I was 7 years old in the winter of 1950 when my maternal grandfather disappeared from my life. In my childhood memories, he was big and loud, gregarious and full of laughter, and when he died I missed him greatly and still do, all of these years later.
Grandpa Tom owned the Maple Grove, a hotel/boarding house in Atlantic Highlands, NJ. We used to visit him every summer and sometimes at Christmas, from what I can recall. On the summer trips my parents would usually stay for a week and then return to NYC, while I would stay on for several more weeks with my cousins. Getting to Atlantic Highlands from the Inwood neighborhood of Northern Manhattan, without a car, was quite an adventure during the 1940’s, and to my 5 and 6 year old mind, seemed to consume most of the day.
Those summer excursions involved several modes of transportation: subway, taxi, boat and car. My mother, father and I took the A train from 207th Street to 42nd Street, then a cab from 8th Avenue to 12th Avenue, where we boarded a Hudson River Day Line steamboat such as the Chauncey M. Depew, the Peter Stuyvesant, or the Sandy Hook. These excursion steamships took us down the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island, out into Lower New York Bay, and then, with Sandy Hook off to the port side, into Raritan Bay. The boats docked at the pier, a long, rickety (to a 5 or 6 year old boy) wooden pier that jutted out into Sandy Hook Bay, where Grandpa would meet us on the pier with his big black car and drive us to his hotel. The pier is long gone and has been replaced by a new marina which offers fast ferry service to NYC.
Besides bringing me to see Grandpa, the excursion boats brought vacationers to the Jersey Shore and gamblers to Monmouth Park Racetrack. In addition to Grandpa’s car waiting for us on the pier, there were numerous buses to take the gamblers to the Racetrack, and Jersey Central trains to take the vacationers farther down The Shore.
Each summer, as the calendar inexorably moves from July into August and fresh, locally grown, tomatoes begin to make their appearance at farm stands and markets, and the scent of fresh grown basil fills the air of our kitchen, I return in my mind to those idyllic summer days in Atlantic Highlands with Grandpa Tom. The combined perfume of tomatoes and basil acts upon me as did the taste of a madeleine act upon Proust, bringing me back to the kitchen of the hotel, where Grandpa has just picked the tomatoes from his garden, shred the basil picked from his plants, and mixed the two together with garlic, olive oil and salt to make his tomato salad. For further reading on memories triggered by certain foods see How to Cook Like an Italian Grandmother.
My mother continued the tradition of making this summer delight and I carry it on from her. Our family and friends now enjoy Grandpa Tom’s Tomato Salad and all agree that the best part is sopping up the juice with crusty Italian bread after the tomatoes have been devoured. I hope that you enjoy it as well and it causes you to think about some of your own childhood food memories.
Another reader recently asked about shrimp and what to do with it. Shrimp to my mind has practically no flavor at all, just texture. Brother Devil, the next article, will show how to compensate for the lack of flavor in shrimp!