HOMEWARD BOUND (THANKSGIVING PART III of III)

This piece is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend, Patrice.

I needed two shopping carts to collect everything on my list, and this didn’t even include the turkey. I had ordered a beautiful bird at the mom and pop grocery store near my job; years ago only a handful of markets sold turkeys raised without hormones. That wasn’t the main reason I selected what I now call my “Save the Whale” turkey, however. These birds were fresh, not frozen for weeks on end, and my guests said they could taste the difference. That’s all that mattered.

Looking for ideas in my cookbooks, I landed on this one recipe for stuffing (we had never called it “dressing”), and immediately stopped turning the pages. It’s true that aromas can trigger very powerful memories, but I was instantly transported to another place and time merely by perusing a list of ingredients. Immediately, I was a kid with my family visiting Manhattan for the day. We’d see the sights and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in December, and then would stop to buy a wonderfully warm pretzel from a street vendor. On freezing days, I found these carts a bit of inviting warmth. I can recall the enticing aroma wafting from that stand. It was the chestnuts. Vendors scooped the warm nuts into little paper bags before handing them over to the customers, and I breathed in this drifting essence. I looked down at my page; I would recreate this memory. Roasted chestnut stuffing was on the menu.

Friends began to arrive early Wednesday evening. They brought cheese, crackers and chips, and wine, tossed their coats in the bedroom, rolled up their sleeves, some donning aprons, and grabbed peelers, knives and cutting boards. They were eager to get to work. Throughout the evening, the “Slicers and Dicers” peppered me with questions. “How far down do we need to peel the acorn squashes?” I answered, “You want to peel down to the bright orange.” “Got it.”

Next question: “What do I do with these chestnuts?” “We’re supposed to prick them with a knife before roasting them in the oven.” “Like this?” “That looks about right,” I said. Then I added, “Here, I’ll help you.” I was looking forward to working with the chestnuts. I had even called my dad about preparing them. In response to my question, Dad had said, “Prick them with a sharp knife.” That corresponded with the recipe’s description.

Next I heard, “Are you sure you want us to do two bags of potatoes?” “Sure, just peel ‘em all.” “Okay! You’re the boss.” I figured people would want seconds, right?*

“Do you want the bread for the stuffing cubed like this?” “That looks great,” I answered. We played music, sipped wine, and conversations filled the kitchen, dining and living rooms. There was the inviting expectation of a holiday in the air, and it just felt right.

With this group toiling away, I prepared the standard pre-Thanksgiving fare. When I gave the word, we quickly cleared the table and sat down to a dinner of pasta and meatballs, salad and garlic bread, just like all those times years ago with our friends who had moved to Germany. One time, a neighbor’s cat had wandered in our partially open patio door; the kitchen was so cozy and warm. Hours later, when only a few of the Slicers and Dicers remained, and we began to rearrange furniture for the next-day’s feast, a surprised, long-forgotten sleeping cat jumped down from his perch on a kitchen chair, hidden by the tablecloth. We had truly extended our family of friends that year.

So I had the chestnuts in the oven. The potato “KP” team was on a roll; I grew up believing that “KP” meant “keep peeling.” I was stirring the large skillet of sizzling sausage, diced celery and onion, and at some point would add the diced apple and fresh herbs. The chestnuts would be shelled, chopped and added, too. Early on Thursday morning, I would toss this savory blend in with the bread and eggs, and then stuff the enormous bird. While from year to year I may have changed recipes for stuffing or side dishes, there are a few established components of my turkey prep that I will never alter. An entire bottle of chardonnay gets poured into the bottom of the roasting pan, and I choose from fresh herbs, rosemary, sage, thyme, growing in my garden. Very early on, my visiting cousin had explained to me the value of draping bacon over the bird. The bacon drippings baste the main course. When our guest list included people who didn’t eat pork, I switched to turkey bacon. As I was stirring away that night, making one mental note after another, I glanced at the clock. It was time. Grabbing a potholder, I opened the oven door and began to smile. Just as I had hoped, I was back in New York City, next to a little cart filled with warm pretzels and chestnuts. What heaven. I knew the aroma was starting to drift because I heard a few others murmur “MMMMM.” Not bad for a first-timer, I thought. As I began to draw the tray out of the oven, it happened.

