With kugel in the oven, the house smelled like anticipation. At my house, Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — wasn’t complete without creamy, cheesy noodle kugel, usually accompanied by brisket or roasted chicken. It signified that my maternal grandparents were on their way down to Baltimore from New York City.
When my grandparents came to visit, it was like having a living, breathing piece of New York City in the house. I swear I could pick up a whiff of the lobby from their apartment building when I hugged them. Somewhat musky, like soot swirled with men’s cologne and women’s perfume. The expensive kind. The kind that went with New York City apartment houses where uniformed doormen hailed taxis, held packages, or opened umbrellas until the fringed awning with gold printed building numbers offered shelter. Of course, I didn’t really know what it took to live comfortably in New York City. But I did know that despite the grime and constant reminders to wash my hands when we visited, the city was cosmopolitan at its core. So were my grandparents.
When I was a high school senior, my grandfather made the drive down to Baltimore once again with eight dozen bagels and a side of lox for my class graduation breakfast. He still carried that New York City musk with him. Soot, cigar, cologne. This time it was tinged with yeast, caraway, and Grandma’s absence. I hadn’t known that in the void her leaving created, the recollection of Grandma’s scent would make me feel her death all over again. I was beginning to learn that memories floated on the cusp of ambient air. Accessible on the inhale. Prolonged on the exhale.
Our kitchen had a junk drawer, a double-decker sort of affair which, when pulled open, revealed a lid with a thumbhole cut-out. Sliding the lid open revealed the drawer’s contents. It was meant to be a bread drawer, but ours was filled with Utz potato chips, pretzel sticks, and Cheez-It crackers. Tastykakes — like Butterscotch Krimpets, Koffee Kake Juniors, and creme-filled chocolate cupcakes with curlicued white icing — beckoned from their cellophane wrappers.
But the chocolate-covered peanut butter Kandy Kakes were the star of the drawer. They meant only one thing: Mom was going to cook up some bacon so Dad could make his special breakfast sandwich. Preparing the bacon was as close as Mom would get to this concoction. She never ate this, not even one bite.
Putting together this sandwich was the only time Dad stood at the kitchen counter other than to pour himself a cup of coffee from the stove top Pyrex percolator. He used two Kandy Kakes like slices of bread. Then, he put two pieces of bacon in between. The bacon draped over the edges of the Kandy Kakes so that when he held the whole thing up to his mouth, it looked like he had a bacon moustache. He usually ate two of these sandwiches. Sometimes three. He always drank a cup of coffee while he ate them.
I used to think this was an almost criminal and complete misappropriation of perfectly good Kandy Kakes. “How can you stand to eat that?” I would ask. He would just smile, shrug his shoulders, and continue eating. Occasionally, I could put my disgust aside and see that this indulgence brought him sheer joy. A bite of sandwich. A gulp of coffee. Another bite of sandwich. Another gulp of coffee. His sandwich to coffee ratio was spot on. After the third repetition of this process, he would pat his belly. The morning’s headlines accompanied the rest of his coffee. He would push back his chair, wipe his hands one final time, kiss me on the cheek, then off to work.
Back then, my palate hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for sweet and salty combinations. I was still in the one or the other camp. But now I crave it. Often. Especially when I smell bacon cooking.
Thanksgiving is really all about the leftovers. First, you make a quick Russian dressing with some mayo and ketchup. Then, you take a spoonful of bread stuffing and spread it with some gravy. Next, you slather it with Russian dressing. Cut a slice of turkey to fit on top and voilà! You, dear daughter, have just made the perfect post-Thanksgiving nibble.
This is what Mom said while I mixed the Russian dressing, and she pulled the turkey, the stuffing, and the gravy from the refrigerator.
It always tastes better eaten while standing at the counter within arm’s reach of the paper towels. This last part she didn’t say out loud. The smile that spread across her face as easily as the Russian dressing spread across the turkey said it all.
In 1974, as I turned 15, my parents divorced. Despite an easing of the household strain and tension after my father moved out, sadness and a sense of instability sometimes threatened to overwhelm me.
In need of cheering up, I wanted to invite my closest friends over for a birthday dinner party. Mom, always ready for a celebration, wholeheartedly agreed. She said that if I planned the menu, she would make whatever I wanted. Whatever I wanted? How on earth was I going to decide?
One day after school, I browsed through the New York Times Cookbook, the one edited by Craig Claiborne. It was navy blue except for a square of green with gold lettering on the spine that announced the title and author. It sat on the kitchen shelf alongside the New Settlement Cookbook, Gourmet Cookbook, and my well-worn copy of Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook.
Wedged on the same shelf as the cookbooks were two cartons of Kents. A large glass ashtray, mostly full, rested on the turquoise green countertop below the shelf. Both my parents smoked. But it was easy to tell how many of those cigarettes were Mom’s because her lipstick, Revlon’s Fire and Ice, left its telltale ring around the filter. I knew what chain smoking meant long before I knew the real cost of a carton of cigarettes.
