Chinese Food, TV dinners & my Thursday cooking lesson with Mom
When I was growing up, dinner at the Bandolik household was nothing fancy. Don’t get me wrong, it was special – but it just wasn’t fancy.
Sometimes it meant ordering Chinese Take-out from the one decent delivery place in town. I remember when my Dad would phone in the order and the voice on the other end of the phone would respond, “ah yes, Uncle Kenny, hello.” He was such a frequent customer, they knew him on a first name basis. To this day they still call him Uncle Kenny – even though he is not an uncle to anyone there. As the story goes, one day my father happened to walk into the Chinese restaurant at the exact same time as my cousin – and my cousin gave my father a big, “Hello Uncle Kenny.” So my Dad forever became known as Uncle Kenny to the staff of Ming Garden.
On very special nights, my family would go out to dinner – also involving Chinese food. We would often frequent Panda Garden or Johnny Chih’s in Westhampton Beach. I remember all of the elements and how very special it was to be dining outside of the home. White table cloths, white linens, steaming hot tea and fresh crunchy noodles in a bowl. My favorite element of this experience was that we shared everything. Plates of food filled the table and were passed from one to another. We would chat about what tasted good, and what we didn’t like, what we should have gotten, and what we’ll get next time. Comments on the perfection of the crispy walnut shrimp (they get it right every time!) or the blandness of the chow fun (why do we keep ordering this?) or the fullness of our bellies (why did I eat the whole egg roll?) filled the table. The idea of shared food and a shared experience warmed my little heart. Less so for my older sister, Jennifer. She hated Chinese food.
On most nights, however, I recall my sister popping a TV dinner into the oven (no, not the microwave, the oven). I remember those dinners being delicious and exciting. I think I liked all those compartments; one for chicken, one for mashed potatoes, one for vegetables and if you were lucky, one for a brownie. I also remember how my sister would doctor up each compartment to make it taste even better than it already did. A little pat of butter on the mashed potatoes. A little pat of butter on the vegetables. A little pat of butter on the chicken. A little pat of butter on the brownie. Well, you get the idea. And I’m not joking – she totally put butter on that brownie and it totally tasted better. And now that I am 35 and have some slight exposure to the world of food, to fabulous restaurants and to fantastic chefs – I actually think that with all that butter, she must have been french trained!
But my most profound food & family memory must have emerged when I was about 9 or 10 years old – and continued for many years. My mother and I had this little ritual that we would share and that I cherish to this day. I’m not even sure if she knows how important it was to me. My mom was a working woman, but she happened to be off from work every Thursday. Thursday became a special day where she could relax, run errands and make a nice family meal. Oftentimes she would make fish – either shrimp or flounder were the typical choices – and a nice big bowl of Spaghetti and Ragu brand sauce. Simple things really.
The ritual we shared went like this: After school my Mom and I would ride in the car towards the ocean to go to Tully’s Fish Market. Growing up in the Hamptons afforded us lots of great fresh local fish – of which we mostly stuck to shrimp and flounder. We’d get to the market – and although my Mom was not referred to as Aunt June – she was indeed on a first name basis with the shop owner. The shop was exciting. It almost felt like a place you shouldn’t be in or shouldn’t see. It felt like a warehouse that was off limits. But there we were – with all that fresh fish, all that seawater on the floor getting our shoes all dirty and fishy, all those live lobsters moving about – it felt like an exciting world to get a glimpse of every Thursday after a tough day at school. After we got all the trimmings for that evening’s dinner – my mom would get one more thing, just for me: A quarter pound container of Tully’s fresh crabmeat salad. This was special – because if I didn’t finish it in the car on the way home, then I would sit at our small, round, faux-wood kitchen table and eat my crabmeat while watching my mom peel, de-vain and wash the shrimp. She had her own ritual way doing this. She would always rip open the brown packaging that the shimp was wrapped in and use that as her working area. I can still hear the tearing sound of the brown paper bag. She did this simple task with such confidence – making our Thursday meal was something she knew well and something she did well. Between bites of crabmeat I would sometimes help her dip the shrimp into the egg batter and then into 4C salt-free Italian breadcrumbs. We would leave the breaded shrimp on the brown paper wrapper until we were ready to fry them up as soon as my Dad walked through the door from work.
This ritual never left me. And while I have broadened my palate to include much more than chinese food or shrimp and spaghetti or TV dinners with butter, butter, butter – I have never lost sight of the importance and value of the family meal. From food shopping, to preparing the ingredients, to the shared plates of pork fried rice, my earliest and most fond memories of growing up are always around that small faux-wood table filled with food, family and friends. I remember those Thursdays especially well – and will always treasure that early food journey to Tully’s and back – crabmeat salad and a cooking lesson from mom.
And now, inspired by my family’s communal table at home and enriched by my experiences as a Culinary Tour Guide for Foods of New York Tours, I embark on my own journey — through the world of food, with the goal of highlighting and promoting family run businesses, mom & pop shops and places and foods that remind us of home sweet home.
Just as the song says: