Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Wave of Grief Takes Me By Surprise




When the pot sat on my mother’s stove I was too short to see inside 
Now I’m looking into it squeezing lemon, inhaling peppercorn and bay 
I yank a leaf from an almost cooked artichoke and scrape its flesh between my teeth    
Memories form inside my mouth 
A girl reaching across the table dipping leaves in drawn butter
Tough outer leaves, then thinner, purple tinged tender ones 
Sweeter but with less meat

I straighten while my artichoke cools
One hand runs the faucet to soak the pot 
The other sponges the counter  
Mom’s efficiency internalized and I catch myself smirking 
Unbidden, her litany of illness
ties me in knots 

Mom didn’t trim her artichokes 
Though it might have been expected it was a nasty surprise 
When a leaf’s spiny tip pricked my finger drawing blood 
I learned to be wary
She guided my hand as I held the knife to cut out the choke 
The armor that guards the heart
With the same intent I do it now

Later I cut a mango to share with my son
“Do you want the pit” I ask, “No, no pit”   
There was never mango in my mother’s kitchen so the wave of grief takes me by surprise
Then I remember a lifetime ago I mistook pit for seed
I said ‘A man plants a pit in the woman to grow a baby’
and my mother laughed, repeating my gaff many times

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Opening Cans


On nights of Chicken-a-la-King I’d pick at the noodles, pouting, shooting squinty-eyed hate darts at my mother and sister across the table. The meal was an easy one, and Karen adored it but I could not stand the bland beige glop my mother mixed from cans and called a fancy name.  

My mind has seen fit to bury most early memories of my sister. She was a lanky string bean with a thick auburn ponytail that was longer than I was tall. She was Daddy’s girl and I was mom’s. Here—snippets of memory: we played “Highland Kennels” a game where she was the master and I was a dog. I would eagerly lap at the bowl of water she’d put on the kitchen floor, then to thank her I’d lick her feet. 

After latkes one Hanukkah we lit our menorahs and opened gifts of matching princess gowns that we immediately put on. Mom went into the kitchen or her room and Karen and I were alone together watching the candles. I broke the rule and used a napkin to smother one of the flames. The napkin caught fire and with our bare feet we stomped it out, silently. My gown got singed but Karen never tattled. 

One year she stopped going to school. She’d get up, get dressed, sit and read, and in the afternoon visit a psychiatrist who had candy and toys in the waiting room where I sat biding time. When she returned to school the next year she wasn’t even behind. In contrast, I went to school early each morning because I needed help learning to read. 

By 14 she had gotten into sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, and was at war with our mother. A violent war with slapping and pots flung across the room. They’d be in the kitchen while I’d sit in the living room with my eyes closed.  At 16 she swallowed a bottle of pills and knocked on a neighbor’s door. The neighbor called 911. She had her stomach pumped and was admitted to the psych floor. After that, she never came home. “If only” she told me years later, “If only I had known that the misery would end.”

It was unkind of me to turn up my nose at supper. I see now my mother and sister’s shared fondness for Chicken-a-la-King was a rare instance they recognized themselves in each other. Food is good for that—creating bonds which can lead to healing. But I couldn’t stand Karen being the ‘easy child’ for even a moment. She got her of attention kicking and screaming and plenty of it. I wanted sole dominion over being good and undemanding. Each chunk of insipid chicken or squashed pea pushed to the side of my plate challenged that status quo, adding to my rage.

Over the years my feelings towards Karen softened. We shared a love for ideas and words, though never for each others food. But put the three of us together, even after years living apart and we’d slide back to old patterns; my sister defiant, my mother beleaguered, me—nursing indignation.

In 2006, after a period of feeling under the weather my sister ended up in the emergency room and was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. It was already too late. I wanted to attribute it to drugs, to her diet, to a mistrust of authority that kept her from check-ups when maybe it could have been caught early on. We didn’t tell our mother who was already ill. 

I was Karen’s chemo buddy. We’d sit in the treatment room talking for hours while the chemicals dripped in her veins. Sometimes I’d bring snacks. Once, a container of Chicken-a-la-King which she ate with gusto, but was so nauseated from the chemo later that day we decided she should eat more lightly. That period before her death was the closest we ever were.  

When my mother died and I started cooking memories, I purchased the same cans she had used: Swanson White Premium Chunk Chicken, Green Giant Sweet Peas, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. I set them on my kitchen counter but couldn’t bring myself to open them. Instead, after a few days I left the cans on the steps of the church down the street.