POP! POP! Chestnuts exploded in the oven. What a show! My dad had warned me that if they weren’t pricked deeply enough, the steam inside would cause them to erupt. I smiled again. Dad was 3,000 miles away and right again. I lingered in front of the oven. After a few seconds of all quiet, I withdrew the tray. More POPS! There were a few shrieks; I think they were mine. Bits of chestnut hung from the ceiling. They clung to the refrigerator, the walls, the floor, a few guests, and me. Nobody was burnt, thank Goodness, but what a mess! We were all laughing hard now, but I had gotten my wish! In all the years that I have been making Thanksgiving dinners, I have never lived that moment down.

Dinner was delicious, and there was good reason for this. Over the years, so many friends and visiting family members have pitched in, not only to complete the Wednesday night prep work, but to cook entire dishes, and to stir, mash vegetables, season foods, create desserts, prepare the cranberry sauce from scratch, make roux for the gravy, heroically attempt to keep up with the growing mound of pots and pans, and most importantly, remember to add charcoals to the grill each hour. And as carving is not my strongpoint, yearly I have relied on one guest in particular to help me. As the turkey rests on the counter, and I spoon the stuffing from it into a bowl, we all stop to enjoy the crisp smoky bacon that basted the turkey. Now that’s a fitting hors d’oeuvre.

Some years, we’ve rented tables and chairs and extra linens, even chafing dishes. With the extra tables, we have formed a giant “H” configuration in the living and dining rooms so everybody can be seated. The largest group was 34 people. Sometimes, I’ve knocked on neighbors’ doors requesting oven space because the briquettes weren’t catching in either grill (one grill for each bird.) A few times, the turkeys were done ahead of schedule, and my electric warming tray came to the rescue. The year we hosted 34 people proved to be one of those “Help! They just aren’t cooking!” years. My sister and her family were visiting. When my sister asked what she could do to assist, I quickly responded: “Play! Please play.”

My niece calls her mom a “human jukebox.” What a fitting description. While I was frantically checking my watch and chanting, “Cook, Turkeys, Cook,” my sis was leading the guests in an impromptu sing-along on our yard-sale-purchased upright piano. Who knew two opera singers would be in the crowd that year? The crew in the kitchen started to hum, too. After playing popular show and movie tunes, my sister segued into Beatles’ songs. The animated group was really into their pre-dinner show now. When I heard, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” I couldn’t even imagine the appetite this gang had worked up. The place erupted in cheers when I delivered my sing-song, long-awaited message: “The turkeys are done!”

Every year there comes a time when several of my returning guests approach me individually, and whisper, “Are we going to do it again this year?” I smile. My response is always the same. “Yes!”

Returning guests can’t wait to see the faces of new guests as they experience this time-honored tradition. It is the moment we have long awaited, or dreaded, perhaps. It is our signature Thanksgiving experience, and so we crank up the volume, loud. As the bowls of heavy cream make their way around the table along with the whisks and my ancient frilly pink apron or my moo cow apron with little cloth bovine ears on the bib, guests are inspired to work by the appropriate, mood-setting tunes. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Booming is the Devo classic, “Whip it.” Guests recite, “Whip it. Whip it good.” The bowl gets passed to a newcomer. Someone places the apron on their neck. While whisking away, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” comes up next on our personal Thanksgiving hit parade, again played at eye-popping decibels. It’s likely that not everyone has had a chance to whisk, and the bowls of cream aren’t quite ready. Now people are dancing to Weird Al Yankovic’s wonderful spoof, “Eat it.” Guests clap and groove to the beat. It’s a raucous affair.

