My parents were born in the 1920s. It feels crazy to think about how different their lives must have been from mine. In my mind's eye I see their world, literally, in black & white. Like a film from the same period. From their stories I was reminded of The Little Rascals. And, for those under 40 years of age, The Little Rascals was a funny short film series about a bunch of depression era children and their misadventures. A constant theme in these shorts was the children's hunger and that seems to be consistent with my parent's experience growing up in The Depression. It's not difficult to envision my Dad, a curly haired boy in knickers, standing at a bakery window staring at and coveting a cream puff he could never hope to afford.
My Mom, born and raised in Manhattan, came from a big family with five girls and one boy. It sounds like there was always food on the table but in a big family there wasn't a whole lot to go around. My Mother, when asked about growing up in the 1930's in a big family, sums it up very simply,"All I ever dreamed of was, just once, to be able to have two cupcakes". This sincere wish became something of a metaphor for her family experience which had to have contributed to her leaving home at 16 to travel to California, a driven and independent young woman.
As I grew up I never really heard my father talk about being hungry as a child. What he did discuss were the vast differences from when he was a kid and then as an adult. Some of it sounded almost like absurd revisionism or fantasy. According to my Dad you could get a full Chinese dinner for four including egg rolls for 50 cents. A Three Muskateers candy bar had three flavors and was so big it could be eaten, essentially, like a cake, sliced up and shared by an entire family. One could get a giant sack of White Castle hamburgers for 15 cents....you get the picture.
What I did always notice about my Dad was something of a fixation on food. Whether it was a meal he was going to cook himself or a pending excursion to a new restaurant he was always exceedingly optimistic with true belief that this one would be the perfect meal. Of course he was more often than not disappointed but the sense of excitement and anticipation would always return in time for the next opportunity for culinary perfection.
I wouldn't say he was a gourmet but he liked good quality food. It should be fresh and flavorful and, in a perfect, why-the-hell-not, world, rich tasting with liberal amounts of heavy cream in the recipe. For me it became a little bit of a burden going out to eat with him because the odds were always strong that he'd end up bemoaning what went wrong with the meal. My Mom was less caught up in the search for the perfect meal but was far more involved in the experience. If the lighting was wrong or the restaurant too noisy or the service not up to snuff, forget it!. We all love eating in Chinatown here in New York and one time I brought my folks to a new dumpling joint that I was sure they would love despite it being a tad noisy and there being community seating where you'd end up sitting at a big table with strangers. Right away I knew we were in trouble because the place was just buzzing with noise and activity. After we ordered our dumplings (crab & pork...unbelievably good) they brought the dipping sauce which has fresh ginger in it. Mom complained that the place she and Dad get dumplings automatically brings extra fresh ginger for the sauce. Biting my lip, I asked the waiter for more fresh ginger and hoped the meal would be to their liking. It wasn't.
Dad also had a thing about quantity. I'm certain this went back to him being hungry growing up in The Depression. Not a food snob at all he was happy with fun lower-end meals and if there was lots of it that certainly helped. One time visiting relatives in Tucson we stumbled across a ridiculously large buffet called Golden Corral. There was so much food in this warehouse sized eatery that strategizing the meal became an important, if not critical, aspect to navigating the overly abundant appetizers, salads, soups, meat, chicken, fish, barbeque, starches and all the other filling foods created to slow down the hungry patron. If one was to make it to the daunting and impressive dessert barge he or she would have to configure their plate carefully and tread as lightly as possible. I don't remember how it turned out specifically but, slightly bent at the waist, I vowed that I would never go back. I think even Dad agreed at that point. A few years later he confessed that one time, back in Tucson again, he drove by the dreaded but lovely Golden Corral and fully intended to keep driving. However, he then felt the car being drawn to the massive eatery not unlike that Star Wars ship being sucked into the Death Star. Not sure how it went down specifically once he went in but he lived to tell the tale.
