I’ve learned enough Spanish to carry on a reasonable conversation with my mother-in-law, who doesn’t speak a word of English. And most importantly, I’ve expanded my view of the world and the people who inhabit it. It has been the most enlightening, enjoyable and fulfilling journey of my life (outside of our marriage and daughter, that is). That cookbook was the best gift I was given – not the actual book, per se; but the knowledge of other cultures, other places, other spheres of reference outside my very narrow American comfort-zone bubble.

I’ve grown more as a person in the last eight years that I had in my entire life previous.  And I want to share what I’ve learned with everyone – not just the food and the recipes, but also the great respect for other cultures… and that wonderful feeling of inter-connectedness we could and should share as fellow human beings on this planet.

I hope that you enjoy reading this blog just as much as I enjoy writing it! Thanks so much for being here.

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