Objectively, free-range chicken tenderly poached in aromatic broth, tossed with wild mushrooms, hand shelled peas, torn herbs and thick fresh cream is delicious over al dente egg-rich noodles. But taste is not objective. What goes in our mouth tastes as much of memories and situations as of flavor compounds and spice. And flavor memories, like all memories, creates behavior that ripples outward.

I put the leftovers of my homemade version in the fridge where they sit spoiling. A few weeks later I make it again, thinking it might taste different. It doesn’t. I put these leftovers in the fridge thinking my son will eat them. He doesn’t. “You would like this” I say. “I just don’t” he replies. For a moment his taste vindicates mine, giving me strength with the simplicity and clarity of his reaction. Then I’m wondering at the things we pass along; likes, prejudices, and the pains of our sisters and mothers.

Poach bone-in chicken thighs and breasts in 4 c water along with an onion cut in half, a carrot, celery, parsley stems, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, salt, and a small handful of peppercorns. When chicken is cooked through (approx. 20 minutes) strain broth and set aside. When cool enough to handle, pull meat off the bones. Sometimes I return the discarded skin, fat, bones and seasoning to the broth and boil for another hour to wring out every bit of flavor.

In a cast iron skillet sear two cups of mushrooms (I use a mix of wild mushrooms) over high heat until the mushrooms give up their water and begin to brown. Add a pinch of salt and set mushrooms aside. 
In the same skillet melt  2 T butter. Stir in a heaping tablespoon of flour and let cook over low heat for a few minutes. Add a cup of milk and 1/2 cup each of heavy cream and the reserved broth (freeze the rest of the broth for another use). Add a grating of nutmeg, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of salt. Add a splash of sherry, or bourbon is good too. Bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Stir in cooked chicken, the mushrooms, a handful of frozen peas and some chopped fresh herbs (I suggest parsley, thyme, and a bit of sage. Or dill and tarragon are nice too.) 
Serve over buttered egg noodles.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Beef Stew



It was because the neighbors made such a fuss coming over when my mother cooked stew and asking for the recipe that the stew grew larger than life. I greeted the gravy soaked potatoes and carrots with pleasure. I’d line them up on my plate and mash them into piles, melting margarine on top to make them richer. My mother loved the onions but I didn’t and I was neutral on the celery. The meat was a crapshoot, some pieces were fall apart tender but the threat of hidden gristle or an endlessly chewy bit made each bite suspect.

She browned the meat first. She used cooking wine from the supermarket mixed with bouillon cubes for broth. She must have cooked it over the week-ends when she had more time. We’d eat it two or three times the following week. I’d sit at the table waiting, watching her discard shards of congealed fat from the surface of the chilled pot. Once defatted, she’d reheat the pot over a low flame and turn her attention to salad. 

I don’t know the story behind the recipe, or if she took pleasure in the slow simmer that scented the house. Did she think “Damn I make good stew.” Did she sometimes think she was something raising kids on her own? Did she feel alluring and wish someone might fall for her because she could juggle, cope, and cook? 

When I make stew I use carefully trimmed pasture-raised beef, good red wine, homemade broth, and I think all those things. Lighter, quicker cooking is more my style, but when I make stew I’m filled with hope. 

My stew has never once matched the one that fed that awkward girl. I can see myself sitting in my mother's kitchen watching her every move, searching for cracks in her veneer—places levity or love might seep out. What I got was gravy soaked potatoes. My mother put in extra because she knew I liked them.

Stiffness and incremental loss of stability mixed with depression and the onset of dementia coalesced into the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Year after year pieces of her disappeared. I’d sit with her, lining up food on her plate, mashing it into piles, feeding her with a spoon, hoping the food might wake her senses. She was trapped inside herself, slogging through a tangle of memories, or maybe they were drug induced hallucinations. I thought if I listened carefully enough I’d figure out what her broken sentences meant. I liked to think I had a knack that could break though her isolation.

Now, cooking and eating her stew to write these words, the memory of the girl at the table watching her mother cook, and the woman feeding her mother, merge. I'm realizing how much time I spent waiting, watching and waiting, hoping for something that wasn’t there. The food was there, but it didn’t fill me. It couldn’t fill her. 

One common storytelling trope is the quest story. When its a food story the protagonist tastes something and the flavor rekindles something lost. In the story a single bite transports an eater across time and a kind of magic takes place where the food and the thing lost become one. I cook my mother’s stew over and over. I am a better cook than she was and my stew is excellent. It tastes of what wasn’t there. 


