Monday, July 19, 2010

Caprese Salad and Forever Friends

 Happy Hour

We had our annual gathering of the clans last weekend.

It has been our summer tradition since moving back home six years ago, and even longer ago than that, now that I think about it.

 Mingle Mingle

My lifelong best friend, Robin, her three sisters, their husbands and all of their kids (grandkids and great-grandkids) come home every summer to spend a few days all together as a family with their parents. Robin has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember -- all the way back to Mrs. Price's nursery school. Our parents have known each other since their college days. 


So, I gather my parents, my brothers, our spouses and most of our kids (grandkids, but no great-grandkids on our side ... yet!) and we get both families together to talk, laugh and share a big family-style dinner together. My best friend and her sisters, with my brothers, and me -- our extended family. And you know, as I sit here working on this post, I realize that next year we really need to take a more organized approach to pictures and do group shots of small family units and all-together family groups.

Pop, friend Bob G. and my brother and grillmaster, Jeff

Spending time together during the summer is a long-standing tradition for us. When we were very young, our parents began taking all of us to SIU Alumni Family Camp at Little Grassy Lake every year. We'd spend a week (or sometimes two!) with twenty, or so, other SIU alumni families living in rustic cabins, eating our meals in an open-air dining hall, hiking through the woods to the community shower houses, drinking well water that tasted like iron and participating in counselor-supervised activities, like arts & crafts, archery, riflery, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing, pontoon boat rides, hayrides and even an annual evening trip to the Giant City Lodge, just for the "older" kids.

 Solar cabins? Basketball? 
Not the Little Grassy camp we remember!

All the kids were assigned to small groups, divided by age, and under the leadership of very capable and entertaining college-kid counselors -- from 8-noon and 1-5 everyday and some evenings -- and that suited us just fine!

A little more mingling.

We were livin' the dream!

Our parents were free to engage in these same activities, on their own, no counselors -- or they were free to do simply nothing!

 Little Grassy Camp #1 Dining Hall - 2009
 Screens are now glass windows  :(

Most of the mothers could be found in the dining hall, all day long, talking and playing cards. Our two mothers, Pat and Marilyn, were queens of the card tables -- and at supervising their children to set tables and fetch the bowls of prepared hot food, three times everyday! Oh yeah, did I mention all the meals were prepared by professional cooks, in a kitchen located at the opposite end of the dining hall -- the end our mothers rarely, if ever, entered.

I guess they were livin' their own dream!

 Is Pat waiting for supper or a deck of cards for Nertz?

Our mutual mission though, kids and parents alike, was to cross paths only at meal times for the whole entire week!

Dan, Matt, Jinn and Brennan

We all loved camp -- kids and parents, alike -- and who wouldn't! No hovering parents, no kids under foot, lots of enthusiastic counselors and all kinds of age-appropriate "dangerous" activities that enticed even the most reluctant kids to join in the fun.  We looked forward to it all year long. It was a special place, suspended in time and devoid of boring routines. A place of ultimate joy and sweet, sweet freedom.

 Essential iron in every gulp!

From my very first year at camp, which was the summer I turned six, all time was measured by how long it was until we would return the following summer. Years later, probably in the middle of a dreary Southern Illinois winter, Robin and I were silently pushing our trays along the high school lunch line when we both turned to face each other at the exact same moment and said, "I can't wait till camp!" The allure was never lost, even as we began to "age out" of needing counselors to lead us around.

 Caitlin, Francis and Dan

Eventually though, the oldest of us kids began to drop out of our family vacations to Little Grassy Alumni Camp. We had summer jobs, summer classes and other obligations that kept us in town. We were old enough to be left alone at home, while the rest of the family traveled those twelve long miles -- to a world far away from home. For us though, that particular coming of age passage was bittersweet. We missed camp then, as we still do to this day.

But since Dean and I have moved back to town, we are so fortunate to have our two families come together for at least one day every summer at Prairie Wood. We talk and laugh and play outside and share a meal together. It's a lot more than just coming home, though, and I know I'm not the only one to think back to those carefree days of Alumni Camp at Little Grassy every year, when Robin and her sisters get together with my brothers and me.   

Our parents are older now, and we "kids" are parents ourselves! Among the 10 of us, we now have 16 kids of our own, and even 1.5 2 grandkids!

 Colin and Evan 

And, already, we see the changes beginning, as members of our family can't always make the trip home. This year we missed Sydney, who stayed home in Virginia to finish a summer course. Gage, Alicia and toddler-Kai also stayed home in Kansas City this year, awaiting the imminent arrival of the newest member of the family. Baby Miles finally showed up just yesterday and we can't wait to see him!

My brother, Tom, and his son, Andrew, haven't made it home from California to join us yet. I suspect it is difficult to trade summer in San Diego for sweltering heat in Southern Illinois, but we are always hopeful they will . . . maybe next year. And, of course, we missed my brother, David, who will always be with us, in spirit and in our favorite stories of camp escapades.

Our little Prairie Wood Pond is just perfect for canoeing.

