Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Insomnia and food memories

via vforvelociraptors on Flickr
Right after I got off of work last night, I started getting a migraine. I get aural migraines about every six months to a year (I used to get them more often when I was younger, but that's another story), so the warning signs afford me a small window of time to take some Excedrin and squash the migraine before the real pain starts. Thankfully, I was able to do just that and got the symptoms under control within half an hour or so. I had little pain and was able to make dinner for the beau and me as well as read and watch TV. I was feeling quite nauseous as the night wore on though, so T offered to get me a Coke Slurpee to calm my stomach. Our evening passed rather uneventfully and we turned out the light at midnight. I was incredibly tired and thought that falling asleep would be a snap until I realized I had been awake for half an hour and couldn't make my mind slow down and my body get comfortable. I took a melatonin pill around 2 out of desperation, but to no avail. It might as well have been a sugar pill for all the good it did. This tossing and turning lasted until 4 am when I finally managed to sleep for about 2 hours before having to get up for work.

As I laid there for hours, I thought of many, many things. Once I started feeling hungry, I naturally started to think about food. Last night, I had made boxed macaroni and cheese for the two of us because it was quick and that's what I had. T offered to help me, but I kind of laughed and said there really wasn't much to do, boxed mac and cheese is easy. He looked a little uncomfortable and said that it always took him forever to make because he wasn't a good cook. I smiled and said that I've been doing it for so long that it has just become easy for me. As I laid awake, I thought back on this conversation and it struck me that 3 years ago, I would never had shrugged off boxed mac and cheese as being easy. I would have stood anxiously by the stove, waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to soften.

Partially, it's any wonder that I started to cook at all since my mother didn't teach me anything, I had rare opportunities living in squalor to cook, and I was discouraged by my ex-fiance (yes, I said ex-fiance. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I brought him up in this blog, but that's a whole nother story that will have to wait). On the other hand though, it's not surprising at all that I started to cook as both my grandmothers are excellent cooks and I got to see them in action, especially my maternal grandmother. I feel like being able to cook is at least a little bit genetic (it must have skipped over my mother though) and I was lucky to get it from both sides of my family.

Despite my limitations, I remember a few times when I stayed home sick from school as a preteen and teenager that I wanted something to eat, but nothing that was available seemed appealing. I would unearth my mother's tattered red cookbook, I think it was a Good Housekeeping that she got as a bridal shower gift, and find recipes that I could make with what was on hand and that weren't too difficult. I remember I made chocolate chip cookies once and pasta in a cream sauce another time. Both times I had to fumble around the kitchen, taking the crusted pots and pans and garbage off the burners, using the ironing board as a counter, and scrambling to find utensils and dishes that were both clean and functional in order to even make a simple dish. I had to gather up all of the cups and bowls of water to come up with enough to boil pasta as my mother had the water line turned off during the day. Miraculously, I had the foresight to check the oven before I turned it on to make the cookies as it was stuffed full of more wrappers and garbage that would have caused the kitchen to have gone up like tinder if I had turned the oven on to preheat without looking. My mother always came home stunned when I made these ventures into culinary arts, a mingling of pleasant surprise and annoyance on her face.

My mother rarely cooked, especially when we acquired a microwave and it was just the two of us. We survived off of frozen dinners, fast food, and leftovers from my grandma. When I was lucky, she would either stop by on her way home from work or send me down the three blocks to the local Italian market to buy us a few slices of tomato pie.

Now, I have to back up and first explain the market and then pie (seriously, this was all stuff I was thinking about while I was suffering from insomnia. I was craving this tomato pie that I hadn't thought about in ages). I predominately grew up in a tiny, Italian town. My mother and I moved there, which was just the next town over from where my family was living, after my parents got divorced. Prior to moving there, my brother and I attended preschool at their Christian school (the one Christian school in the sea of Catholic ones). My brother is three years older than me, so my mom used to take me along when she dropped him off in the morning for preschool. Often, we would stop at this Italian market for deli meat, hoagies, or ground beef after depositing my brother. My mother always claimed that they were all the best in the area. I remember thinking how high and how steep the front cement stairs were and how scared I was of falling down them. Once inside, there was a constant, permeating smell of drying meat as they made their own sausages and other Italian meats on site. I could barely see over the meat counter, even on my tip toes, but the younger of the two men who worked behind it would always lean his head over so he could see me and talk to me. His name was Pete and he was tall and thin and sported a giant, bushy, black mustache and shaggy, black eyebrows (very Italian, think Luigi in real life). Funnily enough, a few years after my mother and I moved to this small town, Pete and his family moved into the house across the street from us. Like I said- small, small town. I was a very shy child, but Pete was incredibly nice and I knew that my mother really liked him, so I usually didn't hide behind my mom's legs from him.

