Preserving a legacy
Photography by Philip Pietri
The guava tree, which sits just outside and to the left of my parents’ front yard, is still hanging on despite a couple of frosty nights last winter. We don’t get much fruit from it anymore since the last time Dad harvested it years ago. No one else has the patience to care for the tree as if it were a small child all alone shivering in the cold. To be able to keep something alive
that’s so delicate, that thrives only in a subtropical climate, is too much for any of us to deal with. Sadly, because of this, we got only a couple of jars of guava jelly from that last harvest. For so long, a lone jar sat in my mother’s pantry, like a shrine. Not that I idolize inanimate objects — or people, for that matter — but I really did cherish that jar. I didn’t want its contents to be eaten.
Now all I want is for my dad to come back. To make me one more grilled cheese, with chunky natural peanut butter (you know, the kind that you have to stir for about thirty minutes before spreading) generously atop the sandwich, and a hearty helping of guava jelly layered on top of that. I know that request will go unfulfilled, but I can’t make my heart stop its endless wants of just one more of the amazing things Dad used to make or do for us. Maybe then I might be able to do a more respectable job of chronicling all of this — a precise documentation so that I can better attempt to recreate what so few have had the pleasure of experiencing.
It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks later when I found myself sitting on my kitchen floor, face to face with the fridge, gutting it of all the things that have been forgotten over the last long while. I always find myself cleaning it out when an article deadline is impending, because I need all the room I can get to intermingle photo-shoot food with my regular food. As I mindlessly finished up the last few stragglers on the shelf, piling up the expired condiments and undesirable forgotten foodstuffs, I saw it. I’d forgotten it was there this whole time. Had it been sitting untouched and unopened for an entire year? Had it really been three years since he last made it? I couldn’t process fully what was going on in my mind. I pulled the jar out of the fridge, with a smile so big I don’t think I’ve used those muscles since my son was born. Another “last” jar of my dad’s guava jelly!
I yelled to my wife, “Come look what I found!” She didn’t understand what could have possibly made me so happy as I sorted through the deep recesses of our tiny refrigerator. That is, until she saw it for herself, since she was just as in love with the stuff as everyone else. Without saying a word, I raised the jar like a trophy to show her my treasure. We exchanged smiles and a few words; then she walked away as she’d been in the middle of something I’ve since forgotten. I brought the mason jar back down to my line of sight to make sure it would be safe in my care. Then I inspected it a bit closer, focusing in on the top of the lid.
I’ve never really lived in a halcyon house, but at that moment it never seemed more quiet. I stared at the walls as if they were transparent and I was
looking through them. After a long pause, I began to straighten up the refrigerator as tidily as I could and as quietly as I could bear. I dumped the items deemed of no further use into the trash bin, and placed a few mason jars and storage containers in the sink to be washed. I walked to our bedroom and slowly closed the door so as not to disturb anyone, then began to break down on a level I didn’t know existed. It was the first time I could say that I grieved for my father since I walked out of his funeral.
I believe that food plays a central part in our lives. It’s at the heart of family gatherings, special life events, and lists of favorite things. It’s part of who we are and tied to the memories of those we love. If you don’t believe that food is powerful and can move us to express emotions across the feelings’ spectrum — from extreme happiness to great sorrow — then I feel for you.
As a society, we’re always looking toward the future, trying to make things more efficient and less time consuming. The things of the past, our heritage or history, need to be cherished, but we often fail to grasp the importance of the moments in which we live. That goes most certainly for family traditions and the recipes we hold dear.
What I would give to be able to spend a whole day arduously picking mustard greens with my dad, only to spend even more time cleaning them and subsequently braising them, sneaking little bits of smoked ham hock along the way. Many of the things he is famous for in my eyes took a great deal of patience and love. Of note, he shared the gift of creating wonderfully tasty food on the fly with what he had available, something I try so hard to duplicate. If only I had just one more day, where Dad could come back and make his delicious guava jelly for me.
During each subsequent visit to my parents’ home, I found myself at the kitchen window looking out at that fragile guava tree. I pictured it covered in blankets and heat lamps to be protected from the elements, just like Dad used to do on those frigid Florida winter nights. And I thought, It’s my duty to keep this tree and these traditions alive. Gradually, I made my way to the front yard for a closer inspection of the tree and was delighted to see a plethora of guava blooms coming in nicely. Maybe it’s not the last jar for this tree after all. In honor of my dear father, here are a few things he loved making for my family and his closest friends.