Beef Stew
3 # Chuck steak
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half 

1/2 # Crimini mushrooms
3 c. homemade broth
1 c. red wine
bay leaf, thyme, 4-5 garlic cloves, salt, pepper
2 T tomato puree
1/2 # carrots—peeled and cut into large chunks 
1/2 # each: Japanese turnips and shallots—peeled and left whole
1#  potatoes—peeled and cut into 2” chunks
2 stalks celery, chopped into 2” pieces

Use a thick Chuck steak rather than the pre-cut stew meat. Trim away thick veins of gristle and the thickest of the fat. Sear the steak in a super hot skillet sprinkled with a big pinch of salt—approx 3-4 minutes per side—long enough to brown the surface of the meat. Move to a cutting board and let rest. In the same skillet sear the peeled onion until there are bits of char on the surface. Set onion aside. Sear mushrooms until they give up their water. Set aside. Deglaze pan with wine, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce wine to around 3/4 c.
Preheat oven to 300
Cut seared meat into 2” chunks. 
Put onion, celery, mushrooms, red wine, bay leaf, thyme, tomato puree and broth in an 
oven-proof stew pot. Bring to a boil. Add beef and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. The broth should not quite cover the beef. 
Partially cover pot and transfer to oven for an hour and a half. 
Add carrots, turnip, potatoes and another sprinkle of salt and pepper. Add a little more broth if needed. Roast, partially covered for another hour or until the vegetables and meat are fork tender.



Saturday, May 28, 2016

baked goods




My mother would supervise and help me light the oven when I baked box cakes on my birthdays. As far as I recall she never baked a cake from scratch or made a pie—but since you don’t miss what you don’t know, I didn't feel deprived. There was frozen Sara Lee, or Entenmann’s, or maybe a babka from the bakery down the street. Anyway, I was more interested in salty crackers and chips.

Mom noshed mid-morning. A bisl bis to fit the side of a saucer or a paper napkin she’d de-crumb for later reuse, or on work days she’d tuck a foil wrapped treat in her purse. This was a habit she observed until her last days, an indulgence tenaciously guarded; her second cup of instant crystals with a bite of something sweet. All by herself. Not even with the newspaper. Over time I’ve come to understand such pleasure but as a girl I didn’t. Her ritual seemed lonely and dreary and I was never invited to join.

Baking is a part of the life I’ve built as a professional cook. I’m a competent baker though lack passion for the art, nonetheless I’ve mastered what my mother loved; rugelach, tender quick breads that are a foil to coffee, sweetened yeasted twists. She was never tempted by milie feuille, cannoli or towering lemon meringue—those were deemed fancy and she was plain, and in cake at least, our tastes converged.

I never mentioned the cakes I baked and didn’t bring her samples though I've shared with everyone else. It was like I was out doing her, being more her than she was. I suppose too it was an unconscious revenge; “I wasn’t invited to your lonely kaffeeklatsch, well mine is tastier and more fun.”  


In the weeks following her death I binge-baked, stocking my freezer for her  memorial, rolling chocolate into rising dough, pinching measures of cinnamon and cardamom, slicking danish with melted jam. The more heavenly the kitchen smelled the sadder I became, but not from grief. It was that with her gone I could begin to examine the depression that had blanketed our world. 

Those meager bites she’d allowed herself for comfort only fed my hunger. The seeds and nuts buried like gems in the pastries she loved became seeds of my despair. I had been neither good enough company, nor strong enough to rescue her. 

The other night I had a dream. I am a cartoon apple. Round, red, easily bruised. I lay fallen in the shadow of the tree, waiting for a buck’s swift kick or howling winds to carry me off, ashamed I have no legs.

Apple Cake
1 c AP flour
1/2 c dark rye flour
1/2 c buckwheat flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t each: salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and unsweetened cocoa
3/4 c granulated sugar
1//2 c brown sugar, lightly packed
1 1/2 c unsweetened applesauce
1 apple, peeled and cut into small chunks 
2 eggs
2/3 c vegetable oil
2 t vanilla
2 cups peeled and roughly chopped apples tossed with 1/2 t cinnamon (approx 2 apples)

Pre-heat oven to 350o Oil and flour a bundt pan and set aside. In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Stir to blend. In another medium bowl combine sugars, eggs, vanilla, applesauce and oil. Stir to blend. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix well. Stir in apple. Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake 50 - 60 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the cake comes out dry.   
(If you prefer, bake in a loaf pan but you will have a cup or so too much batter for a standard 9” x 5” pan—put the extra in a mini-loaf pan or a muffin tin and bake for approx. 20 minutes). 

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. Let cool. If you’d like, glaze the cake with 1/2 c confectionary sugar stirred with 2 t or 3t of apple cider.



