My husband Danny and I were in the jungle of Belize having breakfast, bird-watching, and being entertained by an acrobatic group of Howler Monkeys. We began chatting with a couple at a nearby table. They were raised in the Midwest and living in Texas. As always with us, the conversation turned to food. The husband focused on our restaurant work, particularly Danny’s passion for food. He remarked it was not until recently that his own desire to understand the joy of food and ingredients came about. Up until this point in his life, he merely ate to live. He didn’t consider what it was really that he was eating; he just knew he had to eat, and so he ate.
“You know it was a necessity,” he said. “You take clients to dinner, you eat. It’s dinnertime at home. Kids have to eat. It’s just something you do. Another task to be completed.”
Sometimes, when I step on the scale, I wish I had this mindset. But it was never to be.
Food has always been a central part of my life. All of my happy childhood memories center around food, whether gathering, cooking, or eating. I can close my eyes and see my mother kneeling in the garden, paisley-purple head scarf holding back her dark black hair from her tanned face, her wide mouth lipsticked and smiling, and garden-tool patterned gloves. She would gather zucchini and trim rhubarb. I loved to watch her garden and would get into the thick of it, eating ripened tomatoes from the vine. She’d call out for me to stop as I pulled every ripe strawberry. She tapped the basket, calling on me to drop them from my greedy hands. The only way this request would work was the promise of strawberry-rhubarb pies, my favorite to this day.
It was a short-lived memory as she and my Dad began their own business when I was around four or five years old and I lost the domestic version of my mom forever to the demands of a family-operated business.
Images of my father are a bit more complex and always pretty formal. Dressed to the nines in plaid Connecticut shoreline slacks and high-necked knit crew shirt finished leather loafers complete with tassels – his attempt at casual wear – He would stand cocktail in one hand and spatula in the other grilling Italian sausage patties and Angus burgers.
It was not a natural or normal occurrence at this grilling. He was never referred to as the King of the Grill, nor did he have a penchant for barbecue like some NormalNorman Rockwell vision. In fact, I can still smell the plastic burning on the special German hot dogs he fired up during my mom’s 50th surprise party. Unbeknownst to Dad, the hot dogs were individually wrapped, and my parents had been out celebrating already as he was distracting her before the surprise. No one dared alert him to the plastic faux pas as he grilled and handed them out; instead, we quietly attempted to pull some of the charred plastic from the casings, crunched into the dogs, and winked at eachother.
I was also influenced by my next-door neighbors and their love of food. The Helanders lived right across the street, and their youngest child, Alice, became my best pal. I am unsure if it was really her choice; I quickly adopted their family and determined she would become my best friend for the rest of my life. The Helanders were an artsy, chic, eclectic family compared to how I perceived my average dysfunctional, cookie-cutter family. Or so it seemed to me at the time.
Mrs. Helander, BJ, as she referred to herself, was so worldly to me. She painted and spoke French. BJ’s family was from France – some still lived there – which, in my young mind, made her the most fantastic of parents.
In the summers, the Helanders would often make a trip to Europe to visit family. I imagined often I would travel with them, instead of taking the holiday car ride a state away to Rhode Island to visit my mother’s family, picking up Schlitz or Miller Lite and a bucket of KFC en route for dinner.
Alice’s middle name was Yvonne, so richly European compared to my plain Jane Lynn. BJ was an artist. My mom commissioned a painting of her three daughters (commissioned is my word now; who knows for sure the origin of the decision to paint it). I still remember sitting for the portrait, fidgeting and amazed that someone I knew could paint.
Their house was always filled with chaos of the good kind, compared with my stifled home life, where I basically kept to myself as much as possible to avoid sparking any conflict. The Helanders served beef bourguignon, and Coq Au Vin; a daily inventory kitchen would include wine, pomegranate, fresh bread, and cheeses from a cheesemonger, not commercial cellophane-wrapped grocery brands. And they had wine with dinner, and no one left the table drunk. You could talk at their dining table during the meal; it was encouraged, in fact. Her Dad, a veteran and a pilot, had this friendly, booming voice. He always poked fun at us kids. Their home had a different recognition of children than in my more formal “seen but not heard” household. Their house seemed always loud and filled with laughter.
While we didn’t often cook at our house once our family business took off, we did eat out often. That’s where my love of commercial kitchen menu design and good service was born. My father was a perfectionist. He demanded only the best from others, including his kids, even though his performance often left much to be desired. Still, I was in awe of him growing up. In my eyes, he embodied the class and style of Frank Sinatra as he smoked his cigarette, long ash balancing at the tip against the law of gravity until he chose to let it fall with a flick. He sipped a vodka martini on the rocks, flashing a big gold ring and white-toothed smile. He could sell anyone anything, and he sold me on being the sharpest Dad in town.
He taught me how to hold my silverware properly, order only the best from the menu, and drink like a sailor. Unfortunately, the unruly sailor-style drinking rubbed off on me, but fortunately, so did the skills to be able to sit at any table, converse respectfully, and hold myself to proper dining etiquette. Aside from all the challenges of my upbringing, I will be forever grateful. While my mother’s cooking didn’t influence much in my formative years, her humble upbringing and home-cooked meals (along with her immediate family’s budget-conscious selections) provided a well-rounded upbringing for being a great guest at the table.