The theme of abundance was consistent with my Father. As a young veteran of World War II he found himself in medical school in Berne, Switzerland. No small feat as classes and exams were conducted in German and he had only a few years of high school German behind him. Years later he talked about living near the Toblerone candy factory and how the night air smelled, pleasantly, like chocolate. I remember one time, 30 or 40 years later when he came across a sale at Macy's of the giant sized Toblerone Chocolate bars in their signature triangular packaging. They were substantially reduced in price and without hesitation he bought twelve. I think that as much as he enjoyed eating and sharing the chocolate over the few years it took to get through it, the most thrilling aspect for him was the comforting fact of having a hoard of that fine confection in the house.
The quantity thing could be philosophical as well. There were times when the hunt for the best and the most, in a food related context, took on a refreshingly non-politically correct air. On one personally historic trip as a teen to Cape Cod my Dad was excited about treating me to my first real fried clams. These are not the clam strips you might find at an orange roofed Howard Johnson's back in the day. These were absolutely the real thing. These were freshly caught in the Atlantic Ocean, shucked, floured, seasoned & deep fried with the bizarre yet wonderful soft bellies. Dad had been talking about this tasty regional fast food for days leading up to it. As we wandered around Provincetown there was, believe me, a lot to take in yet we made a beeline for the docks where there were a variety of clam shacks. I thought he'd jump at the first one and we'd get going on this long anticipated meal. However, he seemed to take his time studying each stand carefully. I couldn't figure out what the difference was from one vendor to another as the clams all looked the same but he seemed to be analyzing each set-up carefully. When he finally decided upon our shack a decidedly heavy-set young woman served us a mammoth portion and the meal completely lived up to the hype. Later I realized that he had carefully selected the server on purpose theorizing that a person of a particular girth would most likely provide the most generous portion. I know that sounds kind of awful but there was a logic to it especially from someone who knew what it was like to go to sleep hungry at night as a child.
My parents have lived in Lower Manhattan since 1988. When they moved there nobody had heard of Tribeca and now it's just ubiquitous in so many ways including, appropriately, all the great restaurants. On September 11, 2001 my folks were at home when the planes hit the World Trade Center. They could see it from their building just a few blocks away. My Mom had a first time appointment at a hairdresser down the street. With all the commotion she decided that it wasn't the best day to get her hair colored and walked over to tell the hairdresser that it would have to be another time. Everyone was shaken up at that point watching the poor souls leaping from the towers and the exodus uptown of ash-covered New Yorkers. Mom introduced herself to the hairdresser and said she thought she'd have to postpone and that, frankly, she felt like she needed a drink with all the madness surrounding them. No liquor in the salon, she sat down, started chatting and ended up getting her hair done anyway. That was the day's last moment that even approached normalcy as life downtown was changed for a years to come. She's been using this kind hairdresser ever since and they've become friendly. They've talked about each other's lives and hung in there as the neighborhood recovered from that tragic day.
My Father passed away last week. The last year had been difficult with many visits to the ER and hospital. My Mom took unbelievable care of him dedicating her life to his well-being. As he got sicker and sicker his interest for food declined to an extreme extent. In fact, that's when I realized that things were serious as he didn't even want to talk about the hot new Vietnamese place down the street or a creative sandwich his grandson had concocted (Chicken cutlet, hash browns, fried egg, bacon, hot sauce & gravy on a wedge). At the very end all he really wanted was Haagan Daaz Coffee Ice Cream which was somehow appropriate for a kid who never got all the sweets he wanted growing up.
A few days before he died my Mom had finally found a window of 3 hours where she could go get her hair colored. She was unhappy about grey roots and Dad didn't like them either. She had just been unable to leave him long enough to get it done. While she went, I stayed in the apartment with Dad who was mostly sleeping at that point. When Mom came back looking refreshed and 10 years younger she sat down next to me and brought out a small brown bag she said her hairdresser had given her. Smiling for the first time in a long while, she asked me to look inside and take out the little gift. She hadn't remembered ever telling her friend that particular story but she must have because as I reached into the bag I found two cupcakes.
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