Covered in Napkins

Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...

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I recently returned to McMinnville, Oregon, for the 35th anniversary of my family’s restaurant. I saw so many familiar faces, and all of them were smiling, conversing, eating or sipping on delicious Oregon wines… pretty much what you would want to see at any party.

Yes, it was an event to celebrate the traditions of family recipes and handmade pastas that first brought Nick’s Italian Cafe acclaim back in the day (traditions now deliciously and dutifully carried on by my sister and brother-in-law), but it was also a chance to take a moment to reminisce. Everyone I spoke with couldn’t believe it had been 35 years since my mother and father opened the doors to Nick’s — or perhaps some didn’t want to admit that more than three decades had already passed. Some folks recalled the day I was born and a few others took a moment with me to fondly remember those that should have been celebrating with us.

Chief among those dearly missed was my paternal grandmother.

There has never been a lady quite like my Grandma Georgia and I think it safe to predict that there never will be. She was a sweetheart in every sense of the word, a speed demon, an artist and the best damn babysitter you could ask for. She taught me how to play poker, cribbage and solitaire. She made me watch “Room with a View” despite my ‘wordy protestations’ and it’s still one of my all-time favorite movies.

Grandma Georgia also takes top-billing in one of my most cherished memories from a childhood spent in the restaurant.

Almost every week, she would make a batch of Chocolate-Hazelnut Torte (a dense dessert introduced to us by Diana Lett of Eyrie Vineyards) and I would offer Grandma my… assistance. No, I wasn’t allowed to slowly melt the chocolate and butter together in a double-boiler (I was too young and the stove was too high) nor was I permitted to measure out the healthy dose of brandy that was carefully added to the molten chocolate mixture. My skills at toasting and skinning hazelnuts were shoddy at best and I never broke the Peek Frean biscuits into small enough pieces.

So, how did I help, you ask?

By consuming the remaining melted chocolate left in the mixing bowls with the glee and avarice only a crazed child can muster. Grandma Georgia would set me up with a small spatula and approximately one million napkins carefully tucked and tied about my little body so as not get my clothes dirty. And yet, no matter how thoroughly she covered me up, I still managed to get chocolate in my hair, on my Buster Browns or at the end of my elbow. Grandma Georgia would shake her head, give a little laugh and just say “Oh, honey girl, look at you…”

I immediately developed an intense association between Grandma Georgia, love and chocolate — and chocolate remains one of my favorite foods to this day. I adore bittersweet chocolate eaten with segments of fresh citrus. I would seriously consider committing a crime for a taste of chocolate mixed with salty peanuts or slow-roasted hazelnuts. I pine for the molé enchilada with chicken and cheese from the taco stand up the street. And I think there is nothing finer than a cup of melted hot chocolate for breakfast, preferably consumed while standing in a coffee shop in Italy (I know, I know, la-DI-da).

Yes, chocolate causes a chemical reaction in our bodies that can easily explain my devotion, but I also think the memory of my grandma and her many napkins drives the bulk of my love for chocolate. Call me silly, but I just don’t think it would taste as good if I weren’t thinking of Grandma Georgia with every bite.

Do you have a powerful food memory from childhood? We'd love to hear it, share it in the comments below!