On Making French Onion Soup

It was a rainy day. A drizzle in the beginning, and then a downpour.

“The earth needs a drink of water,” Anna said. This is how I explained rain to her, once upon a time, and she remembered.

I don’t mind rainy days. Every now and then, especially during summertime, it’s refreshing to take a break from sunscreen, water bottles and hours-long outdoor fun (swimming! sandboxes! biking!) and simply hang out.

Read on the front porch. Watch a movie. Go to the coffee shop (my personal favorite).

Or make French onion soup, as I recently did.

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For Christmas, my brother Jared gave me a copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka. I’ve made several recipes from it since then, and liked them all. My favorite one probably is the recipe for French onion soup.

Do you like French onion soup, friends? It might be an acquired taste; I don’t know.

When I was growing up, there was a local restaurant called Jim Dandy’s. My family and I often dined there. And when we did, I ordered their French onion soup. It was hot and cheesy—what was there not to love? Jim Dandy’s made me fall, hard, for French onion soup.

The foods we prefer now, as adults, usually are the ones we loved as children. It’s why, even at the swankiest restaurants, you often find some version of macaroni and cheese on the menu. Sure, maybe it features bites of lobster. Maybe it boasts Beaufort D’Ete. But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

So I recreated that happy childhood memory—French onion soup—that rainy day.

But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

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The Skinnytaste recipe for French onion soup estimates that it takes about an hour and a half to cook, start to finish.

I read once that you can’t rush soup…and the home cook in me begs to differ. You can rush pretty much anything if you’re hungry enough, friends.

In this recipe, the onions go through three stages of cooking: 1) softening, 2) caramelizing and 3) simmering. Each stage is supposed to consist of 30 minutes each, but I’ve found you can get the job done in about 25 minutes per stage.

It’s pretty cool, I think, to watch onions transform through softening in the beginning…

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and then caramelizing…

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and finally simmering. I took this picture before adding the dry sherry, white wine and beef stock…but hopefully, you get a sense of the distinctions in the three stages here:

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I didn’t really start cooking until after Grace was born. Before parenthood, Stanton and I loved trying out different local restaurants together, and becoming regulars at our favorites. Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner. 😉

Over the years, though, I have found a fulfillment in feeding the people I love. There must be something innate or biological about this, because I really do love eating out. But when Grace or Anna ask for a second helping of the pasta and meatballs I make every week, or the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets we always have on hand in the freezer (that counts as semi-homemade, right?)…I feel good.

Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner.

Grace and Stanton share similar tastes. Basically, they both love red meat. Burgers, steak, tacos. Grace’s favorite fast-food chain is Five Guys. Do they like my French onion soup? The answer is no, although they will politely have a few spoonfuls. Anna, however, will sit down and enjoy a bowl with me.

Because French onion soup isn’t a crowd favorite in my house, I don’t make it all the time. Just on chance rainy days.

“Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet.” (Roger Miller)

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I didn’t think, when I was younger, that I would grow up into the kind of person who makes soup on a rainy day, and enjoys it. Instead of, say, the kind of person who does something just a bit more interesting.

In the moment, as we’re living life, it’s easy to forget the value in our many, seemingly mundane tasks. Preparing food for a family. Answering the phone when a friend calls, even though we don’t have much time to talk. Helping a co-worker save face. Waving another driver into our lane from the parking lot, even though it means we may not make the green light ahead.

It’s also easy to forget, or maybe not even consider, that who we are now…what we’re doing right now…maybe this is what was meant to be all along, even if the route to our current destination was circuitous, confusing or all-out crazy.

I’m not a great cook. I can’t create a recipe like I can create story. What I can do is (mostly) follow a recipe. I can make sure nobody is hungry. I can offer second helpings and listen to what happened during everyone’s day, and share some of my own.

I offered our neighbor, who told me she had a cold, some French onion soup. She said thanks, but no thanks. “I never really got into French onion soup,” she said.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I agreed.

Anna, who was with me, crossed her arms. “My mom?” she said to our neighbor. “Her soup is delicious.”

Our neighbor laughed; I did too. It’s nice to have somebody in your corner. “I’ll have to give it another try,” she said.

“It’s OK if you don’t,” I assured her.