So now, it is our kids who canoe, fish, swim, play croquet and enjoy time spent outdoors in the company of family. They don't have counselors, of course, but the older ones just naturally look after the younger ones.

And our mothers sit and visit together, still pleased as punch that someone else is preparing the food, serving the meal and cleaning up the kitchen. Sometimes, throughout the rest of the year, they play cards together. I'll just bet they laugh a lot and talk about camp, just like we kids do.

 Grilled salmon, roasted asparagus and 
corn on the cob, and lots of salads!

Yes, it seems we "kids" are still fetching the food from the kitchen and setting it out for our families. No camp cooks here! But we work well together and are delighted to serve the four generations who gather at our tables.

Marilyn and Pat

This year, my brother, Tim, who just moved back to town last fall, wanted an assignment for his first appearance and contribution to our big family supper. Afterall, my brother Jeff always mans the grill, with Dean's help, of course, and Francis can be counted on to shuck corn. Stephen has been known to make a dessert, or help Mother make her enormous batch of potato salad. So I was only too happy to accommodate Tim's request! The girls are in charge, of course, but we are equal-opportunity-in-the-kitchen families!


I asked Tim to bring fresh farmers' market tomatoes and corn. He arrived with two bags full of corn and one bag full of tomatoes -- plus two bonus bags, one of fresh mozzarella and another with enormous bunches of fresh basil! Bonanza!

Tim, the Tomato Man and Pop

Immediately, Sarah began to shuck the corn and some of the other girls began slicing and arranging tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves on a huge white platter -- a colorful visual with an impressive wow factor, for sure! We do all of our own meal prep now, and I guess it's no surprise that I serve as the big bossy cook and kitchen supervisor!

Robin, Sarah and Mary sliced the tomatoes and mozzarella, and then Emily and Caitlin "assisted" Robin in carefully arranging the slices on the platter. Sarah and Mary plucked, washed and dried the basil leaves and then they were tucked between the tomato and cheese slices. And as the finale, Jane came in with her "expert drizzling hand" and splashed the whole platter with a lovely, unfiltered fruity olive oil, some excellent balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, a grind of fresh pepper and a sprinkling of capers.

 Jane dresses the beautiful Caprese Salad - simple pleasure.

I guess this year we answered the age old question, "How many women does it take to make a salad?" Two families and two generations worth -- and we wouldn't have it any other way!

The platter was paraded about for pictures, just to build the excitement a little -- which was probably totally unnecessary. I mean, just look at that platter!

 Caitlin, Emily and Robin display their tempting salad.

Is there anything more beautiful than a huge platter of Caprese Salad? Well maybe just one . . .
forever friends in the kitchen together!

As usual, after supper, we "kids" gathered around a big table -- one big happy family, together again! Our spouses and kids usually sit off to the side, confused and/or content to just watch and listen to us talk about old times. We tell stories and laugh . . . and then repeat it all, over and over again . . . until we cannot laugh anymore!

We will never run out of conversation. We never have for more than fifty years . . . we just jump right into the middle of the next conversation, whenever two of more of us are together.

Some things will never change about us. Thank goodness! We are the happiest kind of family -- one that has come together over a lifetime. We simply cannot remember a time before we knew each other.

We are forever friends -- and friends forever.

Caprese Salad - For Summer Only!
the absolute freshest red, ripe and juicy homegrown tomatoes
fresh mozzarella - don't even make the salad, if you can't get it
fresh leaves of basil
good quality extra virgin olive oil
good quality balsamic vinegar
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
capers - optional

Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella, alternate the slices around a large platter, placing a basil leaf for each pair of tomato and basil slices. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss on a few capers, if desired and serve at room temperature.


Debra said...

Cora --- your Caprese salad looks WONDERFUL! When I make mine the cheeses take on the oil & vinegar & turn a nasty color & texture - should this salad be dressed moments before serving?

It tastes OK but the texture goes off....surely I'm pickling the cheese.

Cora said...

Deb,you are right! Arranging and dressing this salad is pretty much a last minute thing. Otherwise, the tomato juices make the slices of mozzarella soggy and everything ends up sort of welded together in one big unappealing blob. Just a slight sprinkling of olive oil and vinegar at the last minute is perfect, but you may also serve them on the side, so diners may dress their own serving to taste. Enjoy!

Unknown said...


In the words of Clyde Barrow, "You know what you did? You told my story!" I love you. Robin

Unknown said...

Cora, Caprese salad has been my favorite since I first tasted it at a friend's house in Tuscany many years ago. However, your "forever friends" version even tops Anke's Pastina is the perfect size for a large group of friends! Unfortunately Montana tomatoes rarely ripen to the perfect degree for Caprese salad...but I can imagine tasting it with those southern Illinois homegrowns!

Debra said...

We're off to Lake George next weekend & I'm fearlessly doing the chopped Greek/Italian salad from - despite all the picky eaters! Will add my own black bean/corn/tomatoes/cilantro salad + garlic bread. If you hear that WASPs are jumping off Clay Island at Lake George next weekend --- know that I'm responsible!!!