When I chat with Mom at her permanent resting spot, next to Dad, in the south-western corner of the Old Herzliya Cemetery, I pepper her with questions. Of course I must always guess the answers. That’s how death is. Lots of unanswered questions that could and should have been asked long ago……and unfortunately never were.
I’m thinking now of how she did everything she did kitchen-wise. The kitchen was always spotlessly clean. The appliances that are hard at work in my own kitchen, things like a dishwasher, frost-free refrigerator, food processor, garbage disposer and myriad others, were not even dreamt about at the height of our family life on Aldine Street, where progressing to a refrigerator from an ice-box, was actually quite a big deal. That fact, that the iceman cameth no more, was followed in importance by a remodeled kitchen with counters and cabinet space, eliminating the need to walk down the hall to the pantry every time a cup of sugar was called for.
How did she stay so calm and in control? She had to kasher the meat with that slanted board and lots of kosher salt. Contrast that to me; I buy meat fully ready to cook, these days including already packaged in vacuum packed sous vide bags. And, of course, the lack of comprehensive refrigeration, meaning only a tiny little freezer for making ice cubes, sent her scurrying to Joe’s butcher shop almost daily. Often I accompanied her and sat on one of Joe’s colorful metal chairs, more suitable for the beach than the transit stop for sliced or ground dead animals, with floors covered in sawdust to absorb their blood. Neither Mom nor I thought about that grisly process. I don’t know about Joe. Maybe it got to him. He dropped dead one day, still in his 30s.
Mom would arrive home with her bounty, thin steak for my sister, flanken to be cooked in soup for Pop, assorted creations for my father, who had a known aversion to leftovers, except on Shabbat. I was a more diverse eater, happy with everything except that flanken. As to Mom, I remember her preparing the food, serving it, and cleaning up after a meal. I cannot picture her sitting down and actually enjoying the meats of her labors.
Mom was the most cultured and literate person I ever knew, but she spent inexorable amounts of time in the kitchen creating custom meals for each member of our little family. She could have been reading some erudite text or interpreting a thick and deeply profound novel, all this to the strains of a beautiful bit of Puccini, but, instead of singing along with Madama Butterfly on the living room phonograph, she was usually shopping for food and cooking it in the kitchen on Aldine Street, or in her shared kitchen, with its truly desperate lack of equipment and space, in Parksville. To say that she catered to each of us would be a genuine understatement.
She even catered to our brilliant dog genius Phoebe, and her successor, the evil Caesar. Each of them had a special cooked meal, with liver scraps that Joe in Newark, or Labi the butcher in Parksville, knew to save for Ida who would fastidiously broil them. Neither dog ever succumbed to cardiovascular disease brought on by too much cholesterol from too much liver. None of these dogs knew that dog food could come from a can labeled Alpo, or, even less appealing, a dry bag of kibbles. Our dogs knew from the outset that they, slum dog rescues as they were, were entitled to fine food, kosher food, and generous portions of it as well. While I never observed any of our dogs watching television I could easily conjure up shots of them viewing the dog food ads with sophistication and disdain, where the adorable TV mutts raced to gobble up their packaged dog food. Phoebe would cynically state the obvious; those dogs in the commercials were starving to death when that footage was shot!
On the other hand, all edible scraps from the human food were often stored by Mom for the next day’s doggy dinner. One day catastrophe struck. Dad, usually served by Mom, for whatever reason, sought out a snack for himself. That evening he complimented her on the stew. She had not made a stew, merely consolidated the leftovers for Phoebe. Dad was pretty upset but apparently unharmed because a half century later he still remembered the incident.. Actually, Phoebe was the one who should have been upset. That non-stew, destined for her bowl, went to Sam instead. Some things were just not fair!
This variety of meals, always served at different times to each family member, meant a lot of preparing, heating, serving and cleanup for Mom. Kept her busy indeed! And her style of cooking was always authentic, not impacted by modern cooking devices. For example, if she were making chopped chicken liver, she would not use a food processor which she never knew existed! Rarely, if she were preparing it for a big meal with guests, she would use a non-electric meat grinder, with its intricate mechanics, screwed onto the kitchen table. But mostly she would take out her wooden bowl and her trusty hoch-messer, a special handled blade used for chopping, and klop away. That method produced the liver as it should have been, not too smooth or pasty, and not filled with chunks of unchopped liver, eggs or fried onions. It was labor intensive, the liver especially needing to be broiled before frying, in order to make it free of blood, but she made it often and it was the perfect appetizer served with a sweet delicious slice of ruby red tomato and resting on a bed of crisp lettuce, sprinkled with some raw onions. My mother always served food as if she were a professional caterer, a skill she had learned from her own mother, a professional cook. I did not inherit this talent.
In these days of heavy holiday cooking loads when we are all seeking tradition and memorable meals, I think of my mother and how she always pulled it off with grace and efficiency, no matter how great the challenge. She was not dealing with vegetarians, pescatarian or otherwise, celiacs, or lactose intolerants. And I don’t remember anyone ever being on a strict low calorie diet. Just mere unafflicted or unopinionated Jews. For sure, that reduced the burden but, the question I would have asked her now is whether she found it a burden at all. She worked so effortlessly and without complaint and the results were always nothing short of sublime. Did she prefer that to sitting on the couch listening to Puccini? I will never know.