Imagine this scenario as experienced by quite an elderly woman who spoke not a word of English. Our dear friend’s daughter brought her boyfriend and his grandmother for dinner. We had never met. A little unsure of what she would think, I went ahead with the tradition and just kept my fingers crossed. As the music rocked the room, she was the life of the party. Another time, a friend brought a guest whom we were excited to meet, but as I was behind schedule, I hugged each of them and handed over a large bunch of freshly washed parsley. “I’m so happy you came,” I told them. “Now, can you garnish all the plates with a sprig, please?” Another year a friend brought a colleague from Japan to our home. Experiencing his first Thanksgiving, this engineer settled in at the piano and played magnificent jazz. Somehow, guests found just enough room between tables and chairs to dance before dinner. It was a thrill.

Other years, it wasn’t just unlit charcoals that created drama. When the kitchen sink stopped up, we couldn’t run the water without catching it in pans lest we’d need to call out the rowboats. That year my husband’s family was here. Not only were my sister-in-law and brother-in-law fabulous cooks, they were quite handy with tools, too! Another time we had a small flood in our basement. No little plumbing issue is going to put a damper on Thanksgiving. One year I had to set-up a booth at a crafts fair I was participating in, to be held on Friday. Our family of friends took care of everything!

One neighbor really jazzed things up one time. Guests watched him as he walked back and forth in his yard outside our dining and living room windows. First, he wore a red wig. The next time he walked by, he modeled a different one. I don’t know how many wigs he owned, but he sported a different one with each pass. We were dining on seconds before somebody finally said something. Then, everyone howled. While they were perplexed, guests figured they should be polite, so they had said nothing. At my urging, my sport of a neighbor had advised me that he would “come up with something” for us that day.

Just like the Thanksgivings of years ago, everyone here always inquires about each other’s family living in other parts of the country. Over the years, many of us have lost loved ones back home, and sadly, we have lost one of our own, a dear friend with whom we shared every holiday and who always graced us with her presence, her spirit, her smile, her sense of humor, her great conversation, her friendship, and her incredible desserts. While we miss her, we feel her presence through time spent with old friends.

Unlike the Thanksgivings of years ago, we no longer think of ourselves as “transplants,” or “orphans.” We no longer play “Homeward Bound” with each meal. Each year, when our house is brimming and the living room windows are steamed up because of all the cooking, we build on the treasured memories of years past, and know that we are home.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!

*Note to self: Making 20 lbs. of mashed potatoes is ridiculous.

Kathy Galgano

November 18, 2013

Advertisements

HOMEWARD BOUND – Thanksgiving Part II of III

I enjoyed inviting friends over to dinner, and my confidence level had grown dramatically having sliced and diced for our chef turned engineer friend so many times over the years. I grew up in a family that shared regional cuisines of Eastern and Southern Europe, and I gravitated to the Italian recipes.

Cooking was never scary. Well, not in the way you think. My mom and dad were adept in the kitchen and dad especially enjoyed the process, and we kids were expected to pitch in and help. Dad loved to play-up a mannerism that my mother and I found maddening. Dad talked while holding a knife. He would be telling us a story, and inevitably my dad would stop slicing or dicing or carving and start walking around the kitchen, swinging his arms and making his point, drawing circles in the air with the small razor sharp paring knife, or full-sized carving knife. I knew Dad used keen-edged blades; I watched him sharpen them on a stone before every cooking session.

“Carl,” my mother would call with exasperation. “Put down the knife!” Dad would be wandering around the kitchen, fully engaged in his story. My mother and I focused our eyes on his dominant, knife-wielding right hand as it cut through the air like a magician’s wand. He gesticulated wildly while nonchalantly forging ahead with his humorous story. He reacted to his own yarn, and smiled and laughed all the while seemingly unaware of the momentary kitchen angst he created. How Dad loved to tease! In his defense I have to say he never once dropped the knife; Dad’s grip was too strong to let that happen. My mother and I would look at each other and shake our heads as Dad wandered over to the sink, where I might be rinsing iceberg lettuce, or strolled the few steps to the stove to check out the pots my mother was stirring, still talking and waving his hands. At the conclusion of his story, Dad would return to his thick wooden cutting board wearing a broad smile, and dive into his work with great skill. We’d still be shaking our heads and he always pleaded innocence. Dad would look up at us and say, “What?” “What did I do?” My mother and I would sigh, maybe even roll our eyes in exaggerated exasperation, and then Dad would pull out his signature expression, contorting his mouth downwards to reveal his ridiculous “look ashamed” visage. Laughter erupted.

