The other time his nose crinkles in gastronomic mistrust is around my more base culinary preferences. Some are well-guarded family secrets. My loved ones loyally protect my gustatory privacy even as they threaten blackmail and wonder at the hilarious consequences that disclosure of these sins would have on my culinary authority.
My fondness for Carole Ninac’s salad is particularly contemptible to my father. I freely admit that there may be a little—okay, a lot—of youthful romanticism at play here. Quite simply, Carole Ninac was not a good cook. Gifted academic, engaging thinker, hip dresser, feminist and all-round cool mother would all have fit comfortably on her resumé. Good cook, not so much.
Gazel Ninac, Carole’s first husband, was a childhood friend of my father from the immigrant ghetto in Welland. After they married, he and Carole moved to downtown Niagara Falls, NY, and, between the ages of 10 and 12, I spent several weeks each summer staying at the Ninac residence, even though Gazel was long gone.
I formed a fast and—at least on my part—adoring friendship with Carole and Gazel’s only daughter Michelle. I loved that time. We’d attend Girls Club of America meetings or, riding in the back seat of Carole’s boyfriend Sam’s convertible, we’d brave the industrial stench of suburban Niagara Falls on trips to Fantasy Island or shopping sprees to Kmart. We’d scare ourselves silly with the Ouija board in Michelle’s closet, head to the drive-in to see Planet of the Apes, or indulge in fantasy games that involved our favourite pop stars Donny and Marie. Those brief summers of my late childhood seemed so exotic. For me, they were a hedonistic vacation from my pedestrian family safely tucked away across the border in Burlington, Ontario.
Michelle was two years older, and for a short time that had no bearing on our relationship. Only when Michelle hit puberty was I left behind with all my chubby self-loathing. How desperately I wanted her for myself. Instead, I had to surrender her to all the female fuss meant to garner male attention. I lacked the maturity to fully grasp what was happening but I do remember feeling sad and lonely. All that fun dissipated like a spritz of Chantilly perfume.
My only culinary memories of my stays with the Ninacs are the ice-cream truck wailing its way up Ferry Avenue like some large, maniacal wind chime, and Carole’s salad which made an occasional appearance at dinnertime.
It bears noting at this point that my own mother was an expert salad maker. She was rigorous about details, always using a large thick wooden bowl and rubbing its burnished surface with a clove of garlic; she tore rather than cut the lettuce leaves, and created dressings with just the right balance of oil and vinegar. Because of my mother, I make great salads, too.
By contrast, Carole was a rationalist with no regard for the finer details. Into a large plastic Tupperware bowl went big chunks of iceberg lettuce (cut with a knife) where they’d float in cold water in the fridge all day. Since this was hardly a time-saver, I can only speculate Carole thought the iceberg’s crispness would be enhanced by this icy bath. If true, this could count as an incredible culinary flourish on her part. Certainly the soaking did much to dissipate further the lettuce’s already non-existent flavour.
Just before dinner, Carole drained the lettuce then added the elements that brought me deep pleasure because some were so foreign to my mother’s salads. In went slices of peeled Kirby cucumber (this was long before the arrival of its more tender English cousin), wedges of pale hothouse tomato, Caesar croutons straight from a box and—best of all, to my 10-year-old mind—canned sliced black olives and garbanzo beans. Carole then slathered the whole lot with bottled Italian dressing. In the summer of ’73 in downtown Niagara Falls, NY, this salad represented all that was good and delicious in my life.
I’m amused that my 10-year-old self enjoyed it enough to commit it to memory. Lots of vegetables all mixed together is not your typical grade-school fantasy. My love for this salad speaks to the behind-the-scenes work of those “pedestrian” parents of mine. I inherited few food hang-ups, my parents’ curiosity for new tastes inspiring in me a sense of adventure. They led by example and taught me to enjoy all kinds of food.
Even more surprising is to see the remnants of that memory come to life in my own salad bowl today. I’m not above enjoying iceberg lettuce in a salad mix—nothing beats its crunch. I still love olives, although I’ve happily graduated a few levels up that chain of tastes (but I can tuck into the briny blandness of a canned black olive if that’s all there is on offer). And I often add buttery garbanzo beans to salads for their soft and creamy textural counterpoint. In short, I toss a salad that bears some resemblance to Carole’s but, thankfully, has a whole lot more panache. It’s a salad I could put down before an Italian without feeling the hot flush of shame that comes from abandoning all culinary reason.
Carole created the Vinnie Barbarino of salads, the kind that Edith and Archie would have thought exotic. It’s a caricature of a salad that reeks of the populist Italian food served in restaurants with red checked tablecloths and Chianti bottle candle holders. Even today, this is the salad served in franchises that specialize in bottomless salad bowls and dessert menus on ViewFinders.
During those childhood summers, Carole’s salad was likely a high among many food lows, and my memory of it could have a proportional relationship to the bleakness of Carole’s other culinary offerings. Today, I can see why my father would find my pleasure in it so unfathomable. But that salad was an early milestone on my own culinary journey and I’m proud of it, despite his rolling eyes and wrinkled nose.