AIWF

Christina's Brunch Delight

When Hubby and I moved to New York City in 1985, we were truly on our own.We did not know a single soul.  We had each other and we had our work, so between that and the excitement of a new city, we didn’t really need much else.

But time went by and it started to feel a bit strange not having any friends. Unlike other places we had lived, in New York no one came by our apartment to introduce themselves, no one talked to us in the elevator, no one stopped on the street and had a chat.  We had never lived in a big urban city and didn’t really know how to make friends in that environment.  Our jobs were in corporate headquarters and as young professionals we were a minority with neither senior executives nor administrative staff calling us their peers.

Over time, I eventually made a few friends in the wine and food world, a couple of whom I still cherish today although we long ago lost touch.  I was named to the board of the American Institute of Wine and Food, New York Chapter, and started to see familiar faces at wine tastings and food events.  Christina was the first one to reach out and ask me to socialize with her.  We met for lunch and attended a wine tasting here and there.  She was so very nice.  But friendship, like a romance, has to have a little spark and it just didn't seem like it was there for us.  Even though we had a passion for food, that is really all that held us together.  And soon, I realized that Christina and I just didn’t have a future together.  But how do you break up with a friend?  Especially when you have so few!

I started getting busy at work and didn't make the effort to see Christina much.  I was too young and naive to understand what it would be like to be lonely in a big city.  I moved there with Hubby and although he worked late most nights and almost all weekend, he was there.  I didn’t live alone in a city of 9 million people.  Christina moved from job to job, kept calling throughout, and I wasn't going out of my way to be a good friend.  I didn't think about the fact that it was hard for everyone to make friends in the city.  I knew  she was being nice to me but it never occurred to me that I might have been one of the few that was nice to her.

Hubby and I eventually came to the conclusion that we were going to be working in New York for a while so we thought we should invest in a house in the suburbs.  New York City in the summer, with no friends and no place to go, was hot and harsh.  So we bought a house in New Jersey where we thought we would have a more satisfying life with neighbors and friends and a yard with beautiful trees.

New Jersy House.
New Jersy House.

Oh...how very young and very wrong we were. The only neighbor we ever met was the lovely 85-year-old woman next door, and friends our age were just as scarce.  We had moved to a beautiful middle class suburb with few restaurants, no nightlife and the only people our age were the grandchildren of the residents.  We had much more space, a nice yard and still no friends.  Well, we did make a few, very few,  friends over our years there.  And we did have some fun weekends at the beach and in our backyard, but that was very seldom since Hubby's work and travel schedule was horrendous.  So our overall experience in New Jersey would not be described as “good times.”  It was our PC time:  Pre-Children, Proficient-Cooking, Practically-Crazy.

I don’t remember how we met the bowlers. Somehow, Hubby and I met a young couple, living somewhat nearby, and they seemed like they could be fun.  They asked us to go bowling.  Neither of us had bowled in probably five or more years and we had never, ever, bowled together.  But we thought why not?  Bowling alleys had food and a bar and we were both athletic.  When we arrived at the bowling alley, we were met by a lively group of four, the couple we had met and two of their friends.  They all had their own bowling shoes and bowling balls and bowling bags.  I don’t remember clearly, but I think they even had their own bowling shirts.  We started to feel bit skeptical about this group but Hubby and I were not going to give up hope that we had found some friends. And they all seemed pleased to have us there, probably feeling like they had found some guinea pigs to slaughter on the bowling alley, so we searched for a ball and ordered some beers.

Call it competitive nature, call it beginner’s luck, or just call it stupidity; but somehow we beat them raw.  One game in and they starting treating us like they had been set up in a sting as we bowled strike after strike and kicked their bowling-nerd butts.  It wasn’t what we set out to do; I don’t even know how we did it.  And it definitely didn't make us any new friends.  But we had so much fun in a kind of twisted, don't-mess-with-us way.  We laughed and laughed and laughed as we enjoyed the comedy of it all.  The bowlers did not laugh.  We were never invited bowling again and in fact, we never again heard from any of them.

