Food is a Family Affaire

By Tara Pettit / Photography By Emily Kaelin & Claire Loeffelman | December 15, 2015
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Bill Maratta’s knife collection and wooden cutting board
Bill Maratta’s knife collection and wooden cutting board

How an heirloom collection of French cooking tools connects one woman to the spirit of family and her past

For Claire Loeffelman there’s nothing so intricately intertwined as family and food. So synonymous are the two in her life, in fact, she has rarely ever spent time cooking in the kitchen or eating at the dinner table without her family at her side, both in body and spirit. Whether her children are home and helping her prepare the meal for their regular weekend family dinners or she is pulling an all-day cooking marathon in her kitchen for special occasions, Claire is always surrounded by the joy and memory of her family members, even if she is simply alone with her pots, pans, and knives.

That’s because so much of Claire’s passion for cooking as well as her skills in the kitchen have been passed down to her by her parents, her dad in particular, who made home cooking a way of life for their family. While the time spent in the kitchen with her parents has come and gone, Claire’s memory of the experience lives on through stories, shared recipes, and through the unique collection of fine cookware that was passed to her.

Ever since she can remember as a young child growing up in Princeton, West Virginia, Claire has been immersed in home cooking and gardening. Both her mother and father led by example in their dedication to growing a family garden and experimenting with new recipes for dinners. Although her hometown in the West Virginia foothills was small and somewhat poor, she only remembers a childhood rich in quality family time and lovingly prepared meals every night.

“I can vividly remember early on that my dad was very much interested in gardening,” Claire says. “And he had a beautiful garden. You name it, we grew it—apple trees, pear trees, currants. So, we always had fresh foods available and I think that’s how he got interested in cooking.”

Bill Maratta, Claire’s father, was an average West Virginian man. By day, he lived a simple but fulfilling life as a husband and father. He was a mining engineer by trade. On weekends, however, he transformed into a master chef driven by passion.

He had done all he could do in his profession by the time Claire was in school and he needed a new outlet to channel his energy and express his passion and creativity. Several Gourmet magazine subscriptions and kitchen experiments later, he turned to cooking for that outlet and within all facets of his life it undeniably became part of just “who he was.”

Claire was most fond of weekend evenings, which were filled with quality family time and quality dinners that were always hand-prepared by her parents. Her father would typically be in charge of preparing the main dish, usually something new and inventive he had snagged a recipe for out of his magazines, while her mother took care of side dishes and desserts.

Dinner was always a new adventure, Claire remembers, and a chance for her dad to put his cooking skills and new recipe ideas to the test. He was always reading cookbooks and writing down recipes that he could try out for the coming week.

“One night it was spoon lamb, another night French onion soup,” Claire says. “My dad was unafraid to try any food or technique and was always looking for the next great taste.”

Claire’s mother on the evening of their engagement
Claire's father on the evening of their engagement
Photo 1: Claire’s mother on the evening of their engagement
Photo 2: Claire's father on the evening of their engagement

Le Creuset Adventures

Claire now holds in her possession more than 15 pieces in a highly valued collection of French cookware. Each Le Creuset pot or pan she owns is a piece that was added by her dad over the years as he traveled abroad, bringing a treasure home each time he returned.

“He was always really funny about saying, ‘I have this chicken, but I don’t have the right pot—I need a new pot.’ That’s how we ended up with so many pieces. Between me, my sister, and sister-in-law, we now have it all. Those pots are really nice and fun to cook with.”

The Le Creuset especially reminds her of her dad as a Parisian chef de cuisine who once, in an inspired decision to learn the classic art of French cooking, used all his saved vacation time to attend a six-week cooking course in Paris. The course focused on the classic French recipes he loved and it was taught all in French, despite the fact he couldn’t speak it.

“He came home with a beret and copper bowl,” Claire says. “He couldn’t get over how much fun he had. It’s also where he learned to make French onion soup, which became one of his favorite recipes to make.”

Meat Mattered Most

Claire’s knife collection is one of the sharpest there is, mainly because her dad kept it so in his pursuit of becoming an expert carver. She attests that her dad was one of the only people she knew who carved so thinly and perfectly.

“I inherited this ham carving knife with a blade that is probably 14 inches long,” she says. “I could go into combat with this knife—it’s huge!”

Meat was a primary focus in her dad’s cooking endeavors and he took pride in the quality cuts he used. He would always walk straight to the butcher’s area, proceed to walk behind the counter and ask, “Can you get me some flank steaks?” or, “I need a leg of lamb,” Claire recalls.

She remembers how thrilled the butcher would be at her dad’s fervor, genuine interest in the quality of meat he was buying, and with the fact that he was asking for those more rare types of meats.

“No one else was asking for that,” Claire says. “My dad was a guy who really wanted to get to know his butcher and his meat and was willing to have conversation about it. No one else did that. But there’s my dad, hanging out in the back of the butcher area. It was fun to watch and it was just the way my dad was.”

Wooden Spoons

The tools Claire uses most is her collection of wooden spoons. She inherited a large collection of them that she also remembers her father using all the time. Several of the spoons were even passed to her father by her grandmother.

They’re the tools she always keeps close by because she is constantly grabbing one to keep this or that consistent, reinforcing the memory of seeing her dad doing the same thing.

“To me its just a constant connection to my dad and grandmother because I am grabbing them all the time,” Claire says.

The Spirit of Objects

Although Claire’s father is no longer alive, he lives on in her and her family’s memory—in conversation and fond stories—and especially in the love for cooking he instilled as a tradition of family ties and shared experiences.

They say objects of the past somehow mystically hold the spirit and energy of the previous owner who regularly and lovingly used them. Regardless of whether that is true, what Claire knows for sure is that the instilled family tradition of home cooking, along with her father’s collection of tools, has helped strengthen the ties between her family memories and current family relationships, all the while keeping at the heart of her life the most treasured recipe of all: family time spent over food.

“Food is just a real connection for all of us,” Claire says. “Everything just was and still is so special. And while I enjoy and appreciate having and sharing my father’s cooking tools and treasures, it’s the culmination of foods, recipes, and the memories of my parents who wanted to share the world with us in every way—their approach to food, and, in a larger sense, the world.”

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