Some things are acquired tastes.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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A First-Timer’s Guide to Napa and Sonoma

A few weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a three-day trip to Napa and Sonoma. It was our first time in California wine country, from New York. (We also were in the Golden State to attend our friend’s wedding in San Diego later that week—more about that adventure here.)

Before we left, I read everything I could find about Napa and Sonoma: various experts’ and visitors’ rankings of the best wineries in each valley; which valley, Napa or Sonoma, was more “you”; where to eat. I also asked friends who had been to offer up their recommendations, which they kindly did.

In this case, though, the best education was experience. Not until I set foot in Napa and Sonoma did I have a true feel for the place(s). Disclaimer: I’m not a travel expert, just someone who was recently there and would like to pass along what I learned, in the hopes it will help others.

Here’s what I figured out, then, along with some specific recommendations regarding wineries and restaurants. I hope this information helps you plan your upcoming trip.

And when you get there, enjoy.

Napa or Sonoma, or Both?

The Napa and Sonoma valleys are next to each other, separated by a mountain range (I believe it’s called the Mayacamas). It takes about 20 minutes or so to drive between Napa and Sonoma on State Highway 121—they’re super close.

A major difference is that Sonoma is more spread out, geographically, than Napa. It has roughly the same number of wineries, but on twice the land—an outdoorsman’s paradise, you might say. Napa, meanwhile, features a (breathtaking) landscape of one winery after another: vineyard after vineyard for miles.

When I was researching Napa and Sonoma, I read some reviewers’ perspectives that Napa and Sonoma differ in terms of vibe as well as geography. For example, Napa is more luxury SUV, reviewers wrote, while Sonoma is more Subaru. Napa is to Ralph Lauren what Sonoma is to T-shirts and jeans—those kinds of comparisons. I didn’t find these comparisons to be true, though.

In my experience, both Napa and Sonoma are friendly, welcoming places. Stanton and I loved them both (and we’re Subaru-type folks, in case you were wondering 😉 ).

If you’re making the trip to California wine country, then I recommend stopping by both valleys for a taste (literally) of both Napa and Sonoma, if you can.

Upon arriving in this picturesque part of the country, our first stop was Napa’s Domaine Carneros, known for their sparkling wines and gracious table service. Two thumbs up:

Domaine Carneros Winery

Where to Go in Napa?

There are two main roads in Napa: State Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. I much preferred driving along the Silverado Trail than Highway 29.

If you like scenic routes, the Silverado Trail is absolutely beautiful, and much less commercial than Highway 29. The Silverado Trail is also home to some wonderful “hidden gem” wineries. (Stanton and I loved Paraduxx, our favorite winery in Napa, and Frog’s Leap.)

A view of Frog’s Leap, from the charming back porch:

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Highway 29, however, features big-name brands like Robert Mondavi and Cakebread, which you may not want to miss. We did stop by V. Sattui for a picnic lunch, and can highly recommend V. Sattui (Napa’s most visited winery, according to reports) for fresh, delicious food options and an easygoing ambiance. Next time we’ll have to try their wine too (we were in between tastings!).

Post-lunch, I napped in a chair in V. Sattui’s courtyard, and the staff didn’t (seem to) mind:

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A note about wine, and wine tastings. Which wineries you choose to visit may (should?) depend upon what kind of wine you prefer to drink. If a winery is known for Chardonnay, and you live and die by bold reds, then you may not enjoy a winery that specializes in white wines, despite that spot’s numerous five-star TripAdvisor reviews.

On the other hand, let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise. Personally, I love red wine—Cabernet and red blends are my favorites—yet I tried a Zinfandel at Frog’s Leap, and was amazed by how much I enjoyed it.

…let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise.

Remember not to drink on an empty stomach, friends. For breakfast in Napa, I strongly encourage you to stop by The Model Bakery, recommended to me by my in-the-know friend Haeley of Design Improvised. Stanton and I went to their Oxbow Public Market location two mornings in a row. The breakfast sandwiches are fabulous, and I can’t say enough about the Chocolate Rad cookie. Trust me on this: Whatever you order, get a Chocolate Rad cookie to go with it. 🙂

Oprah (as in Winfrey) loves The Model Bakery’s English muffins so much that she has them flown in to her. The breakfast sandwiches feature these English muffins:

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Where to Go in Sonoma?