 But Christina was still calling.  She had a new brunch recipe she really wanted to try and suggested she and her boyfriend come out to New Jersey one Sunday and make it for us.  After the bowlers, Hubby wasn’t excited to meet anyone new but I convinced him that Christina was really nice and maybe he would like her boyfriend.  So Christina and her beau made the trek out from Manhattan to New Jersey and we made brunch.    The food that day was beautiful, refreshing and comforting, and while my relationship with Christina did not thrive, nor survive, her cinnamon bread custard remains in my life.  I think fondly of Christina whenever I make it and hope that she eventually found friends in the city to feed her soul and even occasionally feed her brunch.

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A true friend reaches for your hand and touches your heart.  ~Attributed to Heather Pryor

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Christina’s Brunch Delight

16 slices cinnamon bread 4 oz (one stick) unsalted butter, melted 4 whole eggs 4 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar 3 cups milk 1 cup heavy cream 1 T vanilla maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar), fruit and/or berries to serve

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush both sides of bread with butter and place in baking dish, two slices deep. Beat eggs.  Whisk in sugar, milk, cream and vanilla.  Pour over bread.  If the bread is dense, you may need to allow the liquid to absorb into the bread before pouring it all in the pan.  You can assist with this by pressing down gently on the slices to soak up the liquid. Put baking dish in larger roasting pan and pour in water to reach halfway up side of baking dish.  (This is best done with the pans already in the oven so you don’t slosh the water into the baking dish when moving.) Bake in upper 1/3 of oven for 25 minutes or until custard is set and top is browned.  Remove CAREFULLY from oven without sloshing the water.  I like to just remove the baking dish and leave the roasting pan in the oven to cool. Let rest for 15 minutes.  Cut into squares and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  Serve with syrup and fruit. If you are serving when berries are out of season, thaw frozen berries and stir in maple syrup for a delicious topping.

Note:  Christina used cinnamon raisin bread.  It is delicious with or without raisins!

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Sarah's Chilled Pea Soup

I find it very fortunate that I have never been a big worrier.It is not because I am smart or organized or efficient. I don’t worry because I am just too naive to ever think of  outcomes that I should be worried about.  I usually find out from other people that I should  have been worried about a situation, well after it is over and done.

Moving to new cities, and even new countries when I was over six months pregnant might have been cause for some concern.  But it was just what I did at the time.  And I did it three times!  I guess I forgot about the first two times when people told me how crazy I was.  Having a selective memory has also served me quite well throughout my life.

Since I have these traits, I just let myself believe that they are a good thing. The most significant example of my naiveté is how shocked people are to find out that I cooked for Julia Child.  Since I am not nor have I ever been a professional in the kitchen, that information is a bit surprising.  But I did not cook for her at an event, nor as part of a fundraiser, nor as a job in a test kitchen.  I cooked for Julia as a friend, to sit down and eat with her.

Hubby and I met Julia for the first time in 1981 at the inaugural meeting of the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF).  Julia and Robert Mondavi gathered wine professionals, chefs and friends to kick off a new organization that would honor and promote gastronomy.  The meeting was held in Santa Barbara, California, and Hubby and I were invited since he worked in the wine business and we were friends with people in that world.

Hubby as a young wine professional.
Hubby as a young wine professional.

We were still in college at the time and were definitely the youngest people there.  That meeting and subsequent brief meetings with Julia weren't memorable, to her nor to us.  No one had cell phones back then and meeting someone once or twice did not constitute a friendship.  We lived our separate lives and continued pursuing our mutual loves of wine and food.

The Julia meeting.
The Julia meeting.

Many years later, we ran into Julia at a party.  We began reminiscing about AIWF and that meeting and subsequent years of me being on the AIWF New York board and mutual friends and so on.  I moved on to chat with others at the party that night but Hubby and Julia continued talking for hours.  When we were leaving, Julia said “Let’s have dinner,” and a beautiful friendship began.