So while I’ve never been afraid to dive into a culinary project, I don’t remember recreating our friend’s fabulous Coquiles St. Jacques, those sumptuous scallops he made for us one Sunday night years ago. It was the first time I had ever eaten scallops, but I wasn’t going to confess that to our friend as I washed and cut vegetables. Nor did I tell our host and hostess that I had never before tasted barbecued ribs, let alone purchased them at the supermarket. I worked on the salad that night. The ribs were great and I became a fan. My comfort zone was in roasts and pastas and meatballs and chicken and fresh water fish and potatoes and vegetables in season and soups and stews. My mother was allergic to seafood, and we just never ate ribs; barbecues were for hamburgers and hot dogs and sausages. Pesto was a dish new to me, as well. My Italian grandparents hailed from Southern Italy, and pesto, traditionally a Northern Italian recipe, was not part of my family’s legacy. But I liked cooking and I liked my food processor and my gadgets, and so I dove into new recipes with enthusiasm.

I prepared dishes for our family of friends, and for loved ones who visited from the East Coast. I remember making homemade linguine for pasta Carbonara. One evening I spent a long while at a bookstore, searching for just the right cookbook. I purchased it and a paella pan and tried my hand at the dish I had enjoyed while living in Spain for a summer when I was in college. That book also taught me how to make Spanish tortillas; those potato and egg skillet dishes that can be eaten alone, or put between two slices of fresh bread for a great sandwich. When my study-abroad group took weekend bus excursions to tour different parts of Spain, the kitchen staff in our dormitory made these tortilla sandwiches for the ride. I loved them. I also tried my hand at my dad’s fabulous rolled steak, an Italian dish that takes a fair amount of prep time. The results were satisfying.

Frequently I called home and chatted with my folks, asking them how they seasoned or cooked different things. When I called for clarification of my father’s recipe for potatoes (all these recipes are passed to us by doing and watching – nobody writes them down), my mother bristled at my request. I wasn’t surprised. Dad made these roasted potatoes with fresh parsley and garlic and cheese. “The Good Kind Of Potatoes,” we called them. The cheese would crust on the edges of the roasting pan and we’d love picking out the charred pieces. How tasty! Mom used to ask, “What about all the other kinds of potatoes?” She made delicious cabbage with boiled potatoes, and dumplings stuffed with a potato mixture, and fried potatoes and yams and roasted ones. And she made tasty mashed potatoes. “Are those the ‘Bad Kinds’?” Again, there was the familiar head shake back and forth and accompanying sigh. Dad did his playful best to keep this recipe name game alive. “Kids,” he’d yell upstairs to us in the house on Sundays, “Do you want me to make ‘The Good Kind of Potatoes?’”  Naturally, the phrase, “The Good Kind of Potatoes” received particular emphasis. Our response was always an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” I just knew my mother was wincing. If Dad or we kids said the phrase “The Good Kind of Potatoes” more than a couple of times, inevitably, Dad would catch my mother shaking her head or sighing, and then would don his trademark expression, and we’d all laugh as he looked ashamed again.

The California chef turned engineer friend taught us how to make roux. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that this technique was better than hers for making gravy. No more stirring and stirring the pan drippings, trying to attack each little lump of corn starch or flour with the back of a spoon. This was a revelation, as was white pepper. A bowl of mashed potatoes seasoned with white pepper was beautiful.

So it just seemed natural that I would host Thanksgiving dinner for however many friends and family would be joining that day. What was the big deal?

Stayed Tuned for the third and final part of Homeward Bound!

Kathy Galgano

November 13, 2013

When Your Best Friend Moves, TRAVEL!