When you’re in Sonoma, be sure to check out Sonoma Plaza, the central gathering space. It includes a variety of art galleries, shops and restaurants, as well as historic sites such as Mission San Francisco Solano.

We visited Mission Solano during a morning walk through the Plaza. The nature here is beautiful:

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Of all the wineries we visited in both Napa and Sonoma, we had the most fun at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. It bills itself as the oldest premium winery in California, and is an Historic Landmark very close to the Plaza. The staff members dress up in 19th-century costumes (the winery’s founder was a European count), and their customer service is excellent (our tour guide, Tim, gave us amazingly generous pours!).

You are bound to have fun wine tasting inside one of Buena Vista’s caves:

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We also enjoyed our Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, about 10 miles from the Plaza. An enlightening tour, with amazing views of Sonoma Mountain opposite the vineyards.

If you’re eating in Sonoma, then I highly recommend the Sunflower Caffe and the girl & the fig as excellent lunch and/or dinner options.

In between wine tastings, I devoured the Smoked Duck sandwich at the Sunflower Caffe. Stanton and I split the Griddled Johnny Cake in the middle of the table; it is to die for:

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I hope what I’ve shared here helps you make the most of your visit to Napa and Sonoma. Cheers!

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: Devoured—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are

Devoured CoverWhen I was growing up, I loved taking the quizzes in magazines like All About You and Cosmopolitan. All I had to do was choose scenario A, B or C for, say, 20 questions, and instantly, I had the answers to, “Which celebrity style is most like yours?” and “What kind of friend are you—true blue, fair weather or just an acquaintance?” Pressing questions, friends.

These days, I don’t click on every BuzzFeed quiz that comes across my Facebook news feed. But I still do a double-take when a quiz, magazine article or book promises to reveal to me some secret of my psyche.

This time, the book turned out to be “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” by Sophie Egan (2016). Ms. Egan works for The Culinary Institute of America as its director of programs and culinary nutrition. She also holds impressive degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

What most impressed me about her book, though, was her love for the subject matter. Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book. And she really wanted to share this information with people—everyday people, not just academics. These genuine passions, then, made “Devoured” a compelling and fun read about our culture and its cuisine and eating habits.

Egan begins with an introduction into “the American food psyche” and then notes that “convenience has always been part of our national heritage.” (Yet another thing for Americans to be proud of…) “Devoured” blends psychology, anthropology and various other fields of study.

Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book.

In these early pages, a fact that struck me, because it hit close to home, was this one: “Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, signed legislation crowning yogurt as that state’s official snack. Yes, yogurt is a fan favorite, but this might also have something to do with the fact that Chobani and Fage have major production facilities upstate” (page 34). I didn’t know that yogurt was my state’s official snack (what’s yours?), and was interested to learn that. And once again, I was interested to see a probable connection between business and politics.

I loved Egan’s chapter on “The Democratization of Wine,” and especially her discussion of Trader Joe’s and its “Two-Buck Chuck” here. For those who may not know, Trader Joe’s store-brand wine sells under the label Charles Shaw, which fans nickname “Two-Buck Chuck” because it retails for about $1.99 per bottle. That is, obviously, incredibly cheap for wine, and incredibly cheap in general. A quart of Tropicana costs more than Two-Buck Chuck.

People…love…Two-Buck Chuck. Just like they (we) love Trader Joe’s. Here’s why, according to Egan: “Part of what makes Charles Shaw, like Trader Joe’s itself, so widely appealing and so American is the way it shrugs at refinement…We’re the country of the T-shirt and jeans” (pages 197-218).

That we are, friends: T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

“One of the traits we sought to shed from our British roots during the American Revolution was the snootiness,” Egan writes on page 218, as she sums up the chapter on wine (and Trader Joe’s/Two-Buck Chuck). “So it’s exciting to think that lowering the snobbery of wine—in the wine itself, and in how we market and deliver it—can also boost its sustainability.”

…T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

So, 200 pages in, did I figure out yet who I am, based on what I eat? Two hundred pages in, I would say I’m a fairly average American. (You probably are too.)