This piece of countertop, the hub of the kitchen, was just big enough for a turquoise green metal stepstool chair to slide under. Often, my mother sat there, a cup of coffee at hand, reading the paper or writing a grocery list, a cigarette clutched between her second and third fingers. Her fingernails, slender and oval, sometimes painted red, the same Revlon Fire and Ice red as the lipstick she wore, made her seem elegant. My fingernails, short, sometimes bitten to the point of bleeding, were a source of contention between us. I was sure my fingernails would never rival hers, even if I stopped biting.
Reading the New York Times Cookbook made me realize that recipes were more than ingredient lists and cooking instructions. Reading those recipes, digesting those cookbooks, I could imagine not just what certain dishes might taste like, but what I might be like if I tasted or cooked them. Recipes were like little travel journals hinting at another life. They provided an escape as I struggled to understand the swift changes occurring in my family. When reading cookbooks and recipes failed to transport me, I overate, comforting myself with food to the point of gluttony.
My mother and I were close, but learning to cook at her side, planning menus with her, creating grocery lists, cemented our bond. Doing these seemingly mundane things taught me I was capable, competent, creative.
Just prior to the divorce, Mom finished her master’s degree in social work. Her new career filled me with pride, distinguished her from most of my friends’ moms. On the nights she had evening classes or clinic hours, I oversaw the feeding of the family. A favorite was spaghetti with meatballs. Mom prepared the meat mixture. I formed it into meatballs, then cooked them in the spaghetti sauce she had already made. It was tricky cooking the spaghetti so it was done at about the same time as the meatballs. I also learned how to make the mustardy, lemony vinaigrette we dressed our salad with each night. The secret was mixing it with a whisk, which made it almost creamy. I had no idea I was developing a true passion for cooking, but I was beginning to learn that cooking for and feeding others satisfied me in a way that eating, often overeating to fill a void, never could.
When I found the recipe for Beef Wellington, I knew that’s what I wanted for my birthday dinner. Mom had never made Beef Wellington but was up to the challenge. She, like me, needed a distraction after my younger brother, Mike, had gone to live with our father. I couldn’t imagine leaving mom or our house to live with dad in an apartment. But Mike’s empty seat at the dining table was a daily reminder of how much our lives had been disrupted.
The day before the dinner party, Mom started to tackle the “Welly” as we were now calling it. First, the pastry crust was prepared and placed in the refrigerator. Next, mushrooms and shallots were finely chopped, cooked in a bit of butter, splashed with Madeira. The tenderloin of beef was seasoned with salt and pepper before being seared on all sides. The mushroom duxelles was spread onto thinly sliced prosciutto ham. With utmost care, this fragile layer was pressed onto the beef. Kitchen twine was strategically tied to help contain the wrapped roast while it chilled in the refrigerator for thirty minutes. The pastry crust came out of the refrigerator to rest on the counter before being rolled to size. It had to be big enough to completely enclose the beef. Finally, all the parts and pieces came together. The oven was at temperature. I opened the oven door. The blast of heat reminded us we were past the point of no return. Mom slid the black enamel roasting pan inside.
We crossed our fingers.
By this time, my friends had arrived. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” drifted into the dining room from the stereo. Our first course, a crisp green salad with thinly sliced red onions and red cabbage in mom’s mustardy vinaigrette, held us until the main course arrived. After letting it rest for ten minutes, mom began to slice into the Beef Wellington as we ooohed and aaahed over its golden crust. But when she cut into it, it was clear that the beef had not cooked through. In fact, it was still cold.
She didn’t curse or scream or carry on, like my father probably would have. Instead, she erupted into laughter. By this time, we were all laughing, too. She continued cutting the “Welly” into slices, then heated up a cast iron skillet and cooked each slice until the meat was at the proper temperature.
It was a thing of beauty.
We ate every single piece.
PB & J
“If you don’t like what’s for dinner, you know where to find the peanut butter and jelly,” Mom would say when my brother and I complained about Picadillo, lamb stew, Brussels sprouts instead of carrots, or the fact that we never had bread and butter with dinner like all our friends.
Not once did either of us make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
As an oral surgeon, Dad extracted college kids’ wisdom teeth when they came home from holiday breaks. He rebuilt people’s jaws after a trauma or accident negated their ability to chew or eat solid food. He spent his days hunched over a dental chair or operating table, where he was master of his dental universe. He spent part of every evening calling his patients to check on them after a procedure. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he had to go to the hospital to perform emergency surgery. None of my friends had a surgeon for a father.
Dad was able to withstand the pressure of the operating room with no-nonsense steeliness. But at home, his temper overflowed if I spilled a glass of milk. His deep-set eyes popped from their sockets like a cartoon character’s. His ashen skin reddened. I could almost see the blood pulsing in the twisted blue veins running down the side of his face, deepening toward violet as they threatened to burst. He would explode with a curt goddamn it while the rest of us scrambled for dish towels or napkins or anything with which to sop up as much milk as possible before it dripped onto the hardwood floor.
When my report card came home with more Bs than Cs, he would ask, “Why aren’t there any As?” When my report card came home with an A, he would ask, “Why aren’t there more?” I knew he was mean because, once, he washed my mouth out with soap while I had a friend sleeping over. When Deborah Johnson came over to play after school, I always hoped she would leave before my father came home so she wouldn’t have to find out he hated Black people.
