I will not torture you with the complexity (dysfunction) of my upbringing. That’s why I pay a shrink afterall. A shrink who has been known to fight off sleep as I whine on and on. So, let’s keep it brief.
Tom and Cathy Yerxa–even with all their faults (don’t we all have em) were really great parents. When they loved things they loved things with unmatched gusto and passion. “All the way thru”, as my friend Miguel likes to say. This was their greatest legacy to me. They LOVED HARD and they LOVED FOOD. My mom would ripen a single tomato on a window sill for days, obsessively checking it till it was deemed perfect. Loads of mayo and Pepperidge farm white bread & bacon were sandwiched with said tomato. Lots of salt and pepper. A moan, a huge grin. Pure bliss.
My dad loved to cook on the weekends. Mostly Sunday night. It would take him all of saturday to formulate a solid plan– muttering and pacing about in the kitchen. Could be something from the NY Times, Julia Child, Pierre Franey, Jacques Pepin. Their books scattered about splattered on and torn. Dad made a mean coq au vin, beef bourguignon, lots of good BBQ. In his later years he was really into vegetable souffles. He was a talented cook and a huge influence on me. I adored being in the kitchen with him.
They taught me and my two brothers an all around love for the finer things. Furniture, art, clothes, football teams, tennis players, music–whatever it may be –they were REALLY INTO IT. My Dad, so dedicated to his teams or favorite players could not stand to watch them lose. He would get genuinely pissed off and storm out to his studio to paint–cursing the other team under his breath. A few times I actually thought he would have a heart attack watching the US OPEN tennis final!! Red faced and slamming his fist on the table shouting “motherfucker” at a young Andre Agassi. Boy, did he despise Andre!
Week nights were usually a fend for yourself situation. Mom, well into her wine by the dinner hour was a fan of Stoffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini. I usually went for some sort of toaster oven creation–cheese, mayo and onion on an english muffin. Lots of mayo. Or cereal, always a good option. No idea what my brothers did but Dad would eat some weird onion soup concoction and saltines with butter. Butter was his thing. Full of heart disease, this was not smart but a simple “fuck em” to his doctor’s advice kept him happy and satisfied till his dying day.
Mom didn’t cook much but the few things she did….she did so well. Her Pernod cream sauce, chicken salad, potato salad, versions of her meatloaf, this veal stew with orange–mmmm–have all made it on to resturants menus. Lots of things my Dad taught me to cook have made it on to menus too. Pretty cool really.
Holidays were absolute glutony. Flowers, candles, linen, silver. Top shelf liquor, elaborate appetizers usually with puff pastry, expensive wine. Phenomenal cuts of meat. We always burned something–little too much consumption. Jazz playing. Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Carmen McRae. How they loved their jazz. Often misty eyed with memories Dad would sit by the fire with a smile and tap his foot. A full bowl of raw nuts by his side. Tanqueray on the rocks clinking along. It was in these moments that Dad would impart some real wisdom like “Babe, never depend on any man for money. Make your own so you can tell them all to go to hell” and “Get really, really good at whatever you choose to do–like this guy (Oscar Peterson) then you can tell the rest of the world to kiss your ass.” Smelling of turpentine, unshaven and in a paint smeared ratty sweatshirt– my Dad was the coolest guy in the world.
Growing up on Valley Meadow
Another lasting lesson– a deep love of restaurants. They had their favorites–Le Cafe- home of an amazing chicken crepe- the bubbling Mornay sauce–I could just never wait for it to cool down. Huffing and puffing with the scorching first bite on my tounge. Mom would admonish “Abbbbby!” Feeling the roof of my mouth blister….smiling back at her. Pure pleasure. Time after time. Didn’t care. It was that good. L’Express–Mom used to take me to L’Express just about every Saturday for brunch. Huge sloshing saucers of cafe au lait, eggs Benedict with extra Hollandaise on the side, crispy pomme frites. I would tell her my teenage miseries and she would listen with empathy. A gentle and generous teacher, she was intuitive and brilliant at cutting through my bullshit. Some of our best moments were in that loud dining room with the black and white checker board floor, scarfing down that salty French goodness.
I was a senior in high school when my Dad accepted his early retirement package. I got an excited call at work –we were going to La Sarre. We took a cab– there was gonna be some drinking. I remember they knew the waiter by name (Andre I believe), I was served wine (no questions asked), the crumb comb, hell the bread and butter were inspired. I had lobster thermidor–“holy shit” I remember thinking. Rich, creamy and succulant. Cognac wafting into my eager nose. Served in the shell. The color of it–deep red. It absolutely changed the course of my life. I was gonna learn to cook like that. WOW. The most delicious thing I have ever eaten. Nothing will eclipse that lobster.
So, they taught me to be passionate. A wear your heart on your sleeve lifestyle. Can be good, can be bad –but it’s always exciting. They taught me a love and respect for restaurants–magical places where big moments happen in peoples lives. Life changing moments. Big plans, family bonds and love affairs get hashed out over my food now. Or should I say “our” food. Part of them still goes into every dish I create as I consider “would Dad like this?” or I think of Mom’s blissful smile.