When a family member or friend moves away, saying goodbye can be heartbreaking. However, there is one positive piece to take away from the teary experience; a new vacation prospect emerges. Suffice it to say, I have taken full advantage of these opportunities over the years to reunite with loved ones, and to tour, tour, tour. I hope you enjoy reading the vignettes that follow, each one capturing a different aspect of travel and sight-seeing.

We were in the Green Mountain State for a wedding, and which chocoholic can waive an invitation for the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour? There were two highlights on that hot summer’s day: Savoring my luscious ice cream flavor that was only available there at the factory, and delighting when another chocoholic, someone considerably younger, valiantly struggled in the “battle of the drips.” In this case, the chocolate cone was winning but the little girl was all smiles as she worked on it. Grabbing my camera, I asked the mother for permission to photograph this happy child. She consented. As I pressed the camera to my eye, the mom pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped her child’s face clean. I don’t know who was more crestfallen, the little girl or I. I didn’t want to show disappointment, so I smiled, took the photo, thanked them both, and walked back in line as the tour began.

With family in Southern California, the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum quickly earned a spot on the “Must See” list. I’ve toured this gallery of Ice Age fossils several times, and the grounds and museum always strike me as other worldly. If you’re not impressed by the million-plus fossils like the mammoth and saber-toothed cat in their collection, then I suggest you take a walk around the perimeter of the building. To this day, “tar” or asphalt bubbles and oozes to the surface of what is now Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a working excavation site. These animals lived in Los Angeles!

There have been trips to Europe when friends and family lived there. I could list marvel after marvel, the castles and cathedrals and ancient ruins and museums, but what leaps to the forefront of my memory are specific vistas and tastes. On a crisp but sunny January day in the mountainous area of my Italian forebears, the sight of an old man as he collected firewood from the steep grassy and tree-lined incline comes to my mind’s eye. This man gathered sticks and small branches and arranged them on a pack that dropped to the sides of his donkey. Sheep and goats kept the grassy hill sheared. Most hikers would have found this trek rigorous. There were no power lines, no buildings, no billboards, nothing but this man and his work beast, the hills and trees and grass and brilliant sky and an occasional hand-fashioned hay bale.

Also on that same trip to visit Italian family, my cousins roasted a steak on the open hearth in their kitchen. The Italian tile floor near the hearth had been charred from years of extending the coals closer to the table. This was my first time tasting goat, and it was an animal my family had raised. It took very little pressure on my knife to cut through the perfectly cooked piece of steak that had been placed on my plate with a flourish. It was warm, juicy, melted in my mouth, and was the most delicious and memorable morsel I had ever tasted. What made it even more memorable was that when my father translated the conversation building up to this moment, relaying to me that this was “goat” steak, I thought he meant it was lamb or mutton. The only way I could resolve the mix-up I caused was to mimic the calls of sheep, only to be told “No” by my cousins’ shaking heads. This was not the product of a “Baaaa Baaaa.” So I tried my best goat call. “Mehhh-eh-eh-eh-eh.”  Laughing, everyone nodded their heads in agreement, repeating “Si! Capra”! “Yes! Goat”!

When my daughter completed her semester abroad, I headed south of the equator, to Santiago, Chile to see her and meet her host family. There were two things on my agenda, one playful and one serious. First, I had to check if the water drained clockwise in the southern hemisphere, so I opened the tap in the hotel bathroom, put a little water in the basin and drained it. Of course then I couldn’t remember which direction it was supposed to drain and so came to no conclusions. Good thing, because I have learned since that while the Coriolis force is real, it does not impact the direction of water draining in sinks. So with that fun non-experiment out of the way, I turned my eyes to the heavens. Literally.  On a tour originating in the Elqui Valley, we drove to an observatory in the mountains. Most Chilean observatories are research facilities and closed to the public, so this was a gift. Being that Santiago is such a large city, the lights make for a lovely vista from the nearby mountain communities. However, it also means it is difficult to go star-gazing from the city proper. But there on this cold cloudless night at the observatory, my dream came true. I couldn’t stop staring at the Magellanic Clouds, the irregular galaxies that really do look like clouds in the sky. These dwarf spiral galaxies just aren’t visible to us in the northern hemisphere. They are neighbors to our Milky Way, and since reading about them years ago, I have yearned to see them. A docent took us on a “star tour” using a laser pointer, and described the constellations of the Southern hemisphere. Then we looked through the telescope at different heavenly bodies. It was thrilling. But tilting my head back and just staring at constellations and the Clouds I had not seen before was the best part.

