Saturday, May 28, 2016

baked goods

My mother would supervise and help me light the oven when I baked box cakes on my birthdays, but 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 re-heated dregs with a bite of something sweet. All by herself. Not even with the newspaper. Over time I’ve come to understand this but as a girl I didn’t get it. Her ritual seemed lonely and dreary. 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 good with 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, measuring cinnamon and cardamom, slicking danish with melted jam. The more heavenly the kitchen smelled the sadder I became, but not from grief. With her gone I could begin to examine the veil of 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 was neither good enough company, nor strong enough to rescue her. In a dream I am a cartoon apple, Macintosh-like, 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
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 people.
     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 primordial 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 see the brown red 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 clink 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. 
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.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime mashed potatoes

In most cases the progression of Parkinson’s includes dementia but that’s almost too simplistic to describe the hallucinatory dissociation and drug induced psychosis that was part of my mother’s increasing isolation and grim prospects. At some point she drifted from lucid to lost but even then, if I vigilantly hung on her words I could shuffle them into something you might call conversation. It went on like this for years, almost as if we’d struck a bargain. I’d sit close leaning in my ear and guess what she meant and every so often I’d lean even closer and whisper I was sorry her life was so hard, so sorry. And every so often, maybe every fifth or sixth visit, there’d be a moment when she would look at me and summon all her focus and tell me that she wished she were dead. 

Mostly, until the end, she knew who I was and I would feel that maybe, if nothing else, I brightened her day. You might call it love, but it was wrapped in tacit denial of the bleakness, and below that a layer of what—grandiose narcissism; as if my presence could reverse broken neurons, as if it were a matter of will for her to pull herself together? As she lay finally dying and the hospice nurses wanted to give her morphine to still her tremors and ease her passing, I was torn. I wanted her suffering over, I’d been saying that for years, but I wanted more to hold on to the hope that she’d wake up and look at me and say some last bolstering word to right me in this world. Making and eating her food memorializes her. The way the taste of foods I haven’t eaten for years carries me back in time helps bypass the black hole of her illness. I’m looking to find the her whole. 

 Trying to remember everyday routines I close my eyes and imagine our “L”shaped kitchen. There, on the far end are sprouting avocado pits held by toothpicks in cups of water on the sill. There, the four burner gas range, the chipped enamel sink, the harvest-gold floor-to-ceiling cabinets, the impossible to read Modernist clock above the noisy Frigidaire. I smell the broom closet, untwist with my mind the endlessly twisted extra long phone cord, and feel the heavy jerky stuckness of the put-everything-here-you-don’t-know-where-it-goes-drawer at the far other end. I see the white formica table and moulded swivel chairs in the center of the room but I don’t see us, or remember arguing with my sister over who set or cleared, or remember eating, or conversations. 

Hundreds, hundreds of hours I cannot recall; are they buried or have they vanished? Maybe tensions I don’t remember were so great I repressed them and need a hypnotist to set them free, or maybe our meals were just too plain to warrant memory. Ever the cook I can summon spare images of things cooking—marinated flank steak on a pan warped from the broilers heat, a roasting pan of chicken parts topped with lemon, and the ever present saucepan simmering, brimming with potatoes, or spaghetti, or stew. This trifecta of pans, these meals with the addition of broccoli or peas or switch in a different vegetable, and tossed salad, were basically it. 

After my mother remarried and I went to college and they moved from the west side to a smaller apartment on the east-side and my mother did less cooking, the saucepan moved to their week-end house upstate. There, the scuffed dented workhorse with its ill-fitting lid took on a patina of calcified lime from the well-water used for boiling, and when it came time years later to sell the house, the pot was relegated to the pile for the auctioneer. The stigma surrounding aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, even if discounted by further studies was enough for me to let it go.

Now, I wanted to make mashed potatoes the way my mother made mashed potatoes, and that is when I was hit with the longing that is grief. I couldn’t make potatoes because I didn’t have her pot. Of course I can cook them in my fancy stainless steel, or if I’d wanted to snap a genuine looking photo I could stop by any Salvation Army and pick up something old for nothing, but thats not the point. It is her pot I want and I made the mistake of letting it go.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime tuna fish

It wasn’t everyday but many many days I had tuna salad for lunch. I can take it back to pre-school sitting on the floor in front of our black and white tv watching Romper Room eating mayo heavy tuna on crustless white bread sandwich quarters, and move it forward to middle school when I started making my own school lunches or to high school when it was on toasted whole wheat with added tomato slices, red onion, capers and a layer of crumbled potato chips to keep the bread from getting soggy. 

So few are the memories of cooking with my mother I can count them on my fingers. She taught me to squeeze the water from grated potatoes before frying latkes, to shape meatballs by rolling them between my hands as if they were balls of clay, to pull creamed spinach from a boil-in-bag with bamboo toaster tongs so as not to waste any and also not to burn my fingers, and to finely dice celery for tuna.

Celery was a refrigerator staple. She used it in soups and stews, used the leaves in salad, and fed us stalks filled with cream cheese for snack. I was fascinated by the dirt nestled in the root ends, the fibrous threads, the two part procedure of cutting strips the length of the stalk and then bundling them for the perpendicular cut to dice.

I married a man who didn’t eat mayonnaise and my children wouldn't eat fish so I stopped making tuna salad and ate it only rarely at luncheonettes where it was always disappointing. 