After “The Democratization of Wine,” Egan explores stunt foods, such as the Doritos Locos Taco (Taco Bell) and the Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich (Carl’s Jr.). Many folks loved these creations—Jimmy Kimmel said, Egan remarks, “‘Is Carl’s Jr. reading my dream journal?’” (page 231)—but just the thought of them makes me gag. Still, though, I’m a fairly average American, because I’m open to trying new things, including new foods (but hold that Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich, please).

In case you’re keeping track, our America list now includes convenience, T-shirts and jeans, mosaic-ism, and a sense of adventure.

“Just as we collect wine corks or shot glasses, coins or seashells, we collect life experiences,” Egan writes on page 243, adding that “checking off items on our bucket list of personal experiences seems a way of measuring how full a life we’re leading. It’s also about projecting a self-image of having done a lot of exciting things. And for many people, an important component of that experiential résumé is trying new foods.”

Egan’s comment about “projecting a self-image” made me think of a meme I saw floating around the Internet the other day. The meme said something to the effect of, “I’m so old I remember when people ate food without taking pictures of it.” I do wonder if Egan might have spent a little more time on the topic of how social media and self-image-representation may affect Americans’ eating habits.

(For those who are curious, a quick Google search produced this article from The Guardian: “Click plate: how Instagram is changing the way we eat.”)

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read. It touches on everything from Americans’ love for customization (Chapter 3: Having It Our Way) to the contemporary gluten-free trend (Chapter 4: Selling Absence) to the devotion to brunch, or “Secular Church” (Chapter 5). And it concludes with a chapter whose name makes me smile: “The Story of Spaghetti.”

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read.

In “The Story of Spaghetti,” Egan explains why Italian cuisine wins the popularity contest for most Americans: “Italian cuisine has on its side not only easy preparation but also easily accessible ingredients” (page 303)—pasta, sauce, cheese. She notes, “If as a child the first thing you learned to cook on the stove top was Kraft Mac and Cheese, your first encounter with the inside of an oven probably involved a frozen pizza…So Italian American food’s popularity both in and outside the home is what truly sets it apart.”

Egan notes, too, that pasta is a plain, simple food that children will eat. No spices to worry about. And for parents, how easy is it to prepare—just boil some water, right? We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

Our childhood. Nostalgia. Our comfort food.

“When you ask what comfort food means, different people will likely offer different answers,” Egan says. “Perhaps it’s something very simple that doesn’t set your mouth on fire or upset your stomach. But a common thread will surely relate to what we ate as children” (page 301).

Let me be honest here, friends: When I read that line, my eyes teared up.

I thought about my own Italian-American upbringing: my mom’s homemade Christmas ravioli, and the hundreds (really, hundreds) of cookies she makes throughout the year for family members and friends. When my mom comes to visit me these days, she comes with coolers of her meatballs, stromboli and zucchini fritters. She takes care of me still, with the food she nourished me with as a child.

I also thought about my husband and our own two children. Many a Saturday morning, Stanton gets up with the girls so that I can sleep in a little. And many a Saturday morning, when I join them in the kitchen, I find that he’s made cinnamon toast for them—a recipe his mom used to make for him.

“Look what Dad did!” Grace and Anna will exclaim.

We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

What we ate as children, whatever it was—someone who loved us prepared that food. They made it—the cinnamon toast, the ravioli—because they loved us. And even if our tastes have changed over time, that made-with-love food can bring up happy, cared-for memories.

When my daughters are grown, and making Saturday breakfasts of their own, I hope they remember their dad’s cinnamon toast—their grandmother’s cinnamon toast, really—and the love and the history behind it. I hope they remember my mom pulling up with a car trunk full of meatball-stuffed coolers. I hope they remember how much they were loved.

“Nostalgic sentiments tend to be shared by people with a common history,” Egan writes, as she wraps up “Devoured.” “Part of that has to do with geography. For example, Rabobank’s Nicholas Fereday was raised in the UK. He says, ‘You can keep your Reese’s Pieces—they mean nothing to me. But if you put a Cadbury Crème [Egg] in front of me, it would be gone in a minute’” (page 271).

What would be gone in a minute, if someone put it in front of you? Well, friends…that’s who you are.

