At the first hint of sleigh bells, I'm whisked back to Toledo, Ohio faster than Christopher Reeve looking at a 1980 penny (and if you understand that reference, you're a hopeless romantic like me!). As a kid from a largely Russian Jewish family, my first introduction to any kind of ethnic food was my Aunt Faye's chicken liver-and onion egg scramble and my Grandma Morgan's potato pierogis. But especially around the holidays, these two ladies went to town!
My Grandma Morgan and her sister-in-law, Aunt Faye, lived right next door to each other in matching apartment buildings. When I slept over at my grandma's house (which I did a lot) I'd wake up in the morning and race next door to Aunt Faye's. She'd already be up and cooking me my usual breakfast; scrambled eggs, sautéed chicken livers and onions. She'd be standing over the stove, gorgeous, in a flowered dress, her snowy white hair piled onto her head in a perfect loose bun held in place with a comb. She'd always be caramelizing the onions and waiting for me before she cooked the chicken livers. I was about eight years old and that smell was my favorite!
After breakfast I'd go back to Grandma's house and she'd be making pierogis for the ladies who were coming to play canasta in the afternoon. Her pierogis were boiled half moon dumplings stuffed with canned fried onions and mashed potato mixed with sour cream, seasoned with salt and pepper. She would sauté them in butter and serve them with a dollop of sour cream and garnish with more canned fried onions. She also served rye toast and a marmalade of orange or lemon on the side. Mabel from across the hall always arrived early, trying to beat me to the punch, but I was too quick for her. I got in there, got my perogis, and would naturally mush it all together.
Years later, in France, working as an unpaid line cook trying to earn my cooking stripes, I rediscovered a little piece of Toledo. Working in La Napoule and driving a Vespa down to St Trope to the beach, I discovered a tiny little nothing restaurant that served the best chicken liver terrine I'd tasted since Aunt Faye's. This tiny place would serve a loaf pan of whole liver terrine with truffles, baked in a water bath. It would come to the table with a bottle of wine, they'd mark both the terrine and the bottle, and charge you by how much you drank and ate!
And on my search for Grandma's potato perogis I was delighted to find the crispy light potato and veggie samosas on the streets of India. The boiled potato stuffing was almost exactly like what I remembered as a kid, but was served with chutney instead of marmalade. That flavor twist was thrilling!
I continue to find these two childhood memories making reappearances no matter where I travel around the globe, and so continue to recreate them in my restaurants. At Border Grill we make Argentine empanadas, one filled with mushroom and one with Swiss chard. And at Street, we did a layered liver/avocados and egg pate, as a Mexico City Passover dish. Also on the menu at Street, a big hit are the Ukrainian verenyky -- little half moons, just like grandma Morgan's, stuffed with sautéed onions, mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach, and then finished with a little fried crispy onion on top and served on a bed of sour cream with home-made lemon marmalade.
During this season, when my thoughts wander back to those who have already gone, the smells in my own kitchens make me miss them even more. At Grandma Morgan's, at day's end, I would climb onto the chaise lounge in her bedroom; snuggle into the soft grey afghan she had knitted, and fall asleep happy as a little clam. Magically, I'd wake up in my own bed in the morning.
Here's to happy and healthy holidays, wherever and whatever you may be eating!
P.S. -- I never actually saw either my grandma or my Aunt Faye wearing pants. That's one family tradition I happily broke!