A few weeks after my mother died I made some. I bought imported cruelty-free tuna packed in oil and put it in one of her bowls. I paid special attention to the celery and added onion diced the way she showed me. Once the sandwich was made I couldn’t wait long enough to snap a photo, couldn’t even get it on a plate. From kitchen counter to mouth, then whoosh I was teleported to when I loved my mother and she fed me and nothing else mattered. My hands could barely get the sandwich into me fast enough. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mourning Life

Much to our consternation the last weeks of her life my sister ate only insipid watermelon doled out piece by hopeful piece from a leaky plastic container. The last week she ate nothing save ice chips. I marveled that her body kept going though she wasn’t really living was she, she was dying. Having reached detente with her cancer she’d turned her sight towards death. Losing interest in and giving up food was part of it.

I thought about my sister the other day watching my mother’s aid shovel mayonnaise drenched Kosher “seafood” salad into my mother’s mouth. Catching moments of distraction, she’d deftly cleared my mother’s plate.

Joe, my stepfather, pushes food with exasperated admonishments. “Regina, open your mouth, eat it, eat it” he commands, proffering tidbits from the over abundant glop the assisted living facility serves. His action is loving in a way, and also horrible. Why can’t he leave her be and let her not eat and die if that is what she wants?

Between meals there are 4, 5, 6 pills at a time buried in brimming monkey dishes of cottage cheese or pudding. She has advanced Parkinson’s, dementia, and psychosis (how else could she react to the condition of her life?) Trapped in a body she can barely move and a mind without coherence, the pills regulate, minimize, counterbalance, and make her hallucinate. Once I asked her neurologist what would happen if we took her off the pills and he screamed “What do you think, I’m a murderer?” and slammed down the phone.   

I waltz in once a week with gourmet goodies and sit up close on the walker seat touching knees with my mother who is parked at a table covered with calendar boxes of pills labeled morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night. The table’s festooned with flyers for sing-a-longs, brain teasers, chair aerobics; some of these activities my mother gets wheeled to and better that then nothing though I’ve watched her sit through them, unmoved.

I am feeding her bites of seared duck, hand-pitted Nyon olives, grape tomatoes, feta cheese. The seasons first asparagus cut on a bias and grilled. Today she eats readily, other days not. No one flavor guarantees interest except maybe sweets and even then, not always. I wonder how food tastes to her, if flavors sing in her mouth. I remember a favorite story, the one about an olive (a pimento stuffed manzanilla) on her plate at the first restaurant she’d ever gone to, a Yiddishe pisher fresh off the boat. She didn’t know what the olive was and saved it for her very last bite but the waiter snatched her plate before she ate it and she was too afraid to object. That olive haunted her. Henceforth she ate olives first.

Through lunch I babble about work, my sons, what the dentist said, mostly talking to Joe though I think my mother listens. Now and again she starts to say something but then her voice drops to nothing in the middle of a word in the middle of the sentence, or starts a different sentence or says a string of sounds that are not words at all. I peer at her intently waiting for more, sometimes feeling angry, as if she is asking too much; Speak up I think, say it again, but mostly feel I’ve let her down not piecing her fragments together. “Sorry” I say, “sorry, I don’t know what you are saying—that must feel so bad.”

I am feeding her a thin mint. Joe has left the table and the aid has gone to lunch. It is a rare instance we sit alone and my mother looks at me and says clear as day “Suicide.” Taken aback I wait but she says nothing more. “Its too late Mama. You would have had to do that long ago. Sorry, sorry” I say, “I can’t help you—you must feel so alone.” I wish I'd had the courage to encourage her, wish I'd given her my blessings, but Joe had come back so we said no more.

Gastronomists, neuroscientists and Proust tell us, no matter how buried, when we put something in our mouth, as if saliva translates flavor compounds to poetry, we are flooded with images and thoughts. If we learn to listen to food, our brain hears stories, and it is this that distinguishes us among beasts of prey. But maybe not my mother. Not any more. If her brain can’t listen does the food still talk? Maybe its voice is only a whisper, maybe she can’t answer back. Maybe she forgets mid-bite.

Everything is decided. What she will eat. When she will eat. The order of the bites put in her mouth. Her only choices are what she turns down, and even then forks thrust towards her. For all the care, we are complicit in her suffering. I grasp at the hope the bites at least sing.

Cooking offers refuge and solace. Lately, I’ve been shelling peas and briefly blanched fresh fava beans, braising them with butter lettuce or tender spinach leaves. Shelling is meditative and the flavors holler Spring.

1 pound English peas yields 1 cup shelled peas
1 pound fresh fava beans yields 1/2 c.   
1 pound spinach or lettuce yields approx. 1 cup braised greens
a handful of ramps if they are available
1 T. each: butter and broth
salt and pepper
fresh herbs

Blanche whole fava beans in salted water for 5 minutes. Split pods and remove the beans. Pierce the bean’s second skin with your thumbnail and squeeze out the barely blanched bean.

Sauté peas and trimmed ramps (if using) in 1 T butter with a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper for 3-5 minutes. Add fava beans and cook 2-3 minutes more.  While peas are cooking, tear lettuce, or stem well washed spinach. Add to pan with a tablespoon of water or broth and stir till wilted. If you’d like, add a handful of fresh mint, flat-leaf parsley or snipped chives.