Photo credit: HarperCollins Publishers

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Local Flavors From New York’s Capital Region: A Newbie’s Perspective

Arguably the most fun thing about moving to a new city is discovering the local culture. Neighborhood hangouts, hidden gems and—my favorite—go-to homegrown eateries. Yes, friends, I love digging into the native food scene (pun intended!). 🙂

Stanton’s new job is based in Albany, N.Y., and we’ve been living in a family-oriented town a bit south of the city for about a month now. I’ve learned that this whole area, located at the northernmost point of the Hudson Valley, is known as “the Capital Region.” And here’s what I’ve learned so far about the local flavors here.

First up, a local coffee shop called Perfect Blend. Because every good story begins in a coffee shop.

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Perfect Blend is located at the picturesque “Four Corners” intersection at Delaware and Kenwood avenues. The quintessential local coffee shop, it serves up a variety of beverages and baked goods in a friendly setting with plenty of seating, both indoors and out.

…every good story begins in a coffee shop.

My standing order: spiced chai tea latte and an oat bran muffin. To my delight, the oat bran muffin features raspberries and blueberries—a sweet surprise in this traditionally hearty product. I last enjoyed my snack break indoors, admiring this stained-glass window panel.

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Across the street (Delaware Avenue) from Perfect Blend are the Delmar Marketplace and McCarroll’s: The Village Butcher, two local businesses that care very much about the high quality of both their products and their customer service.

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On a recent Saturday morning, one of the friendly cashiers recommended the Island Coconut Green Mountain coffee to me from the Delmar Marketplace coffee bar, which paired perfectly with my made-to-order breakfast sandwich from McCarroll’s: The Village Butcher, just steps away. All of this for less than $6—hard to beat.

Stanton was my breakfast date that Saturday morning. We told the gentleman working behind the counter that we had just moved here. He called to his co-workers, “Hey, we got some newbies!” To which they all replied, “Welcome, newbies!” Let me tell you, friends: I love this place.

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Now, across the street from McCarroll’s (Kenwood Avenue—we’re still at the Four Corners) is Swifty’s Restaurant & Pub. As you would expect, they offer extensive wine and beer selections to accompany the hearty pub-style food. I so enjoyed my sangria, as well as the Cubano sandwich that arrived later.

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Just two miles down the road from the Four Corners is Kleinke’s Farm, a local dairy farm that’s been operating since the early 1900s. What’s amazing to me about this part of the country is that you can walk and shop in a bustling community (the Four Corners area), and then drive just two miles and find yourself in beautiful farmland. I’ve only taken advantage of Kleinke’s flowers so far, but I look forward to sampling their fruits and vegetables soon.

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On the subject of beautiful farmland…Indian Ladder Farms in nearby Altamont (about 12 miles west of Kleinke’s) is stunning. We loved apple picking there over Labor Day weekend. As you can see from this picture, Grace did lots of picking, while Anna focused on munching. 🙂

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There’s so much for folks to delight in at Indian Ladder Farms, including a playground for kids. The cozy bakery and café also sells apple cider donuts, which I can assure you from personal experience are a hit with people of all ages.

Back in our town, Stanton and I had a lovely experience at Tool’s Family Restaurant for breakfast one morning. We walked inside during a busy time. An older gentleman sitting in a booth leaned over and said, “You can sit anywhere you like.” So we did. As we waited, we overheard other patrons chatting with one another and greeting the servers by name.

The vibe here is neighborly and down-to-earth. I ordered a broccoli, cheese and bacon omelet (an intuitive combination of flavors, yet one I never experienced in an omelet before!).

An older gentleman sitting in a booth leaned over and said, ‘You can sit anywhere you like.’ So we did.

Close to Tool’s is Shogun Sushi and Sake Bar. It’s similarly down-to-earth, yet more upscale. During late summer, people like to sit outside on the patio.

Stanton and I loved our alfresco dinner, which began with the Appetizer Sampler of pork gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), harumaki (Japanese spring rolls) and spicy rock shrimp. Everything was flesh and flavorful. We’ll be back.

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North of Albany is Colonie, a suburb with bigger developments and stores such as Barnes & Noble, Target and Whole Foods Market. I haven’t spent much time here yet, but one rainy weekend evening, the four of us stumbled upon Grandma’s Pies & Restaurant. What a delight to find a local restaurant amidst all the chain offerings.

