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Editorial

  • Letter to My Younger Daughter

    Dear Caroline,

    You were always a good eater. At age two, you ate your own bowl of cereal, then your older sister's, and then held out an empty bowl and demanded the hat trick. Like all kids, you preferred what was familiar and comforting. Small bits of bright color in a sea of ivory noodles were disturbing-- an invading army that had to be picked out, one soldier at a time. You adored salads and fruit, but mistrusted chunky soups and their mysteries.

    You loved to cook. You kneaded bread dough with gusto until it was as satiny smooth and plump as your belly. You stood on the trash can, wearing just your diaper, cutting out biscuits. You hid behind the kitchen counter and pilfered strips of pie dough. You loved to eat raw flour, licking it off the counter when my back was turned.

    When you are older, you may have occasion to read this letter; you may in time have your own family. Your memories of sourdough, baked beans, corn muffins, apple pie, fresh-picked blueberries, and upside-down cake are part of your heritage. You were raised in New England and ate the same foods as our neighbors. Although you will doubtless eat sashimi and soba, skate and dim sum, it is Yankee food that dominates your past.

    Compared to your grandfather's day, when the world was no larger than a neighborhood, you grew up at a time in which little was familiar. In the 1920s, our whole clan met at noon every Sunday at your great-great-great-grandmother's row house on Cathedral Street in Baltimore. Hair slicked back and shoes shined, your grandfather sat quietly in the thickly draped Victorian parlor with the grown-ups, bored and waiting for a dinner that was as predictable as the start of school-- beaten biscuits, a roast, mashed potatoes, lima beans, followed by peach pie in season or a cake the rest of the year.

    In the fifties, I spent summers in Vermont and remember midday dinners at a neighbor's farmhouse. Warm baking-powder biscuits (extras were stacked in a large tin), meat and mashed potatoes, a pitcher of fresh milk covered with a blue-and-white kitchen towel to keep out flies, a just-baked loaf of anadama bread, and molasses cookies with flour-dusted bottoms. Your grandmother had a full-time job, even back then; our own house had a southern cook. Enormous pans of spoonbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas, giant popovers, and red snapper every Friday are as vivid to me now as the day they were served.

    Today, a whole generation has grown up as a take-out culture. The food is convenient, and some of it is even good, but it has none of the ring of the familiar; it can never be personal enough to become part of our past. Your mother and I think about what we should pass on to your generation. Everyone talks values, as if they were computer skills. We would rather create memories: butter-dipping raw folds of Parker House Rolls on Thanksgiving morning; clipping sprigs of basil just before the first frost; stirring the batter for your sister's devil's food birthday cake. In food, there is so much to learn about life. As with good friends, the best foods are the simplest and most honest. Start out with memories of your dad's apple pie and then later on you can take the measure of a tarte aux pommes with cräme anglaise. I'm betting that the deep-dish pie will stand the test of time because we made it together-- your tiny hands on the axle-size rolling pin while you demanded, "Let me do it!"

    I hope that the first splash of fall color will reawaken in you an urge to roll out your own round of pie dough, filling it with firm, juicy Northern Spys or Macouns and dad's special spice mixture. I hope that your best friends are as dependable and well-made as that pie. Before your mother and I got married, I invited her up for a weekend at the farm. She threw hay with the best of them and was no quitter-- the last hay wagon wasn't empty until the barn swallows came out. That was the first day that I knew there would be a Caroline in my future.

    As for the future, there will be many new memories to create. You and your family probably won't come to the farm as often as I'd like, but as soon as your kids can stand, they're going to get a good dose of rolling pie dough, kneading bread, and cutting cookies. Like the candyman, I'll lure them with a lick of the bowl and hook them with the magic of the kitchen. And after you've gone back home, your mom and I will sit together in front of the fire like coconspirators, with memories of small voices ringing out, "Let me do it!" And we will realize that, all this time, you were giving us the memories. Thank you.

    Love, Dad

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