My mother was Polish. Her mother had come to this country as a child and landed in Lorain, Ohio – a suburb of Cleveland. For as long as I can remember my mom would pack up me, my sister and my brother and we would go visit my grandma. Spending time at grandma’s consisted of a lot of sitting around the kitchen table hanging out with my mom and her trio of brothers (think “The Deer Hunter”). You get the idea.
Uncle #1 lived at home with my grandma, worked for the railroad, the 3 to 11 evening shift, was usually drunk by midnight and would most likely be gay if he were alive today. Uncle #2 lived close by. He was the only one of the brothers who had kids. We were very close with him. Uncle #3 was the scariest and the angriest. He was a war hero who had spent time as a prisoner in Korea and, when drunk (which was much of the time), would pick fights with my then five-year old brother, who would run and hide until my uncle left.
So the adults would sit around the green Formica topped table discussing who was dead, in jail, pregnant, married, or divorced….and my sister and I would sit between them, listening to every word. All the adults smoked and we just watched. We would hear that Smitty, the bookie, lost big at the track and was in jail because he beat someone up; that Ciaotka (Aunt) Maggie was selling her butcher shop; and that my 17 year old cousin was pregnant and had to get married. While we were taking this all in, my grandma would cook and feed us all.
The green Formica table would be piled high with all manner of delights, lovingly presented. There were Pierogies – kind of like stuffed dumplings – I liked the ones stuffed with sauerkraut, there’d be Gwumpkies (stuffed cabbage), and there was always kielbasa.
My favorite was the pickled pigs’ feet – my sister and I loved them. I remember looking at them in that clear jar, the little pig knuckles visible amongst the gelatinous stuff that was mixed in – we could eat a jar in one sitting. But, ultimately, everyone was anticipating my grandma’s tripe soup. It took hours to cook because it’s all four stomachs of the cow, and it takes a long time for them to soften. As grandma stood over the stove the adults would drink, laugh, argue, drink, eat, drink, and cry…and drink. Various friends and relatives would stop by throughout the day and evening and the conversation, the drinking, and the eating never stopped – it was wonderful.
But after my grandma died my mother started to distance herself from her Polish roots. Gone were the days of sitting around the table with the hard drinking uncles, the cigarette smoke, and the pigs feet. They were replaced by a dictionary game she’d read Rose Kennedy had played with her children. Honestly, I think my mom was embarrassed to be Polish and would much rather have been a Kennedy or any kind of WASP. She began to cook accordingly. No longer did we have easy access to pierogies, pigs’ feet, and Polish friends and relatives. Instead we had creamed chipped beef on toast, salmon croquettes, tuna noodle casserole, chicken ala king, and traditional roast beef for Sunday dinner. I missed my pig’s feet but tried to appreciate my mom’s new menu.
Her version of Kennedy/WASP cooking taught me that roast beef was both bone dry and stringy, asparagus was grey and came from a can, and there were specific seasonal types of Jell-O: green Jell-O with carrots and marshmallows during the warmer months, and red Jell-O with cream cheese and nuts for the holidays.
The limited Kennedy/WASP recipes were not, however, entirely to blame for my mother’s lack of culinary flair. Our food was cooked beyond any semblance of …well….anything… because of my mom’s morbid fear of salmonella and botchalism. She was a very frightened person, convinced that danger lurked around every corner – especially in the form of under cooked turkey, roast beef, pork, and most probably, potatoes. Thanksgiving was the most dangerous time of the year. My mom was never convinced that the stuffing in the turkey was ever fully cooked. The stuffing was a potential weapon of mass destruction, just waiting to take us all out. There was little joy at mealtimes – only dictionary games and threat of death.
Thankfully there came a time when I moved from Cleveland. I went to Chicago and discovered a new world that included food. I discovered that vegetables weren’t from cans. Asparagus was actually green, roast beef was succulent, salmon existed outside the world of the croquette, and not one person I knew ate Jell-O.
Then I began modeling and most of the people I knew were models. Drinking? Yes. Cocaine? Yes. Eating? Not so much. My enjoyment of food was short lived. If I was going to be a famous model and actress, I couldn’t enjoy food. I needed to have some discipline in my eating.
By the time I moved to Los Angeles to do television I was pretty messed up about food. Needing to be movie star thin, I decided that I would stop consuming meat, fish, dairy, oils, sugar, alcohol, coffee, tea, bread, pasta…actually, almost everything. What I could ingest was steamed vegetables, selected fruits, tempeh, tofu….that was pretty much it. Food became something to be dealt with, never enjoyed.
But I reached my goal – I got almost skinny enough. I also got, according to my doctor, almost sick enough to die. She implored me to start eating everything I’d stopped eating. That was difficult because I knew that if I wasn’t as skinny as I knew I had to be I would never be the movie star I had to be. The will to live beat out the drive for stardom, but it wasn’t easy.
When I met my future husband, Ron, I had just gone through a wrenching divorce and was living with, not only the shame of that, but the shame of having been very publically fired from the “Ellen” show. The stress had slimmed me down somewhat and basically I was just a mess. Ron had just lost his wife to cancer, had two very young children and was equally, if not more of, a mess. He asked me to dinner and over dinner asked me if the reason I was translucent was because I had an eating disorder. That made me cry. He ate a lot and drank a lot. I cried more. We were perfect together. We continued seeing one another and we married two years later. And there I was – a skinny has-been actress in her late forties with a 4 year old a 7 year old… and Ron. My life was forever changed.
It’s difficult to serve just vegetables, grilled protein, and salads to little kids. They like hamburgers, French fries, cake, ice cream, hot dogs….all the things I hadn’t touched, let alone eaten, in years. And so it began. The food spell began to break. I had a French fry here, a nugget there, a slice of cake, an ice cream cone – it was amazing. I was like Sleeping Beauty being kissed…by a hot dog. I began to enjoy food again – and honestly, I needed to, if for no other reason than to build up my immune system against the multitude of diseases my new little kids would bring home from school. But I’ve adored every second of it.
Daniel is now 18 and Sasha is 15. It has been the role of a lifetime to be their mother – and… equally…interesting to be with Ron. We have wonderful rituals as a family, one of them is having dinner together. We always set the table with linen napkins and candles, and toast one another at the start of each meal. I cherish these moments, aware that we’re making future memories. We also have spectacular dinner parties. The kids have always been a part of them –they always have places set for them. We have a huge dinner table and we eat too much, drink too much, and laugh just enough. I love every minute of our dinner parties. I love the friends, I love the food, I love the wine, and I love the laughter. I think back to those days around the Formica table. They were good days. I want my kids to remember our dinner parties and remember our big old dinner table. Yes, I may be my generation’s version of my alcoholic uncles, but I’m good with that. I’d much rather be here than in “Hyannisport,” in fact it even beats sitting in front of a giant crystal vat of pickled pigs’ feet.