Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Red Wine and Warm Olives

... or, how my blog got its name.

A day or so ago I was commenting on Michelle's hysterically funny blog, Thursday Night Smackdown (she smacks down my blog 24/7, not just on Thursdays), about favorite ways to spend Sunday Mornings, and I remarked about weekend hookups with my brothers and sister, during which we consume many spicy Bloody Mary's and eat well.

I am really lucky that I have two brothers and one sister, and the four of us are literally best friends. Although one lives too far away to participate in many of our activities, the three of us who live scattered up and down the state of California, get together as often as we can, and honestly, more often than most families we know. We enjoy each other's company.

This past weekend, my brother flew up from Southern California for a short weekend to work on my "Honey Do List" and hang out. My sister came in from Marin, and we consumed good food and Bloody Mary's all weekend. They are without question, my favorite people and it's my favorite way to spend a weekend.

The weekend, and Michelle's post, had me thinking about how my brothers and sister evolved from being part of a family that had a pretty basic and repetitive weekly menu growing up, to one where we get on a plane and fly to see one another, and stop for Bloody Mary's as the first order of business of the day.

My family has always been very travel and food-centric. My Dad loved his snacks and comfort foods, but he was not terribly high-brow. He wasn't interested in many ethnic foods (when he went out of town on frequent business trips, my Mom would pack us up and we'd head out to try Chinese food or Japanese food). He had the same homemade salad dressing (1000 Island which was just Best Food's Mayo and Ketchup, sometimes pickle relish) on every salad he ever ate in his life, but that man appreciated a good loaf of French bread with fresh, cold butter; very good brewed coffee with cream and sugar; most pastries, but especially Pecan Sticky Buns and Pecan Diamond squares; and when he was feeling gourmet garlic butter shrimp scampi over fettuccine.

So, while my family has always been fond of snacks, appetizers, good food and the occasional cocktail (it was always a Whiskey Sour, Bacardi Cocktail, or Strawberry Daiquiri), we never had anything terribly gourmet when eating together at home, as a family. We did freshen up the menu choices considerably when we moved from Washington, D.C., to California when I was a child, because all the fruit and produce was suddenly new and exciting and available. Avocados? What are THOSE? I still remember my first avocado on a pre-relocation visit to California, and my first tub of orange yogurt. Chilled Gazpacho was exciting.

My mother was more adventurous than my Dad, but not terribly interested in cooking or experimenting. She was a good, reliable and loving cook (no one on this earth makes better soups), but saved her culinary adventures for the restaurants. That was mostly because of my Dad. Dad never stopped us from enjoying new things, and always encouraged us to enjoy whatever we ordered, but there was just always an unspoken paternal loyalty that at home, we always served something he'd enjoy.
We'd never, for instance, change up the annual Thanksgiving Dinner with all new recipes (no, we will not be having roasted Brussels sprouts, we will be having boiled green beans), or, heaven forbid, frost the yellow butter layer cake with anything other than 1) chocolate butter frosting or 2) coconut butter frosting. You didn't "surprise" my Dad with Red Velvet Cake for Sunday Dinner. He'd just look at you, gently perplexed and confused, and then look off into the kitchen to see when the real dessert was coming out. It was fine if you wanted Red Velvet, please enjoy it, but ... where was his chocolate cake and glass of milk?

One year when I was a teen and fresh from a Pampered Chef party, I made their then-gourmet and innovative "Fruit Pizza" for Thanksgiving dessert. I don't care who you are or where you are from, that Fruit Pizza on a sugar cookie crust was damn GOOD. I took a wedge, my sister took a wedge, my mother probably tried a bite or two. But my Dad and brothers? Didn't touch it. What foolishness, bringing a fruit pizza to Thanksgiving. Pass the pumpkin pie and pecan pie, extra Cool Whip, please. I was terribly offended and my sister, who we call Weezie, sympathized, but said "Cheech, don't ever try to rock their world. They can't handle anything new like fruit pizza."

She remembered and took this to heart when she got married. For her feast, she had a lot of fancy schmancy eats, but she had a whole baked ham and a pile of biscuits, with dishes of mustard and other sauces. My mother took one look at that said "I knew you wouldn't forget to have something your Daddy will like."

I'm not trying to suggest we never had an interesting meal at home. We certainly did -- our move to California introduced fresh artichokes and mayonaise to dip, marinated kabobs cooked on the patio, homemade gazpacho, and a lot of fresh seafood. But, most of our interesting meals were on the road.
We were fortunate as children and young adults to travel every summer, sometimes all summer, with my Dad on his work assignments throughout the National Park System, so the family enjoyed new regional foods (even if Dad stuck to the fried chicken or turkey sandwiches) all across the United States. We are from the East Coast -- we migrated from Washington, D.C. out West with each new work assignment for my Dad. My two brothers eventually grew out of their culinary limitations (my youngest brother is the best cook in the family by FAR -- he'll disappear into the kitchen for a snack and come back with grilled Brussels sprouts with ginger wasabi dressing), but my Dad never really did.
As we made our way West, we'd try Hopi Indian Fry Bread and he'd have two eggs over easy, bacon on the side. We'd have San Francisco cioppinno and sourdough bread, he'd have the open faced turkey sandwich with a side of mashed potatoes. We'd try the walk away cold crab on the wharf and he'd -- well my Dad would eat that. He's was an East Coast Chesapeake Bay boy and would never turn away crab.
Weezie never hesitated to order something foreign off the menu (and she was the one most often disappointed too). Howard Johnson's Kiddie Hot Dog Lunch? No thank you, I do believe I'll have the fried clams. My youngest brother, at age 5, was like her, clearly destined to be a foodie. He was sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco when he stated with a lisp "Pwime Wib. Medium Ware" to the astonished waitress and my parents. This is the kid who, as a teenager, made chocolate milkshakes and thought "You know what would be good in this? Brandy." He served me a glass and I said "What is this?! This is GOOD." "Oh, I call those my Brandy Alexander Milkshakes" he replied.

Although childhood instilled in us a love of travel, exploring new places, trying new things, it also meant hunkering down into often humble vacation rentals. With a family of six, staying in resorts wasn't something we knew or expected -- our vacations were always a rented cottage by the sea or somebody's vacation home with weird linens, mismatched pots and pans that were not ours, and unusual brands from local grocery stores which always weirded me out. We'd grocery shop on arrival and cook vacation meals in the rental kitchen. No wonder my mother wasn't that big of a foodie -- the poor woman never got a break, even on a vacation. Still, somehow, making spaghetti and meatballs in a vacation cottage was better than spaghetti and meatballs at home.

One year many, many years ago, my parents home-swapped with a family in Carmel, California. My parents traveled to Carmel and took up residence in a little house by the ocean, and my siblings and I, by now all living on our own, each made our way to Carmel for a vacation.

That's the Spring it happened. My sister Weezie ignored her own advice and decided to rock our world.

Weezie came down from Marin County (north of San Francisco), where she lived and had access to GOURMET GROCERY STORES with things like rosemary crackers and artisan cheeses. Wrapped in paper, even. Miniature fruit tarts. A dozen different kinds of baguette. Imported butter. House made granola. Roasted garlic heads. We were young, in our 20s, and this was the beginning of HIGH LIVING (what we now call "taking it up a notch" or "stepping it up" which has nothing to do with Emeril). I remember driving almost two hours to see Weezie and specifically browse through the beautiful grocery stores like they were art installations. They were destination worthy.

By being the first to move away from our Sacramento Valley suburb to the San Francisco Bay Area, Weezie quickly developed a more refined palate than the rest of us and was always experimenting in the kitchen. Honestly, though, if I wrote about her too often, I'd need a whole other blog called "Well, you tried" or "What were you thinking?" Weezie is famous in our family for going to a gathering of her friends and neighbors for a potluck, and deciding, a few hours before, that she's going to make Floating Islands in Zabaione. Never having made it before in her life, mind you. And not having a copper pot. Or enough eggs.

Anyway, so there we were in Carmel, my Mom, Dad, my siblings, and Weezie shows up with goodies from her local grocery store, so that we can all sit around and have a little snack and catch up with one another on the first night of our arrival.

At that stage in my life, I would have brought a package of Knorr vegetable soup mix, a tub of sour cream, a brick of frozen spinach, and a loaf of bread to hollow out, and thought I was really delivering on the California Lifestyle.

Not Weezie. She brought a bottle of red wine, a tub of mixed olives with rosemary which she warmed in the microwave, a box of imported Italian sea salt crackers, and a hard Italian cheese, from a little import food shop, which she cut up into little cubes. This was of no interest to my Dad, of course.

My brothers and sister and I sat there talking and laughing, eating the warm olives, cheese, crackers, sipping a deep red wine. It was so different from anything we'd ever had before. I remember my parents stayed at the dining room table enjoying whatever they were having -- probably my Dad's ice cold Pepsi and some fresh Lay's potato chips -- while my brothers, sister and I sat around the sofa and on the floor in front of a fireplace, foggy sea air creeping in, feeling very grown up.

It was a revelation, I tell you. I began to understand what "eating well" was all about that night. A little bit of something REALLY good was far better than a big plate of something mediocre. I've never forgotten that evening. For all my sister's culinary disasters adventures, she broke through it all that weekend with a simple dish of warm olives that I enjoyed so much, I named my blog after it, and her (betcha didn't know that, did you, Weezie?).

Photo Credit: Olives101.com


  1. Great story. I was lucky that I grew up with a mom who did experiment with food so we were introduced to things. Maybe she was that way because she grew up with a dad who wasn't an experimenter, the only fish he ate was tuna salad, poultry had to be served cold, a meal was meat & potatoes.

  2. Oh my gosh....way to make me cry!!!
    I love my sister and the rest of
    my family so much. Thank god I didn't bring ceviche that Carmel trip. Although that's kind of a saucy blog name too. For the record, that really good cheese we had in Carmel is Parano.
    xoxox Weezie

  3. See? That's exactly what kind of "cook" Weezie is. She would have thought "Hmm, Ceviche. Yeah, that's the ticket. I'll pack raw fish pickled in lime juice and onions, and put it in my car, and drive four hours to Carmel. And I won't have an ice chest, but it will probably be fine." She'd arrive four hours later with nothing to eat but a kettle of car-baked fish, and her car would smell like fish until she sold it.

    Hand to God.