My cousins in Florida took me to their nearby state park in Homosassa and I grew more excited by the minute. Once there, you couldn’t budge me from my perch. Here were the manatees, those giant gray and brown water mammals that dwell in the Floridian rivers, estuaries and coasts. Some may find it difficult to call them “beautiful,” but I had no trouble doing so.  I knew that manatees are cousins to the elephant, but still was surprised to see that same wrinkly skin. These creatures fascinated me. They have an interesting tail that is shaped like a paddle. One docent I spoke to told me that people call them “sea cows.” These slow swimmers are endangered, and this park is a rehabilitation and refuge center for injured manatees; boat propellers are the main reason for their endangerment. Unlike seeing animals in facsimile habitats in zoos and parks thousands of miles away from their home, we were in the midst of their natural habitat.

En route to family and friends in New Mexico, an unplanned roadside stop led to a discovery so profound that I have cherished that moment ever since. Needing to stretch my legs, I noticed a small sign on the highway and turned down the unpaved drive, parked the car, and walked several yards on a trail. I didn’t expect the enormity of what lay before me. Boulders and cliffs surrounding a field provided a treasure trove of rock carvings created by ancient people. There were a few other interested folks there, walking, studying the carvings, stretching their legs, photographing and reflecting in this large, quiet area. I was impelled to see more. In a recent visit to the state, I toured the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. As it was summer, monsoon rains and a lightning storm had turned back all visitors the previous day. The weather cleared overnight and we tried again. This time the parking lot was full and crowds of history buffs, tourists, hikers, and people looking for something to do on a nice Sunday afternoon took to the trails. The National Park Service provided maps to the petroglyphs that also explained the many carved symbols.  With other people walking up the trail behind me, I tried not to linger too long at any one petroglyph while studying and photographing it. Once we arrived at the top of this large hill, the views of Albuquerque in warm sunlight were remarkable. So many people were clicking their camera shutters to capture the city from this vantage point. A few times, however, I found myself reminiscing about that roadside “find” years back, when hundreds of petroglyphs came into view, and I wandered through the field in solitude.

Next week, I will explore the memories of one city, one place, where I never expected to visit more than a few times. However, once again, a family member moved there.  While it offers a wealth of things to do, it will be the link to loved ones and history and culture and isolated everyday moments that I will describe. I am looking forward to continuing my journey and hope you accompany me by reading along. See you next week.

Kathy Galgano

 

WHY I WAKE UP AND CRAVE SPAGHETTI

When my dog’s stomach starts to growl, his little internal clock flashes: “Feed me now!” “Feed me now!” “Feed me now!” He jumps on me, slobbers kisses, shakes, “paws” me and then circles around. I’m the treadmill. It’s time to get up. I arouse rather quickly because unlike most alarm clocks, I cannot press the “snooze” button for another few minutes slumber. This dog does not know snooze. He only knows eat. I’m awake.

“No breakfast before going outside,” I tell him. After opening the back door, some days I just let the dog explore the yard and I don’t venture too far down the back steps. But I always check the weather. What’s the temperature and are there any clouds, I wonder? In the winter, the cold blast hits me quickly and I shut the door, watching for the dog to come up the steps. A warm insulating blanket of clouds keeps temperatures more mild. On those early January mornings when I open the back door and stroll outside, I have to be careful not to slip on the dew-turned-ice deck, and the dog steps gingerly because he doesn’t like speed-skating either. He has done it. It really is cold. Usually there is ice in the bird bath and I secretly wish that a birdie hockey game would erupt. I check the oranges on the tree and really hope the frost didn’t damage the fruit, as they are a winter crop. I enjoy checking the dark sky for stars and planets, or the moon. Living in the city, I rarely see more than a dozen stars at that pre-dawn hour, but I always enjoy the search, especially if I remembered to grab a toasty sweatshirt.