I cooked for Julia numerous times, usually at my house with me in the kitchen and a few friends around the table.  A few times I cooked at Julia’s place with friends of hers and her endearing assistant Stephanie.  Eating and cooking with Julia was always entertaining and she liked to have participants.  This was during a period late in Julia’s life so she wasn’t usually active in the cooking, although she did teach me to shuck oysters one fun evening in my neighbors kitchen.

It seemed very normal to cook for a friend and so it wasn’t a topic of conversation that I brought up much with people during the years it was happening.  Obviously I knew Julia was famous; we ate out at restaurants with Julia and she was a very recognizable figure.  We became used to people clapping when she entered or coming to the table to shower her with praise.  Julia took it all in stride and accepted it with grace and modesty.  She had many, many friends that she ate out with at restaurants, but, as I learned later, not so many who cooked for her.

Cooking for Julia was truly a joy.
Cooking for Julia was truly a joy.

When Julia died, it was announced that Hubby had been named a trustee of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, and it became public that we knew her well.  It was then that I realized that cooking for Julia Child was something that might have, or maybe should have, caused a bit of anxiety for an inexperienced home cook like myself.  People exclaim upon finding out that I had Julia to dinner that I must have been SO NERVOUS!  It finally began to dawn on me how oblivious I really am.  And I have an equally oblivious husband.  He was the one who called her up to invite her over the week after the party where we had reconnected.  Apparently, she had given him her number during their conversation that night.  He casually told me that Julia Child was coming to dinner that Friday night and asked who else should we invite.

I wasn’t nervous at all that first time.  Julia was such a warm and wonderful lady, it never occurred to me that she would be critiquing my food.  For me, it was just a chance to get together with friends who would be interested in wine and food.  It turns out that I was right to be relaxed about it because Julia was the most gracious guest one could ever have.

The first thing I served was a chilled pea soup that I learned to make from my friend Sarah while living in Australia.  It is a fresh-tasting, simple recipe that I had made dozens of times and people always seemed to enjoy.  Julia complimented it as she dove in enthusiastically, saying something like “This is delightful Dearie.  What is in it?”  I replied, “It is Lettuce Pea Soup, pureed and chilled, with cream added at the end.”  My good friend Peter who was also at the dinner said, “Are you serious?”  I thought he was referring to the lettuce and I told him it really did have an entire head of iceberg lettuce in it.  He laughed deviously and suggested I rethink the name of my “Let Us Pee Soup.”   Julia had a great sense of humor and loved a good laugh so it was a great start to a wonderful friendship.

When I think back on situations like this one, I am very grateful for my obliviousness.  Perhaps I am not as conscientious, intellectual or driven as some people, but my lack of perfection has allowed events to happen that may never have come to be if I had thought too much.  Apparently, inviting Julia Child to come over for a home-cooked dinner was not something a lot of people felt comfortable doing.  It’s too bad more people didn’t because Julia probably would have said yes.  Inviting Julia to dinner is what sparked the development of our friendship.  And my memories of our friendship, and dining with Julia casually around our table, are priceless to me.  The food may not have always been up to par with her usual fare, but we always had a good laugh and a good time.

"Learn how to cook-try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!" - Julia Child

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Sarah’s Chilled Pea Soup

1/4 pound fresh shelled peas OR 1 heaping cup frozen peas 1 large potato, peeled and sliced 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced 1 head iceberg lettuce, broken up 5 cubes chicken bouillon dissolved in 3 cups water OR 3 cups very strong chicken broth 2 T. chopped chives 3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream (to your taste) juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2 T.) 1 tsp salt or to taste 1/4 tsp white pepper or to taste chopped chives and blanched snow peas for garnish

Put peas, potato, onion, lettuce and chives in large pan with strong chicken broth.  Bring to boil and simmer 15 minutes or until potato is soft.  Cool and puree in blender or food processor until smooth. Add cream, salt, pepper and lemon juice.  If too thick, add more chicken broth. Chill thoroughly. Serve with snow peas and chives sprinkled on top.

Note:  Can be prepared one day ahead but add cream a few hours before serving.

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