My mother’s kitchen didn’t have many cabinets. For some obscure reason old fashioned kitchens didn’t feature countertops, built-in appliances (actually what were the appliances in 1927?) or adequate storage space of any kind. But, when Zayda built our four family house, someone must have given him instructions to make sure that each apartment had a nice roomy pantry. Our pantry was not quite a buried treasure but I’ll bet my mother could never tell you everything that was in there. It was a walk-in, opposite the foyer which was home to the mahogany secretary desk that my father worked at nightly and a mere 8 or 10 steps from the kitchen itself. Every ingredient that my mother needed was in there, unless of course she forgot something, in which case she would call Jerry at his grocery store on Clinton Place and he would send it over. Or, in emergencies, my sister or I would be the delivery guys.
The pantry was also home to the icebox, which was happily discarded in favor of an electric refrigerator eventually. My mother, always literary, rejoiced that the iceman cometh no more. And the debut of the play on Broadway in 1946 roughly coincided with the departure of the messy clunker which required so much ice that there was nary any room for the food items. Forget about freezer space. That was yet to come.
As I write this, I acknowledge that the kitchen was squarely my mother’s. My father never entered the pantry and never ever ever prepared a meal. That was generally the way of the world, at least in Jewish homes in Newark, New Jersey a mere few decades ago. My own husband, claimed as my own in 1960, also is essentially incapable of mustering up a meal. His best is to spread some peanut butter (an ingredient never extant in my mother’s pantry) on the remnants of the Shabbat challah.
But our grandchildren, on the other hand, are all cooks, of varying levels of achievement, adventure, and complexity. Even the boys, many of whom are now married men. It’s not unusual for me to get a phone call, especially from Benji, but from others as well, asking for a quick “how-to” for chag or Friday night dinner. For this past Rosh Hashanah we had a long discussion on the making of fricassee with meatballs. His assumption was that fricassee was a Yiddish word and I revealed that the word is actually French and that the dish was a regular in my mother’s repertoire. My mother was sort-of a French speaker and definitely a Francophile. Since my mother died without passing on her culinary secrets I had to conjure up what I thought might be the ingredients. This required me transporting my mind and memories to the pantry. What do I remember of her cache of ingredients? How did the fricassee become the exquisite creation that it always was? And how did it translate itself into a kosher dish minus its very treif origins?
When my mother was already declining and spending her last days on Earth at the loving nursing home in Kfar Saba, I asked her how she made the fricassee. In those days when she could still spot a grammatical mistake in a newspaper but could not identify what she had for breakfast, which was usually the same every day, a cereal known in Hebrew as disa, she answered me thusly “You know.” I told her I really didn’t but, nonetheless, I got the same response. Repeated tries brought no more lucidity and when she died,I was bereft, and still without the recipe.
Through the years I experimented. Someone had suggested adding cranberry sauce and tomato sauce to the ground beef meatballs and chicken. I tried that combination and it became a family favorite but, in my heart I knew it was wrong. As I conjured up my mother’s pantry I knew she never used cranberry sauce, except for the canned version on Thanksgiving, and it clearly was not a staple in her cooking. The same was true of tomato sauce. Her spaghetti and meatballs were no more Italian than a Jewish lady with roots in Bialystok, by way of Brooklyn, could muster. Her cooking, albeit delicious, always all-ways tasted Ashkenazi Jewish, even when transported to the Weequahic section of Newark.
So, I walked into her pantry. The mind and the memory can sometimes be restored. And so it was that I found myself peering magically at the shelves on Aldine Street. Breadcrumbs? Nah! My mother’s staple was matzoh meal, not only on Pesach but all year. Red sauce? Of course! Ketchup! The house was never missing Heinz Ketchup. It was as much a staple as salt or sugar (but, strangely, not pepper!). I thought one thing needed to be added and that became obvious. There, on the bottom shelf, never sticky because my mother was fastidious about not attracting vermin, was the honey. That was it! Ketchup and honey blended together with the simmering, ambrosia of the chicken parts and the ground beef mixed with egg and matzoh meal. Voila, as they say in Francaise, fricassee with meatballs! And totally kosher.
So now that I have brought myself back to the old days, a veritable time machine, I’m going to master her potato kugel, made without benefit of a food processor, hand grated, and swimming in Crisco. I can smell it already! B’tayavon.