During the non-rainy and warm months of spring and summer, the early morning hour is a great time to begin watering the garden, so sometimes I’ll turn on a hose or a sprinkler before getting the dog his breakfast. If I wait too long and the sun gets higher, the temperature warmer, the water evaporates before it can percolate down to the roots. If I’ve elected to walk outside in the early morning, I explore my garden patches, looking for a new rose bud or a dahlia blossom, or check to make sure the kiwi vine hasn’t entangled my patch of daisies. Kiwi vines are a lot like pumpkin vines; they really take over.

Once I’m inside, I can check out the wildlife. Stretching across our backyard and all our neighbors’ yards is a power line. The eight thousand squirrels that live near us love this little cat-free way, especially as the neighborhood offers a rich supply of tasty, sweet fruit throughout the growing season. After exiting the cat-free way high up in the air, the squirrels make their way down a pole, and head to the fence between our house and our neighbors’ house. Not only do the grazing squirrels love this fence, cats love it too. It is the perfect height and offers a just wide-enough perch for feral cats to nap, hide, search for birds, or stare at me through my kitchen window. And when it’s warm out, squirrels stand or sit atop the fence, extend their little paws and tug a sweet and perfect plum, apricot, or peach off one of the trees my neighbors planted along the property line years ago. The squirrels hold the fruit with both their little paws and take a few bites. It’s cute. What happens next, though, infuriates me. This is when I start knocking on the window and yelling, or pick up my little “Cujo,” an eighteen pound white curly cuddly fluff attack dog who falls asleep in my arms. I try to get him to press his little nose to the glass and look menacingly at these squirrels. They just look at my pooch for a moment, maybe two, and then go on with their grazing. It would really help if I could teach the dog to keep his eyes open. These well-fed critters have a routine; they reach up and pull a piece of fruit off the tree and nibble on that. After a few bites, they drop that piece and grab another fresh piece of fruit. Squirrels are very delicate nibblers. They just keep picking, maintaining their balance on the fence, and graze, then drop. I dutifully scoop up all the partially eaten fruit every day. This starts early in the morning and continues on throughout the day, with so many of the eight thousand squirrels visiting the fence throughout the summer. Sometimes, a squirrel will actually take a siesta on the fence, just the way the feral cats do. If it’s light outside, it’s squirrel-time!

If that’s not enough to distract me, the growing population of fat squirrels is visiting my garden and raised beds after their successful raiding sessions in my neighbors’ yard. How do I know this? The critters pick the walnuts off the same next-door neighbors’ prolific trees and scurry up and over the fence, and then bury them in my garden. They are digging up shallow bulbs I’ve planted. I find so many walnuts throughout the season that I wonder if my neighbors ever see a single one. But I digress.

Here’s my point. Early every morning, I let my breakfast-motivated pup outside. If it’s really freezing and I don’t feel like checking for birdie hockey games, I quickly close the door and watch through the window to make sure he doesn’t slide completely off the icy deck into the rose bushes. On other days, I keep the door open longer, and I can hear the planes taking off from the airport, or a train whistle, or trucks going by on the major cross street. And for a couple of special weeks in late July and early August, it matters not that I may open the back door for just a single moment, or longer, because it hits me instantly. This aroma, this heavenly scent, is wafting in my direction. I only need to breathe in the outside air for one second and I’m hooked. I’m always surprised when it happens; this magic essence is so prevalent. Instantly, the cravings start. Forget the coffee. I want pasta and meatballs and garlic bread. Now! I envision a plate of spaghetti with a wonderful flavorful garlic red sauce. Fusili would be nice, or lasagna. Mmmm. I had planned on a croissant and some yogurt, but now I want pizza. It’s 6-ish in the morning. What’s going on?!