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Another delightful find was TwisT Ice Cream Shoppe, which is part of an old-fashioned drive-in movie theatre (Jericho). Stanton, his dad and Anna couldn’t get enough of their cones (and one kid-sized cup!). The laid-back ambiance at TwisT is a breath of fresh air.

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Last but not least, you can’t talk about New York cuisine without talking about pizza. We’ve tried a few pizza places, and our current favorite is Andriano’s (pictured below). Another good one: Golden Grain Gourmet Pizza.

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Pizza is to New York what tacos are to Texas, you could say. Thus, I’m on a mission to find an excellent Mexican restaurant to satisfy the taste buds of my San Antonio-born better half. Mission No. 2: checking out the downtown area’s food and wine scene.

Pizza is to New York what tacos are to Texas.

Any recommendations, New York friends? 🙂

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

A Hostess Cupcake Can Take You Back

“Be right back,” our next-door neighbor Sophia said.

The girls and I watched as she dashed inside her house. It was about 5 p.m. on a weekday, and the four of us were drawing with sidewalk chalk on Sophia’s driveway. The afternoon before, we had done the same thing on our driveway, so much so that the entire slab of concrete was covered in chalky pictures (Grace and Sophia) and scribbles (Anna).

This afternoon, Sophia had told us that her driveway had room for more pictures and scribbles.

Now, Sophia darted back outside. She held her hands out to us—two Hostess cupcakes. “These are my last ones,” she said.

Anna squealed and grabbed for one.

“Awww, thank you, Sophia,” I said. “You’re so nice.”

I read once, somewhere, that children like hearing that they’re nice. It boosts their self-esteem, apparently. Whenever my own child or someone else’s does something kind, I do my best to tell them so.

“What are these?” Grace wondered, eyeing the cupcakes. She could tell they were something good.

“These are called Hostess cupcakes,” I said. “I remember eating them when I was little. I haven’t had one in a long time though.”

“Why not, Mom?”

“Well…” I unwrapped the cupcakes for Grace and Anna. Sophia watched us, smiling. Where to begin? The saturated fat? The sugar? The infinite shelf life?

www.legends1027.com - Hostess cupcakes

No, I wasn’t going to be “that” mom and ruin this sweet moment for these children with a soapbox on nutritional value.

“The truth is,” I said, “my mom used to buy these for me. But they’re not something I buy for myself. In fact,” I added before Grace could pepper me with another “Why?” “I remember the exact kitchen cupboard in my mom’s house where she kept our Hostess cupcakes.”

I also remembered, growing up as the oldest of four kids, that I often “claimed” and labeled any sweet treats that I wanted to save for later. I would grab a Hostess cupcake, scrawl “MELISSA’S FOOD: DO NOT TOUCH” across the packaging in black marker and hide it somewhere in the kitchen. (It goes without saying that my brothers and sister didn’t really appreciate me until our adulthoods.)

Sophia shared with us that her mom had bought these for her too. Then she said, “I miss my mom.” Her mom was out of town for a bit.

There are times that I, as a grown woman, miss my mom too. She lives halfway across the country from me—two plane rides, as Grace describes. I could only imagine how a child would miss her out-of-town mom.

That afternoon, I told my little neighbor that her mom must love her so much to buy her Hostess cupcakes. I had a feeling, though I didn’t read it anywhere, that kids like hearing that their families love them.

“My mom does love me,” Sophia agreed.

“I knew it,” I said.

Grace ate her last bite of chocolate cupcake. Anna licked some of her vanilla crème filling. Then her cupcake slipped from her fingers onto the driveway.

“Oh, no!” Sophia exclaimed. “That was my last one, remember?”

I did remember. I remembered how thoughtful it was for a mom to make sure her kitchen had a few sweet treats in it. I remembered how hard it was for a kid to share those treasures with other kids.

I scooped up Anna’s cupcake. I told Sophia again that she had been so nice and that the girls had loved their cupcakes. Sophia told me that I should get some cupcakes like hers the next time I was grocery shopping.

“You should, Mom,” Grace said.

Anna licked at the last of the vanilla crème filling on her fingers.

“Maybe,” I said.

Grace and Sophia rolled their eyes at each other.

Kids know what “maybe” usually means—“no.” I remembered that from my childhood too.