I can find joy in anything I am served – I do draw the line on a few dishes, one being beef liver and onions – from foie gras to meatloaf or Truffled Caccio Pepe tossed in a hollowed parmesan wheel to spaghetti and meatballs, I am comfortable landing at anyone’s table and an eager student in any kitchen.
Really, my passion for expanding my knowledge of food – not as a career but as a passion – came from my Dad. He loved food. Food and cars were probably the only conversations in which we always agreed – or perhaps he had so much to teach, and I often listened in silence or agreed with his every word. Two positions in a conversation he held fondly.
My sisters and I were the perfect restaurant patrons as early as I can remember. I was not allowed to speak out, drop food, not follow proper etiquette – or in any way undermine my dad’s perception of his role in the room. Yep, Bob Moran could hold court in any setting. I loved to watch him order from a menu, speak to the waitress, call over the owner or manager to the table with a wave of his hand, a flash of his smile, and raise a glass.
He’d send me into the kitchens to see how the chefs were coming along, “Go see what the chef recommends or see how those lobsters look.” I knew the people in the kitchens when I grew up – the sweet cooks at LaDone’s Jetty Restaurant in the tiny Connecticut shoreline town where I was raised. We were not exactly a suburban alcove of any big city, but neither were we like the small blue-collar towns that dotted the Long Island shoreline. We had a collection of independent restaurants that ran the gamut from the American-Greek Pizza joints to the fancier Italian-European fare restaurants. It was the latter restaurant my family dined at most often. Those dimly lit restaurants of the 70s and 80s with linen napkins and tablecloths, candles, a single flowered vase – and, of course, glasses brimming with tap water and ice before you even had to ask.
If it were not already on the table, an ashtray would appear before my dad before the meal. He would smoke and hold court, cocktail in hand, as the adults kicked off their dining experience; as the evening’s courses shifted from appetizers to entrees, the ashtray would depart only to reappear during dessert.
Dad always kept guard of his three-finger vodka martini on the rocks throughout the meal. When the waitress would top off the table’s wine glasses, she knew to check his rocks glass, filling it back to the perfect level as if it were as necessary to the meal as refilling a water glass for the other guests.
I loved to watch them all: the adults dining, the owners navigating their guests, the professional servers who weren’t in high school or home for summer break, the cooks in the kitchen, the bartenders shaking and stirring classic cocktails – tossing the deadly red maraschino cherry into the up glass to complete the perfect Manhattan. It seemed to me the perfect dance each night.
When asked to recall family memories, I can recount them by meals primarily prepared by professional kitchens by people I came to feel were extended family. We had a handful of places we ate – or my parents would stop for a cocktail on their way home from work. So, as we got older before cell phones, we’d often find ourselves calling to see where they might be. Starting at the top of favorite spots and following the list until we’d catch them before they got home. Inevitably, those places also became our takeout. While my classmates may receive a midweek treat of drive-through or pizza, we’d select off menus offering linguini with clam sauce, chicken marsala, or steak au poivre.
The same could be said of our freezer; by the time I was in my teens, my tastes had suffered a sophisticated blow. I’d invite friends to skip school. We’d open the liquor cabinets and the freezer with the same feverish anticipation. While I worked out the afternoon’s menus, my friends would enjoy a glass of wine while watching General Hospital.
During the keg party stage of my 16-year-old rebellion, my parents would surprise me with early arrivals back from trips only to find the house packed as I attempted to entertain unappreciative random and vaguely known surprise guests with shrimp cocktail appetizers, fresh corn on the cob and filet mignon on the grill – all courtesy of my parents monthly gourmet freezer plan. My father would bellow the party was over as young men sprinted downhill with boxes of cryovac beef. My schoolmates at this point, startled, overly stuffed with equal parts alcohol and meat, would rush toward the door only to be overcome with nausea only to find relief at my Dad’s feet. I don’t know why this makes me chuckle now or why it comes to mind as I free-flow thoughts of my childhood related to food. But here we are.
My father definitely elicited enough fear in my friends to produce the final results described. And that’s not what comes to mind immediately when I think of them. That is often where the story ends. Basically, those were the few imprinted thoughts and lessons learned from him in the 20 years he shared the earth with me. He taught me to play hard and love life, eat and drink like there is no tomorrow – because there may not be. He taught me to treat everyone – especially service people – with respect. He taught me a firm handshake, to look people in the eye, and to work hard. There were plenty of other lessons I don’t think he meant to teach me, but those ones I believe he wanted to pass on to me I learned well – especially how to really love, celebrate and taste food – whether it was a raw oyster in Louisiana, steamed clams and lobster in New England, the perfectly rare steak, a simple dish of richly blended coffee ice cream – or a favorite (of or from) my childhood – Linguine and White Clam Sauce, which I was grateful to learn from the kitchens of LaDonne’s Family restaurant in Connecticut. Any time I am lucky enough to bite into the perfect plate of Linguini and Clams or prepare the perfect steak to temp at home (maybe topped with some bleu cheese crumbles) – I have to give my Dad a nod for getting me started on the path of one of those people who lives to eat. And I could not imagine it any other way.