My mother’s kitchen was a feast for the eyes and a feast for the soul. She spent a good portion of her life in that room, a wondrous place where the simple became the sublime. She loved to cook and create magic from the mundane. And when friends asked for recipes, she simply told the truth. She never cooked from recipes. Her imagination was creative and capable enough so that her meals were instinctive and delicious. But, unfortunately she was never instructive! I yearn to make her sweet and sour meat borscht and, of course, her delectable meatballs. She left no notes, no recipes and no guidelines.
And she always cooked on demand. My father would come home for lunch on weekdays at about 2. Pop, the grandfather who lived with us throughout most of my childhood, had an early dinner, about 5, always preceded by a schnapps. My sister and I ate according to our schedules. And Mom, herself, was rarely seen sitting at the table with us. She served us as if we were guests at a hotel. Only on Shabbat and holidays did we join together for meals.
The food was custom as well. My father’s mantra was I’ll eat anything as long as it’s not leftovers. For whatever childhood trauma he must have remembered, his food was always freshly prepared. He was not a leftovers kind of guy and even soup was for one day only.
Pop was a simple eater, very thin and easy to please as long as it was flanken from the soup. He was never into elaborate fancy meals. Just eat and get it over with. Maybe that was why he ate all that flanken. It was easy to chew it and return to whatever activity he had more interest in than eating. He was a very domestic addition to our household and always had projects. He was the house fixer-in-chief and also headed up our ironing and sewing units, activities that no one else was even slightly interested in.
My sister existed on dinners of thin well-done steak with fries. She never ate fish, and until this day doesn’t go near anything that swam throughout its fish-tale life. Old habits are often forever habits.
I was the most eclectic eater downing most of Mom’s meals with gusto. I stayed very thin as a kid but payback time appeared in middle age. And since I often ate alone in those kid-days on Aldine Street, a comic book usually leaned against the ketchup bottle for companionship. These days that has been replaced by the daily newspapers (depending on my mood the New York Times with which I have a 65 year old love-hate relationship) since I usually eat a solo breakfast.
And Mom, fascinated by what she could conjure in the cooking section of the kitchen, was never obsessed by the eating area. She loved opera and poetry and myriad Jewish organizational activities but she was not a food craver at all. Our meals were far more important to her than her own.
Mom’s greatest talent lay in taking a big pot of water and turning it into a masterpiece. Her soups should have won awards. And the variety was vast! The aforementioned borscht, never from a jar, never eaten cold with sour cream or potatoes, has never been replaced in my life. A few weeks ago we had a meat lunch in a Ukrainian restaurant in Queens. There was borscht on the menu. But I, wise enough to leave little to shrugging my shoulders with a $10 cup of soup heading my way, asked before I ordered. Was it sweet and sour? Negative. Negative for the order as well. I chose ptolemy in hearty chicken broth which was all quite delicious but never a match for the dreamed of smoky, meat laden borscht.
Her soup menu was enormous and filled with all the Jewish classics. Her own chicken soup, with rock-hard cannon balls, as Dad called those kneidlach he adored only if they were hard enough to break a toe, tasted of chicken and it was luxurious, fat globules serenely floating around on top, no hint of powder or anything artificial, and fresh vegetables adding brilliant color. Mom did have her little creative techniques. A sweet potato immersed in the pot added a touch of sweetness, and always enough salt to brighten the flavor.
Mushroom and barley was deservedly loved. Flanken laced cabbage soup was divine. Split pea was solace during a snowstorm. And, for the summer heat, home-made schav, actually the only one of her soups I never liked, but it satisfied everyone else and looked colorful and pretty.
She never used recipes for any of the soups but they were a constant in our house. She was a soup-maker par excellence and earned a reputation as the “soup lady” when someone, friend, neighbor or family member needed comfort, usually during a time of recovery from illness. What could be more beautiful than a gift of soup to lift the spirits? Nothing!
Her talents were not confined to soup however. She made many delicacies that I have not seen since. I adored her lung and miltz, whatever it was made from. I still don’t know what miltz is but I don’t want to Google it, preferring to romanticize a unique taste and texture that was exquisite.
Sweetbreads with mushrooms was totally delicious. And chopped liver, laden with fried onions was memorable.
One of her secret ingredients for meat meals was a healthy and hearty dose of schmaltz. My father imbibed for almost 70 years and lived to nearly 98 so it clearly didn’t cause him any harm. Pop, who eschewed the delicious dose of chicken grease, only lived to 77, so perhaps schmaltz should be sold in the supermarket health-food section. I am known to have spread it thickly on a piece of challah and then feeling that all was right with the world. Of course these days, more conscious of good and evil, schmaltz is never a guest in our home and my children grew up in a schmaltz free house. Do they even know what it is? I’ll have to ask.
My mother, however, failed in the dessert department. That was never her forte. We usually ended our meals with canned fruit of some kind. Fruit salad. Pears. Peaches. All swimming in thick viscous sweetened syrup, memorable but not longed for. In our home I cannot recall ever buying canned fruit of any variety.
Mom knew she was not a baker or creator of exotic closings to her fabulous and tempting meals. She claimed that even elegant restaurants had separate chefs for pastry and dessert.
So we look back in longing for the days that were and the people we lived with and loved with and the meals that filled our hearts and souls. Mom’s kitchen was more than a place. It was a source of our heritage. Our delicious heritage! It was the center of our lives.