[item title=”Dad’s Guava Jelly with cheese toast and peanut butter “]
Makes 3-4, 8-ounce jars of jelly
6 whole guavas (peeled with the seeds scooped out, then roughly chopped)
32 ounces guava juice
1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 cup cane sugar
1 (3-ounce) pouch fruit pectin
In a large stockpot on Medium-High heat, bring the fruit and juices to a boil, about 20 minutes. After the liquid has reduced by one-third, add the sugar. Bring to a rolling boil, approximately 8 minutes.
Lower heat to a simmer and add pectin. Stir occasionally for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from heat immediately after reaching the gel point or desired thickness. Look for the jelly to begin clinging to the sides of the pot and showing slight “wrinkles” on the surface. If there is any sediment or foam on the top of the jelly, use a wooden spoon to remove excess, then pour into prepared mason jars, within 1/2 inch of the tops. Wipe off any spilled jelly from the jar top and cover with sealed lids. If properly sealed, jellies will keep up to one year. Refrigerate upon opening.
[item title=”Grilled-Cheese toast”]
Makes at least 5 large sandwiches
1 loaf of thick-sliced brioche or breakfast bread
6 ounces thinly sliced manchego cheese
6 ounces thinly sliced sharp yellow cheddar cheese
1 stick high-quality butter
Making a proper grilled cheese is subjective to the quirks of each and every kitchen’s stovetop. A general rule for me is to lean toward a slow food approach. My dad would take 15 minutes to craft his masterpieces for me after we completed a hard day’s work. So, keep the heat down.
Compose by using 2 slices of bread and 1 ounce of each cheese per sandwich.
Heat a large sauté pan or skillet on Medium-Low heat. Add 1 tablespoon of butter for each sandwich. The butter should instantly melt and swirl in the pan. Place the prepared sandwich directly onto the butter, slightly pressing down on the sandwich. Cover with a lid and leave alone for about 5 minutes. Remove lid. With a spatula, lift one side to check for color and crispness. The bottom should develop a rich golden color with a noticeable textural feel.
Flip the sandwich, adding more butter if needed, then cover for another 5 minutes.
To serve, spread crunchy roasted peanut butter over the top of the sandwich, followed by a generous smear of guava jelly. Serve with a fresh cup of coffee and the 10 o’clock news.
[item title=”Blue Crab Pasta with lemon-basil compound butter”]
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for pasta water
1 pound spaghetti
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed juice of 1 lemon
1 3.5-ounce jar capers, drained
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried pepper or chili flakes
1 pound jumbo lump Florida blue crab meat, picked through looking for small bits of shell
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
salt to taste
For the Lemon Basil compound butter
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/4 cup fresh basil, about 8-10 leaves, finely minced
1 stick salted butter, at room temperature
sea salt to taste
Stir all ingredients together until well mixed. Then place over a sheet of plastic wrap. Form a cylinder, encasing the butter with plastic. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, until solid.
For the Crab Pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Pour pasta into pot and cook about 8 minutes or until it reaches al dente or your desired texture.
Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a medium pot over Medium-Low heat. When the oil has warmed, add half the garlic and all of the onion. You are looking to soften and not to add color.
When the onions begin to look translucent, add three-quarters of the tomatoes. Take a ladle of the pasta water and add that, too, along with the lemon juice. Simmer, stirring in the capers, oregano, and chili flakes.
Heat 4 more tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over Medium-High heat. When the oil is hot, add the other half of the garlic. Don’t let it burn! Once it gets some color, add the crab. Sauté, and toss for about 3 minutes using restraint so as not to cause the crab to flake apart.
Once all of the crab has warmed, add the crab to the sauce. Simmer another 3 minutes or so.
When the pasta is ready, transfer the drained pasta directly into the sauce in the pot or skillet. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and toss to coat the pasta with the sauce. Serve the pasta, using any extra sauce to cascade over the top; then add a generous pad of the prepared compound butter per serving to finish.
To me, my father was the king of improvisation. Often he would rig up a delectable plate of food with just a handful of less-than-desirable foodstuffs lying inside the recesses of our cupboard. The above-mentioned pasta dish was inspired by one of his staples, his key ingredients being canned tuna, spaghetti, and lots of onions. I just took that general idea and ran with it, hopefully not too far off. There was something about the way he cooked those onions ever so slowly in olive oil, without adding color but just a touch of peculiar opaqueness. He had a simple sophistication of knowing how to make anything not just edible, but so tasty that
if you dabbed it on your forehead, it would make your tongue beat your brains out trying to get at it.