My earliest memory is the smell of garlic mingled with dishwashing soap on soft hands holding me in the kitchen, sitting on top of the refrigerator. My father often playfully sat me up there, but this one time, the hands were my mother’s.
At our home in Brooklyn, the kitchen was the center of our existence, as it was with so many families in the neighborhood. What made ours a bit different was my mother’s insatiable desire to push past the culinary boundaries of Bensonhurst and dabble in the cuisines of China, West Africa, or France. Sweet and sour soup with rubbery tofu (an alien ingredient at the time), chicken in spicy peanut sauce, and cheesy gratinéed onion soup were in the rotation for the dinner parties my mom hosted with flair. Sometime she subway-ed into “the city” for the necessary groceries. (She had met my dad on the subway, and their romance was cemented when he asked if they could “hold naked hands” on the pole.)
My mother Silvia was ever so glamorous to me—I thought she was a movie star. Watching her get dressed and made-up for the evening was a treat. Sometimes I’d put her pointy bra on my head and hop around her room saying, “Look, I'm a bunny!” Her closet was a jungle in my imagination, and as I sat on the floor, I would wave my little hands side to side, her long dresses undulating around me like tall grasses. I loved the softness of the silk and satin touching me.
I'd know that there were friends coming even before she started cooking because she had this strange ritual on the day of a dinner party: A soup bowl of milk and ice cubes would be placed center stage in our fridge. This strange concoction was the second half of her facial routine; the first phase was a green mudpack that froze her face into an unmovable mask. It took major control not to convulse in laughter when my dad and I came upon her all masked up; if she smiled and the mask cracked, we were in trouble. The milk bath apparently softened the skin after the mud puddle was washed off, and she's still got gorgeous skin, so maybe all that worked.
In our house, meals were never skipped. Dinner was served, not because you were hungry, but because it was six o’clock. Even on weeknights, we sat down to three courses, usually starting with broiled grapefruit and ending with Jell-o, at a table set with placemats and cloth napkins—something I came to appreciate when "eating over" at the homes of friends, where the typical fare was a TV dinner.
When we moved to Manhattan, the bustle of the big city seemed to loosen up the food rules. I might be given a few dollars to go downstairs in our apartment building to Francine's Luncheonette for a dinner of hamburger and French fries and a chat with the owner, George, or I could walk to the corner and have a deli sandwich—by myself. I felt so proud and mature, sitting at the counter without parental supervision.
But that taste of freedom didn’t compare to the intimacy of meals shared with my mom, alone in the kitchen, while my father, a freelance photographer, was away on assignment, often weeks at a time. On those nights, she would cook my favorite foods, just for me, lovingly noting that I ate as much as a “grownup” (at the time, I thought it was a compliment). The treat of all treats would be somewhere in the middle of my dad's absence, when she sensed how much I missed him and supplied some consolation from her culinary repertoire. She would announce with great flair that “tonight it's duck à l'orange,” light candles for the table, and have a dinner party just for we two. As I got older, and as my mom began an unexpected career as a talented magazine editor, our dinner conversations morphed from schoolwork and clothes to politics and literature, but they were always the best of times.
They still are.
Pam Koner is the founder and executive director of Family-to-Family, a non-profit hunger- and poverty-relief organization.
Duck à L’Orange
1 T. kosher salt
1 t. freshly ground pepper
1 t. ground coriander
5 - 6 lb. Long Island duck, giblets and excess fat removed
1 small onion
2 carrots, cut into pieces
2 ribs of celery, cut into pieces
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock
2 - 4 T. chicken stock
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1/3 c. fresh orange juice (from 1 to 2 oranges)
3 T. orange marmalade
1/8 t. kosher salt
1 T. unsalted butter, softened
1 T. all-purpose flour
1 T. orange zest
Preheat oven to 475 F.
Sprinkle skin and cavity of duck with salt, pepper, and coriander.
Place onion in cavity of duck.
Place carrot and celery in a large roasting pan.
Prick duck skin with a fork (do not pierce the flesh), and place on top of vegetables.
Roast for 30 minutes.
Squeeze juice from orange, and combine with wine and stock.
Pour into roasting pan and lower oven temperature to 350 F.
Continue to roast until thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 170 F., about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
Place duck under broiler until golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Transfer duck to a cutting board, loosely tented with aluminum foil.
Discard vegetables, and pour juices from the duck cavity into pan.
Strain pan juices through a sieve into a measuring cup, and skim off any fat.
Add enough stock to total 1 cup.
Cook sugar in heavy pot over moderate heat until starting to caramelize.
Carefully add vinegar, orange juice, marmalade, and salt, and stir over low heat.
Add pan juices, and simmer over medium heat until reduced, about 8 minutes.
Combine butter and flour, and whisk into mixture.
Stir in zest.
Carve duck and serve with sauce.