Let me offer a little geography here. The city of San Jose, California is a 33 mile jaunt to the city of Gilroy. By car, it’s either a short hop of 35 or 40 minutes, or a long hour or hour-plus commute if the traffic on US Route 101 is bumper to bumper. This happens during drive-time hours, as many people who work in Silicon Valley live on the southern side of San Jose or in the outlying communities of San Martin (San Mar-‘teen), Morgan Hill, and Gilroy. Also, traffic snarls on late afternoons on Fridays when everybody is going somewhere for the weekend. It’s roughest on the eve of holidays, like Thanksgiving, when the one-hour plus drive will turn into a miserable two or three-hour trip. But commute time aside, San Jose to Gilroy is roughly the same distance as my hometown in Connecticut is to Hartford. It’s close, but it’s not next door.

So when I wake up and open the door and immediately crave pasta and red sauce, and don’t even want to think about smelling the roses or lavender in my garden, or even enjoy my fabulous coffee brew I love so much, I know it’s because of Gilroy. Gilroy is known as “The Garlic Capital of the World.” Besides the farms, you’ll find the processing plants there, staffed for three full shifts. Huge hoppers of garlic grown in Gilroy, surrounding communities and from the Great Central Valley are driven to the processing plants. There the garlic is being diced and crushed. During the winter, while driving through Gilroy, I have noticed the aroma and found myself craving meatballs. But now it’s happening at home, at 30-plus miles away.

Gilroy is amazing. Shops and wineries (these are really good wineries) and vegetable stands along the roadside all sell garlic products. You can find freshly-peeled, freshly-roasted and organic garlic, garlic braids, garlic ice cream (Yes, you read that right), garlic wine (Again, you read that right), the diced- or crushed-in-oils garlic, spicy marinated garlic, jars of basil-garlic pesto, garlic croutons, whole garlic sold in bulk, and elephant garlic, these giant cloves that are remarkably mild in flavor. There’s the yearly famous Gilroy Garlic Festival with the annual garlic cook-off. There are garlic recipe books and garlic-only stores that sell garlic snacks and garlic-infused oils, and aprons, key rings, postcards, and calendars, all with pictures of garlic or recipes or both. The Garlic Festival was just last week. My early-morning aromatic experience usually coincides with the festival, but I think that’s purely coincidental. I consider myself one of the lucky people in life who can actually wake up and smell the garlic. For two weeks every year, I don’t know why the winds carry the scent to San Jose, but I love it. My neighbors remark about it, too. These early risers are also mesmerized, and so I’m not the only person in San Jose craving scampi for breakfast. I realize that there are many other cuisines that showcase the bulbous plant, but it’s the cuisine I know best and so my cravings take me there.

After the dog comes back into the kitchen and starts jumping and howling for breakfast, and I’ve closed the back door, and fed him and tidied-up and pet him a little before he runs to another room to return to sleep, I tell myself to make a little coffee before cooking anything. My mind starts to think about other things. The scent is fading. I soon forget about pasta, and open the fridge for my yogurt. I get on with my day, and if the dog returns in a short while and wants to explore the yard again, I open the back door and don’t even think about Italian food. The goodness is gone.

I do smell garlic cooking at 10:30 or 11:00 most mornings, when the local Italian and Chinese restaurants start prepping for lunch, and that’s enjoyable. I think of the people who work at these restaurants and smile, knowing how tasty their food is. This is part of the joy of living in an urban area. When I take the dog for walks past the restaurants, the cooks and staff sometimes wave through the window.  On occasion, I order takeout, or we dine there, and if we sit outside we can bring the dog. But the garlic wafting up from Gilroy is a summer’s gift that reminds me how close we are to the wonderful and bountiful growing centers of California, and to the farmers and makers of products that offer such profound connections with a cultural past, with family, with a love of the food and memories. It’s a treat. Even if I don’t make spaghetti for breakfast.