The kitchen cupboard with the sweet treats. The annoying-oldest-sister “claiming” of food. The eventual generosity that comes with motherhood.

“For sure, though,” I said, “we’ll do chalk together again really soon.”

The girls agreed that that sounded good.

Photo credit: Legends 102.7 WLGZ

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

In Search of the Perfect Store-Bought Meatball

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, known for its breathtaking mountains, coal-mining roots and multiethnic food culture. There are German beer gardens (bars) and historically Polish churches, which serve up buttery pierogis and mouth-watering kielbasa at their seasonal bazaars. And in my old neighborhood, you couldn’t drive more than a few blocks without cruising past the front door of a pizza parlor or Italian restaurant.

My Italian-American family and I enjoyed a steady diet of “pies” from Revello’s, Three Guys and Victory Pig (the only pizza place I knew that offered pint-sized cartons of chocolate milk to accompany its square-shaped, deep-fried pizza). Meanwhile, you could find my parents, my three siblings and me at Perugino’s down the street for every birthday, New Year’s Eve and high school graduation. My standing order was Chicken Ala Andy, breaded tenderloins sautéed in white wine and then drizzled in a lemon-garlic sauce.

For a long time, there was even an Italian-American grocery store, Zachary’s, on the corner of Bennett and Kelly streets, just one block from my maternal grandparents’ house (and I grew up just one block from my grandparents, Poppy and Grandma). Zachary’s closed its doors some time ago, but back in the day, you could find specialty cold cuts like capicola and mortadella behind the deli counter, along with freshly made Italian sausage and containers of seasoned olives.

Mr. Zachary always asked kids if they wanted a slice of cheese; they always said yes.

Italians, of course, have a love affair with food, and this was true of the Italian-Americans I grew up with—my own family not least among them. This epicurean passion flourished in full force every winter, when my mom spent hours preparing homemade ravioli, sauce and meatballs for our Christmas Day dinner.

Now, my mom’s meatballs—mmm, I can almost taste them now. The three main ingredients were a combination of ground veal, beef and pork with Parmesan cheese and garlic. Succulent.

Meatballs

Today, I make my home in San Antonio, more than 1,500 miles from that old neighborhood and my mom’s cucina. It’s hard to find authentic Italian-style meatballs here in South Texas, where the main food group is Mexican cuisine. While I love ceviche, puffy tacos and fajitas as much as the next girl, I do miss my mom’s meatballs.

When my mom visits, she generously makes several Pyrex pans of her meatballs for my husband, our two daughters and me. On her last visit, my girls (ages 4 and 1) watched as she prepared her meatball mixture. They also enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor afterward.

It goes without saying: My mom’s homemade meatballs didn’t last long in my house after she headed back to the East Coast.

“Mom, is this Nona’s meatball?” Grace asked one weeknight, pointing skeptically at the meatball atop her plate of gemelli pasta.

I told her no, we had already eaten all of Nona’s meatballs. I had bought these at the local grocery store.

Grace slumped back in her chair. “This is too spicy. I want a Nona meatball. Can you make one?”

With my 1-year-old underfoot, I had barely been able to boil the water for the pasta and heat up the store-bought meatballs in the oven, let alone cook, from scratch, my mom’s meatball recipe.

“Can you, Mom?”

I scooped Anna up before she could begin pushing the trash can around the kitchen, her latest developmental milestone. Then I knelt beside Grace.

“I have an idea,” I told her. “We don’t have any of Nona’s meatballs left, and I can’t make them right now either. But we can find another wonderful meatball. A second-best, store-bought meatball. Deal?”

Grace still looked skeptical. Anna began wiggling out of my grasp. “It will be fun,” I announced.

We needed to find something not quite as zesty as our first store-bought meatball, the H-E-B Spicy Italian Style Pork Meatballs. Thus, the next time the girls and I went grocery shopping, I picked up a package of Aidells Italian Style with Mozzarella Cheese Meatballs.

I loved these chicken meatballs. I also loved that they were fully cooked; all I had to do was heat them up stovetop in my favorite (store-bought) marinara sauce.

Grace, however, found them too spicy for her taste, again. At first, Anna seemed to like this meatball, but then she began grunting for her sippy cup of water. Too spicy for her, too.