Thursday, March 31, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime rice-a-roni



Convenience may not be the most delicious, but it is a consideration. My mother worked full time, had little money and took whatever help she could get. She loved Rice-A-Roni. It was her way to elevate the same old same old, so in my eyes Rice-A-Roni became the mother-from-which-all-other-rice-dishes-derived; Biriyani, Arroz con Gandules, Mujaddara—even Chinese fried rice. Ass backwards, and the crazy thing is subliminally I still felt this despite knowing something of the crisscrossed journey of rice and recipes across time. We hold tight to what our mothers teach us despite the things we learn.

As a kid the elongated vermicelli and swollen grains were an impressionistic tangle of tasty earth tones on an otherwise hum drum plate. And eating something with such a happy tv jingle meant we too were a happy tv home. Now, the hydrolyzed corn gluten and dehydrated parsley flecks in true Proustian form carried me back through time, but the flavor set-off a collapse of painstakingly built illusion. The salty pilaf, like our dutifully held premise of happiness, turns out to have been make-believe.

In 1960, my mother, the shy youngest of shtetl immigrants, divorced my father who was having an affair, or maybe he left her—I never knew. Either way it was a distinction among her siblings and extended relatives, which speaks to her liberalism, and also how bad her marriage must have been. Dogged by missing support checks, the string of live-in nannies, my sister’s troubles—it was more than she could handle even though I tried so hard to make it right.

That bite of Rice-A-Roni after forty-five years filled my mouth with vitriol. Its broken promise tasted of my mother’s shortcomings, her weaknesses, my father’s narcissism, his absenteeism, my sister’s fragility, my passivity. Our missed connections. That bite ripped open memories I would have liked to forget. I scraped the Rice-A-Roni into the trash and left the pan on the counter where the rice dregs dried to crust.


Two days later washing my mother’s precious pan I was filled with such sadness. This is what she did. She fed us, then washed the dishes through her sadness and disappointment. She did the best she could. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime chocolate milk


         

    Around 5:30 pm I’d hover by the front door, waiting to take my mother’s briefcase to carry to the hall bench as she hung up her coat and kicked off her heels. Hungrier for her than for supper I’d trail her to the kitchen wanting to help. It couldn’t have been easy, working all day, then cooking with a kid hanging on your apron, but my mother had her repertoire and I think she was generally content making meals.
     By the time I was 10 or 11 I was reading cookbooks and making my own dishes. I got hooked on food because food’s a gregarious companion. It shares intimacies, gets messy and reacts to what you do, maybe more so than my family did.
     I don’t think my mother thought of food the way I think of food. The food she cooked shows she cared; it was tasty and mostly well prepared, but she wasn’t using the food to say ‘I want you to taste this because I’m watching you grow and I think you’ll like it now’ or ‘I know you’re studying such and such at school and this is what that food is like’ or even ‘here is a way we can celebrate the season’ the way I did with my kids. Her dinner would have been the same if I were there or not. She just made food.
     I have been cooking what I remember of her, trying to feel something I lost during the years of her illness and this experience of cooking and eating has roused buried emotion, but I hadn’t felt my mother’s love, and here I mean the deep primary kind, until I made chocolate syrup and drank a glass of chocolate milk. 
     When I was a kid we flipped between Bosco and Hershey's. It was what made milk palatable. I had it mornings with Cocoa Puffs and it paired surprisingly with fish sticks dipped in ketchup. On the occasions we had chocolate ice-cream I’d make a big production of double chocolate shakes. The syrup was her gift, her way of fixing things. I didn’t like milk but had to drink it, she let me use syrup. Closing my eyes now I can see the sanguine goo sinking in ribbons to the bottom of the glass, the edge of the spoon pokes out against the glass as it pulls upwards, stirring to blend though leaving unblended streaks too. I hear the spoon clinking on the side of the glass. 
     Chewing the tip of a red and white straw I'd blow bubbles till they overflowed, sliding in slow-motion down the side of the glass, popping on the table leaving chocolate milk rings. In my teens I swiped a baby bottle from one of my charges and late at night I’d lie on the couch stoned, sucking chocolate milk, obliterating my mind on late night tv. 
   Tasting my homemade elixir the chocolates’ spiciness ignited my throat while the milk caressed, hushing the flame. My eyes grew heavy. The sip coddled like only a mother can.

Making syrup from scratch takes hardly a minute. 
Syrup
1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla
In a small saucepan over medium heat whisk together cocoa, sugar, water and salt. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. It thickens as it cools. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for weeks.


Add a tablespoon or two into a big glass of cold milk. Stir.














#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime seeded rye

I hated the seeds in the rye my mother loved. Now I can pick them out.