Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives

Tucked away in a box of keepsake photos is a picture of an eight-year-old girl with an apron tied around her waist, a oven mitt on her hand, and a smile on her face that stretches from ear to ear.  She is absolutely radiant.  She stands beside a stove in an avocado green and gold kitchen showing off a pan of freshly baked muffins for the camera.  Who is this little Betty Crocker?

It's ME!

On that day, my passion for food and cooking and everything to do with the kitchen was captured on film.  I used to spend hours thumbing through my grandmother's little wooden recipe box the way that other girls would read Nancy Drew mysteries.  The cookbook with the red and white checkered cover became my favorite bedtime story.  And leaving a church bake sale with a new cookbook was utterly inspiring to this little chef.

Oh food!  Glorious food!

From my earliest recollection, food encompassed tradition in my family, and I loved that, even as a little girl.  On my dad's side, I had a Polish grandmother who could be found in a loud, slightly chaotic, kitchen on the outskirts of NYC stuffing cabbage, mashing turnips, and rolling out rugelach any day of the week.  On my mother's side, I had a grandmother in the suburbs of Chicago who was renown for her dainty tea party-like appetizers, 'to-die-for' garden fresh zucchini bread, and exquisitely decorated, melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, buttery Christmas cut-out cookies.  My own mother picked up the cooking baton and expressed a love for food as well.  She saw cooking as an adventure.  She explored different cultures through taste and tradition in the years of my childhood.  Standing out  as most memorable in my mind as an upstate NY girl was her Cajun cooking phase when we were introduced to one hot-n-spicy plate after another....YUMM-O!  There were no boundaries in our kitchen!  Regardless of the fare, memories were made and traditions were created as well as kept.

As years passed,  I grew to love the celebration and the joy found in preparing and a serving a favorite meal to someone in my family, my neighborhood, or my school.  Year after year, I prepared linguine and clam sauce for my dad on his birthday.  His candles were always lit on top of a banana cream pie for dessert.  His menu request never changed.  It was a tradition.  When strawberry shortcake on a homeade cinnamon biscuit with a slightly sweetened sour cream whipped topping sat on a pedestal plate in the middle of the dining room table, it meant that it was Mother's Day.  The smell of egg and cheese strata wafting through the air exclaimed, "Get up!  Get up!  It's Christmas!".

Oh food!  Glorious food!

In the same way that cheesy potato soup, creamy chicken casserole, and warm brown sugar carrots were comfort foods cooked in our kitchen when a neighbor or family member was under-the-weather, cherry heart-shaped sugar cookies, coconut bunny cake, red, white, and blue trifle, and mountain high apple pie all signified that a special holiday was around the corner.  Family and friends would be gathering to celebrate.   Life became intertwined with the comforts and traditions of food.  The kitchen was the hub of our household.


Every Thursday afternoon for many years my children and I served at a local food pantry.  Families in need from the community would gather and sit in a church sanctuary waiting for their bags of groceries to carry home.  They would bring their children and we would play with them.  Conversations started...some with the parent or grandparent; some with the children.  Before long, differences faded and worries disappeared.  Their most basic need, the need for food, was being met within those four walls.  They were assured that they were going to be fed, and, in the meantime, they felt free to open up and reveal the things of their heart.  The church opened the door and said, 'Come in.  We'll give you groceries.'  But what the people of our community heard was, 'You are worth it.'  The church sent each family home with a dual to fill their bellies and a prayer that contained a word of encouragement for the week ahead.  When we invited the hungry into our lives, we addressed the deeper issues of value and self-worth in each person.  My children have grown up looking into people's eyes, listening to their stories, recounting their memories, sharing their sorrows, and celebrating their joys, all based on the concept of gathering around the dinner table....the promise that the hungry will be fed.

Oh food!  Glorious food!

Most recently, both Gladys from El Salvador and Maria from the Honduran Consulate shared recipes and food stories with me from their native homes in Central America.  Both understood the importance of food in people's lives and the role it plays in providing warmth and comfort.  Gladys told me about foods that she thought would be good for Thunder and Lightning to eat while they were getting used to our culture and the tastes of our palate.  She said that tortillas and beans and stew would be familiar to the boys and remind them of their roots.  Maria loves the people of her native country Honduras.  She wants to unite the people of her culture that have settled in her urban Atlanta neighborhood.  She wants to use food to reach out to her community.  Knowing that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, she wants to open a restaurant.  When she does, it will serve traditional Honduran food and be a place where people can get soup on Sundays because soup on Sundays is an important part of her culture.  It is a tradition.  It reminds her of home and her roots.

Oh food!  Glorious food!

Guy Fierri host of Food Network's prime time hit, Diner's Drive-In, and Dives, currently holds my dream job.  He travels the country looking for little places with big heart serving up big tasty food.  Most of these haunts are non-descript, out-of-the-way, often out-of-date little places owned by people with big personalities and I love it.  Many of the patrons compare their local Diners, Drive-ins and Dives to their "momma's kitchen".  These places are nostalgic and remind the patrons of home.  People go to these little places to get a reliably good meal and great portions at a fair price.  The atmosphere is relaxed.  Friends gather.  Many people are bringing their children in to eat, carrying on the tradition of where they ate as children.  In a fast-paced society where things are always changing, fads are coming and going, everything is new and improved, these little places are static.  They are a piece of history.    Often the recipes and the menu have been passed down from  generation to generation, from one family member to the next.  That, my friend, is the very definition of tradition.  Nothing trendy, just genuine.  When Guy walks in the front door of each Diner, Drive-in, and Dive, he unveils the heart of one American community after another.  In these little places, he discovers a real love of food and a real love of people that has inspired owner after owner to continue serving their cities.

Oh food!  Glorious food!


In the New Testament, the primary gathering place of the church was the home.  The Bible says,

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.  Acts 2:46

Max Lucado says two profound things about food,

"God's children will be people of hospitality.  Long before the church had a pulpit and baptisteries, she had kitchens and dinner tables." 


"When you open your door to someone, you are sending the message, 'You matter to me and God'."

Hospitality is the most ancient of ministries requiring little more than a chair, a table, and a loaf of bread.  Home, food, cooking, and the fellowship found around a dinner table are things that have shaped the very core of who I am.  When I invite you to my table or make you a plate of cookies or deliver a meal to you or share a recipe, I am saying to you that you matter to me and God.

With love, and in the spirit of tradition and community, I invite you to share in some of our Diner, Drive-In, and Dive experiences along the "Adoption Highway".

Welcome.  Come into my kitchen...

father's day kitchen clambake (serves 6-8)

1 1/2 lbs turkey kielbasa
3 cups sweet vidalia onions, chopped (2 large onions)
2 cups chopped celery
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs salt potatoes
1 T kosher salt
1/2 T black pepper
3 dozen little neck clams
2 lbs large shrimp, deviened
3 lbs of cod, cut into large chunks
2 c dry white wine

Slice the kielbasa into 1-inch thick slices.  Saute the onion for 15 minutes.  

Layer the ingredients on top of the onions in a heavy bottomed 20 qt stockpot in this order:
potatoes, salt, kielbasa, clams, shrimp, fish.  Pour in the white wine.   Cover tightly and cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium and cook another 15 minutes.  The clambake should be done.  The smell is divine!  Serve the seafood into bowls with a slotted spoon and ladle broth on top.  Season to taste.

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