The woman who ran the register was the matriarch of the family that owned the market. She was elderly even then and I was a little scared of her because, even though I couldn't articulate it at that age, she had been a bit hardened by business and lacked the complete grandma aura that I was used to from my own. Despite my unnecessary uneasiness about approaching the register, she always fished out two lollipops from one of the many candy jars that lined the counter and gave them to me, telling me to share the second one with my brother when he got out of school. They were the pastel, two toned, chalky suckers that always dried out your mouth and tasted, no matter which colors you got, of sugar and a vague fruit you couldn't quite put your finger on. I was too scared of her to contradict her and I always nodded, wide eyed at her and gave my brother that second lollipop as though she would know if I kept it for myself and punish me for being greedy.

It wasn't until my mother and I moved to this town, only a few blocks away from the market, that we started to eat their tomato pie on a regular basis. I honestly don't remember if the tomato pie was made in house, if a local Italian bakery made it, or if some Italian woman in the town made a couple of batches and sold it at the store. I do remember that it was originally only available a few days a week and in limited quantities. If you wanted some, you had to get there shortly after they put it out or you'd be out of luck or worse- get stuck with an edge or corner piece (I know some people who didn't mind the edges, but I'm all about the center pieces). They always had the tomato pie in an upturned rectangular cardboard box lid sitting on top of the glass sliding doors of the ice cream freezer, directly in front of you as you walked into the store. There were always piles of parchment paper and white, paper lunch bags sitting right beside it so you could help yourself to as many slices as you'd like.

The first couple of times I had tried tomato pie when I was younger, I didn't care for it. For those unaccustomed to the taste and texture, tomato pie can seem like room temperature or cold pizza without the mozzarella cheese- I know that's what I thought the first couple of times I ate it. I missed the delicious, melty cheese on top of a regular slice of pizza too much to appreciate tomato pie's unique contribution to the culinary world (if I remember correctly, some people do top off their tomato pie with a slice of cheese to make a cold, quasi-pizza slice). I remember the first couple of times I had tomato pie, when I took a bite of the pie, I would push the thick tomato sauce away from my mouth with my upper lip so that I wouldn't have to eat so much of it. Eventually I would have a substantial heap of tomato sauce that would fall off the edge of the slice and I was free to eat the rest without the offensive sauce. I have to say though, over time, the tomato pie really reels you in.

The look and shape of tomato pie is similar to Sicilian style pizza. It's not round, it's rectangular. The crust is thick, but not greasy. The difference is that the pie is not covered in mozzarella cheese before it bakes. It just has a thick coating of tomato sauce that winds up resembling, in look, texture, and taste, seasoned tomato paste after it's baked and the tomatoes' natural sugars are allowed to intensify and bring a sweetness to the dish. A slight sprinkling of Parmesan or Romano cheese tops off the pie when it's taken out of the oven and soaks up some of the tomatoes' liquid so that it appears orange when looked at closely, similar to the orange you see on a white napkin when you wipe your mouth after you've eaten tomato sauce. The pie is served room temperature or cold. I have not even seen tomato pie, let alone had a slice, since I moved away from Pennsylvania.

Somehow, in my sleep deprived state early this morning, I connected these strong memories of tomato pie and that little Italian town with the fact that, after I had broken off my marriage with the ex-fiance (I promise, I'll give details later) and moved into a one bedroom apartment, I took up cooking along with pesc-vegetarianism as a way to prove myself. I had a feeling that my problem wasn't that I couldn't cook, it was simply that I didn't know how to cook. So, I started small with boxed macaroni and cheese and the like and worked my way up to making full home cooked meals. Genetics worked in my favor and I made many successful attempts and was happy with the results. Cooking helped me build confidence, keep my mind and hands busy, and cure the depression that had bubbled up in the wake of the break up and subsequent major life change. I discovered that it was deeply satisfying for me to sit down to a meal that I had made by myself for myself and reap the rewards of the time and effort that I had put into creating something nourishing for my own body. This satisfaction is what calls me back to the kitchen, eggs me on while I search for new recipes, causes me to share my cooking with the people that I truly care about, and, apparently, keeps me up all night.

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