“I don’t know, Mom,” Grace said. “Maybe Nona should come back. Or you should make her meatballs.”

“Both good ideas,” I replied, gobbling up some dinner (while standing at the kitchen island, of course—moms rarely sit when they eat). “In the meantime, though, we’re going to find the perfect store-bought meatball. Sound good?”

Grace picked at her pasta.

I found myself grocery-shopping solo the next time, which gave me the opportunity to peruse the meat market shelves in a more laid-back state than if Grace and Anna were riding along in the grocery cart, asking for a snack every couple of seconds. I spotted a container of Italian-style turkey meatballs. Both the girls liked turkey. I decided to give these meatballs a try.

That night, I served Grace her pasta with a turkey meatball on top. I cut another one up into tiny pieces for Anna and put them on her high chair tray. Anna took a piece, tasted it and gulped it down. Then another, and another.

“Mom.”

I looked over at Grace, who was chewing and smiling. “Mom, I love this meatball.”

“You do?”

“Yes! And I want another one!”

“You do!” I spooned another meatball onto Grace’s plate.

She smiled again. “You did it, Mom.”

I smiled back at her. Mamma mia, how about that—I had found the perfect store-bought meatball.

The Italian-Americans back home wouldn’t think that was much of an accomplishment. A store-bought meatball? A turkey one at that?

“Mom…another one!”

“You want a third meatball?”

Grace laughed. Anna joined in.

Yes, I’d done it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

When I Go to My Mom’s House

My hubby, daughters, and I recently returned from a visit with my family in Pennsylvania. I was so glad that Baby G was able to meet my maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, during this time. They shared a heartfelt hello, and good-bye.

We stayed with my parents, as we always do. And as always, my mom made sure her house was ready for us. She put clean towels in our rooms, along with new clothes for the girls. (“Don’t worry about packing them anything!” she said.)

30_When I Go to My Mom's House

My mom has a second freezer in the basement. When we arrived, she began thawing the food she prepared for our visit weeks earlier: breaded chicken, lasagna, stuffed cabbage rolls, zucchini fritters, and—per Little G’s request—lots of cookies. I think second freezers in the basement, bursting with goodies like these, may be distinctive of families of Italian-American heritage. 🙂

Towels, clothes, homemade food … all creature comforts. Who wouldn’t love to “come home” to these things? What I love about my mom’s house, though, is that these things symbolize her caring for my family and me.

All this caring takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort. Of course, this is what moms do.

I remember a moment soon after Baby G was born, when both my mom and Stanton’s mom were standing with me in my kitchen. My mom was staying with us for a few weeks to help out, and I mentioned that Charlotte did the same thing for her own daughter about a year and a half earlier. Playing with the new baby’s older sisters; getting their breakfasts, lunches, snacks (so many snacks!), and dinners ready; making sure they were clean and well-rested. Plus hundreds of other things that moms do every day, from putting Band-Aids on boo-boos (including the imaginary ones) to calling a plumber because the kitchen sink faucet is dripping (again). Basically, taking care of everyone and everything.

“You both did so much,” I remember saying to my mom and Charlotte.

They looked at each other and laughed. “Well, we’re battle tested,” Charlotte said. It was something any seasoned mom could relate to.

As the years move on, I want to create the kind of house that my mom has, and Charlotte has. And I want to be the kind of mom that they’ve been to their children (four each!). I want my daughters to know our front door is always open to them and their friends, and later their families. I want them to know I’ll always take care of them, whether they’re 4 years old or 40. When you come to my house, there will always be plenty of everything. Just bring yourself.

Another hope I have is that my girls will be as close as I am to my sister and brothers. During this recent visit, my sister took time off from her job in New York City to be with us. At one point, Jenna handed me a cup of coffee along with a plate of my mom’s Jimmy Carter Cake and said, “OK, let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To eat and watch an episode of Fright Night Lights, DUH.”

I laughed and followed my sister to the nearest TV, coffee and cake in tow. Because we love simply hanging out and sharing a cup of coffee together (Friday Night Lights reruns optional). It’s the little things, right, friends?

Yes.

I hope my daughters develop a similar bond. And I hope that as they journey along with their own lives, they come back to my house to reconnect.

I’ll need to get my own second freezer one day.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.