But occasionally, if a lightened mood allowed, Dad would take me to Silber’s Bakery. He always bought a piece of rainbow cake for us to share. I was never sure if the red layer actually tasted like cherry or if my imagination told me it did. The yellow layer had a distinct citrusy flavor. Mostly, it was sweet. When we shared a piece of this cake, Dad was contemplative. Calm. As if he, too, was trying to discern the flavors of the rainbow.
COFFEE AND KENTS
Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1984, Mom had a tumor removed, the result of all those damned cartons of Kents. The surgery was successful, but another tumor developed shortly before I moved to New Mexico, around New Year’s Eve, 1986. Mom came to visit the following spring, but she seemed tired and complained of a headache and lower back pain. I tried to convince myself she might just be a little dehydrated from the high altitude, the dry desert air, but then she suffered a seizure, which sent her to the hospital.
I had been excited to introduce Mom to my new city. To the east, we could ride the tram to the top of Sandia Crest, then sip hot chocolate at 10,000 feet above sea level. To the west, I could take her to Petroglyphs National Monument, where Native Americans carved symbols and designs into the volcanic rock 700 years ago. I also wanted to take her out for green chile stew made with prized New Mexico Hatch green chiles.
None of those things happened.
The Albuquerque doctor who took care of Mom ordered lots of tests and prescribed physical therapy to help with her back pain while a respiratory therapist worked with her daily to maintain her lung capacity.
I knew Mom was feeling better after her second day there because, when I visited her, she was propped up in the hospital bed giving herself a manicure after she’d asked me to bring her toiletries from her suitcase. I couldn’t believe she was traveling with Revlon’s Fire and Ice nail polish, a cuticle trimmer, and a nail file. That nail polish — not too orange, with just the perfect amount of pink — was really something. It always made her look elegant, like my mom, no matter what, even from a hospital bed. When she wore it, it took my breath away.
The tests confirmed the cancer was spreading to other parts of Mom’s body, including her lower spine. Cancer is decidedly inelegant.
The first Thanksgiving turkey I cooked was at Mom’s house, our last holiday together, the last meal we shared. I lost count of how many times I ran up and down the stairs, bee-lining between her room and the kitchen with question after question:
How much paprika and garlic powder do I use? What am I supposed to do with the bag of innards? Where is the blue enamel roasting pan? What time should I put the turkey in the oven? How long does the turkey need to rest on the counter before I try to carve it? Will you be able to come down to the dining room table to eat? Are you sure?
Mom’s bedroom was directly above the living room. I could hear her gasping, working hard for each breath. To block out the irregular beat of those breaths, I tried to imagine instead the beat of the stove top Pyrex percolator, the bloop…bloop…bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop as water steadily soaked the coffee grounds in the basket before dripping into the bottom of the pot. I could almost conjure the aroma of a freshly made pot of coffee, hear the trickling of the coffee as mom poured her third or fourth or fifth cup of the day. Sometimes a few dregs would make their way into the coffee, but mom drank it, undeterred. She used to drink coffee all day, often taking a cup up to bed with her. Her coffee cups were like cairns marking her movements throughout her days, one in the kitchen, one on her desk, one on her nightstand.
But the percolator hadn’t been used in weeks. It was in the cupboard with the now unused coffee cups, stacked in the dark, markers that cancer was winning.
We buried her on New Year’s Eve, 1987, six weeks shy of her fifty-third birthday.
When she became an empty-nester, Mom decided to market her lemon curd. She spent lots of Saturday afternoons at the neighborhood grocer offering samples. Made from butter, eggs, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest, lemon curd pairs well with lots of things. If it were a dress, it would be a little black number, easy to dress up or down.
Clad in a linen apron, Mom chatted with shoppers about how to use her lemon curd. It makes a delicious dip for crackly meringues or fresh strawberries. Spread it between layers of vanilla cake. Serve it inside a crêpe, top your pancakes with it, stuff it inside an almond tuile cookie, or use it as the base of a lemon meringue pie. Mix it with whipped cream to layer into a summer berry trifle instead of pastry cream. The truth was that it was at its best spread on a piece of toast.
I hadn’t known that Mom’s lemon curd endeavor would make me just as proud of her as when she walked across the stage during her graduation from social work school, her name booming over the loudspeaker. That was the first time I understood the expression “my heart burst with pride.” I felt the same bursting as I helped pass out lemon curd samples. It was as if I was seeing her through a wide-angle lens instead of being zoomed in. Often too close. Sometimes clingy. I could see how she smiled with her eyes. I could hear that her laugh put people at ease. That people, complete strangers, responded to her. That her confidence grew as each person tasted her lemon curd from the sample-sized paper souffle cups she offered. That they licked the little white plastic spoons clean. That, possibly, her confidence made the lemon curd taste even better. That her connection to people through food came naturally to her. It was instinctual. Primal. Basic. Almost like breathing. It isn’t something we are taught. It is something we do. First, we inhale. Then, we exhale. Until, eventually, we don’t.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: lila dobbs/Flickr Creative Commons