My mother was a gourmet cook who never followed recipes. She hardly ever baked, except for her delicious mandel bread whose formula she had committed to memory, so she was otherwise largely able to manage making delectable meals by instinct alone.
And what meals they were. She was notably famous for her variety of soups. There were lentil, cabbage, split pea,vegetable, barley and mushroom, meat borscht (my all time favorite) and the inimitable chicken. These were never just special occasion treats. We had soup in our house almost daily and my father was no fan of leftovers, which meant that every day a different soup pot was bubbling away on the stove.
Her kitchen, though, was somewhat primitive by our standards. She lacked basics like dishwashers, instant hot water, timers on the oven, microwaves, toaster ovens. Let me walk you through her Aldine Street kitchen in the 1940’s and 50’s.
The sink was a double sink but not in the sense that kashrut requires. One sink was abnormally deep which was used for hand washing clothes. This had some sort of metal covering which she would slide over to the other sink when she needed it to use for laundry. In truth, by the time I was a child old enough to remember, she already had a washing machine, deep down in the basement. This took a lot of work away from her but maybe not as much as you’d think. The clothes, nicely spun dry, had to be carried up the stairs and hung out of the bedroom windows. All of our mothers did the same thing and none of them seemed to fall out the windows retrieving an errant towel or sock. That was a miracle since often times the clothesline would resist the pull and go in its own direction. The clothing would always emerge at the end of this process hard as boards.
In inclement weather she had a series of clotheslines in the basement. This was easier because the dry clothing was a bit lighter to carry up. However the clothes were somewhat dingy from the damp basement air.
But, at least, the days of hand washing everything from towels to diapers were history. This seemed miraculous to my mother. As to me, I never cared and was always very cavalier about using towels freely without ever thinking of the drudgery of the hanging and schlepping. It wasn’t until many many years later that I myself acquired a clothes dryer. Ooh la la. The softness. The fragrance. Delicious.
My mother’s stove was nothing special. No bells or whistles. A pilot light of course. No self cleaning oven for sure but it seemed to last forever, as opposed to mine, which seem to have a built in life expectancy of maybe 8 to 10 years,
The remaining piece of equipment was the refrigerator. It had a tiny freezer but frozen foods were never a big part of our menus. Like the stove, the refrigerator lasted forever. I think at least 30 years. I can’t even guess how many times I’ve replaced my refrigerators.
The appliances were only white. No stainless steel. No avocado or harvest gold. Plain white.
On the sink, the part that covered the wash basin for laundry also served another purpose. That was where the meat was kashered. My mother had a large board which she angled so the blood could drain. The meat was drowned with thick kosher salt. This was an almost daily process since without a freezer not much to do with the kashered meat. In those days when going to the neighborhood kosher butcher was a frequent activity, and meat selection was akin to selecting a spouse, the buying and kashering of the meat became an important part of the day. Ground beef, which did not required this onerous process, was not kashered by my mother. I suppose Joe the butcher did it.
Incredibly there were no kitchen cabinets or counters. Storage was in a large pantry down the hall. Preparation must have been on the kitchen table although I’m embarrassed to say I really don’t remember. Finally, when I was already a teenager, we acquired cabinets. My mother was excited!
Her ingredients were somewhat different from ours. I don’t think, for example, that my mother ever heard of extra virgin olive oil. She used Crisco or vegetable oil.
She didn’t know from kale or tofu or instant anything. She didn’t know that beans were healthy and that meat was high in cholesterol. Both she and my father reached ripe old ages and neither one ever had their cholesterol checked. That was good since there’s little doubt that they both had high readings, proving that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.
When my mother was cooking, which seemed to be very often, our dog Phoebe, a loving mongrel, would follow her around waiting for chunks of whatever to fall her way. Phoebe never discovered dog food. I sometimes think she ate better than we did. She even ate chocolate, which any contemporary responsible dog owner knows is highly toxic. It didn’t seem to hurt her. Just sayin!
I don’t remember my grandmother’s kitchen at all but I’m sure it resembled my mother’s pretty strongly. And I can’t imagine what my kids will think about mine, which lacks hot pots. A shanda!