Full disclosure: I’m no foodie. In my mind, there are two food groups: French fries—and everything else. I care more about what I wear to dinner than what I eat at dinner. But I come from foodies; I get the fuss. My father, Herb, was an architect. But his passion was music—and food. Like my mother, Marilyn, he was a native New Yorker. He was raised in Brooklyn in a conservative Jewish home where his burgeoning foodie impulses were tested by a complex set of rules: from his parents, his government, his Maker.
During the food rationing of World War II, when his mother worked in a bakery, my dad was often sent on covert missions involving illegal cups of sugar. A few years later, when she forbade him from eating candy before supper on the Sabbath, he simply walked out beyond his Jewish neighborhood until he found a shop far enough from home to escape her attention. He made his purchase, walked back outside, then froze. It suddenly occurred to him that this non-kosher treat was forbidden not just by my grandmother, but by millennia of Jewish dietary law. He stood there, thinking; he needed to work out his reasoning with God.
In the end, there was no reasoning—just desire. He popped the treat in his mouth and prepared to be struck dead.
His survival sparked an existential awakening best left for another time. Let’s just say that by the time he arrived in Minneapolis with me, my two brothers, and my mom, who had been hired by the French and Italian department at the University of Minnesota, his relationship with food (and God) had changed. The rules were of his own making, and Minneapolis in 1968 broke every one of them. There were no “real” bagels or Chinese food (hence our trips to the Chinese Lantern in Duluth), and once we stormed out of a restaurant because the Caesar salad dressing was made with vinegar instead of lemon.
My parents fought mainly about two things: the temperature of the house (my mother favored open windows even at 30 degrees below zero) and the correct size of the pieces of fruit in the Macedonia they served at every dinner party. My job was to set the table with our Venetian blood-red glassware and our “special” china with orange and black concentric circles that my friends deemed “weird.”
From the dining room, I could hear them arguing: mom for large chunks; dad wanting smaller. He was known to raise his voice over the matter—that and the proper use of his beloved green and red Sanelli knives. “Hon, you can’t use the serrated knife on the apples,” he’d say. “They’re too hard. The serrated knife is for tomatoes.”
My mother was no pushover. A tough intellectual known to most everyone as Professor Schneider, she set the house rules: no chewing gum, no drinking pop, no saying the word “crap.” Still, she switched knives. My dad was the chef. He made us chicken Marsala and pasta carbonara and fresh bread that required him to rise in the dead of night to punch down the dough and then get up again before dawn to shape it into loaves he filled with chocolate and walnuts. We awoke to the aroma; the taste was pure joy.
And still, I would have traded it for many things. Like the gray antelope-skin cowboy boots I first saw at Schlatzlein on Lake Street when I was a teenager. They cost nearly $150 in the late 1970s—for me, years of baby-sitting and cleaning pots and pans at Al’s Deli, a long-gone shop where Birchbark Books now stands. When Dad found out I had blown my savings on boots, he flew into a loud fury. My mother silenced him. “Herb,” she said. “Karen earned the money. She can spend it however she wants.”
And boy, did I want those boots. I wore them for years. They led me to my best friend. She stopped me outside a shared comp-lit course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and said, “I love your boots.” That was 30 years ago. This winter, we were at her house outside Los Angeles where, after shopping at our favorite designer outlet mall, I had barely put down my bags when I heard her scream, “Ouch! Oh no!”
While making us an artichoke appetizer, she had cut off the tip of her finger. The blood was gushing, she was on the verge of hyperventilating, and I was thinking, “Wait, you used the serrated knife on the artichoke?”
I realized, when it was too late, that I had never bothered to learn a single one of my father’s recipes. I still don’t know why. I hate to cook; there is that. But, also, I figured he’d always be here to make me dinner. After he died, I kept his knives. I kept the china, too. I look at it every day. But I have never used it. It is too beautiful to cover with food. Like I said, I’m no foodie. But the fuss is in my DNA.