Monday, October 2, 2017


 My hands gather egg dampened potato shreds, gently compressing, flipping top to bottom to shape the pancake; like how a nona shapes meatballs, like a tortillera, masa. Calculating and adjusting and at the same time reflexive. I’m mouthing a silent prayer the latkes won’t disintegrate when they hit the shimmering oil—as if I’m not sure the recipe works and a lifetime of experience is naught—as if I were embarking on the unknown. I suppose I am. The image of my mother is fading. I see differently. All is as has been but in new light.
   It is the end of summer and latkes browning scents my house with unsettling holiday cheer. These latkes may well complete my mother’s culinary repertoire excepting for her braised cow tongue with disgusting raisin sauce I cannot bring myself to cook. I’ve spent almost two years cooking her dishes, letting the food lead me to feelings I had hardly dare explore before she died. I wanted the food to paint her portrait, all sunshine with me basking in her warmth, instead I’m standing under clouds, worring about what I’ve passed to my sons. 
   Death lingers in the air. Many of my friends mother’s are dying or have died and we are becoming the old ones. Our mother’s deaths is a topic we comb intently. They get teary. I am dry-eyed and wearying of this cooking and combing. Then along comes something simple—cradling a potato in one hand, the peeler poised in the other. Suddenly I am missing her with my heart, in my mind, my cells. The longing stops time.
   Jews make latkes during Hanukah not for potatoes but for the oil they are fried in. Here is the story--at the time of the rededication of the desecrated temple, after defeating idolater oppressors, ancient Maccabean’s found themselves with only a days worth of oil to rekindle the eternal flame. Miraculously the oil lasted eight. Miracles demand faith. What’s fried in memoriam differs around the world. Potatoes were popularized by marauding Conquistadors. Latkes here were brought by my forebears, a tasty treat carried from cold steppes. In my mother’s house latkes were a tradition, the one thing we cooked religiously year after year. Tradition carries weight, or maybe its weightless, like carrying a ghost.
   My mother used an old aluminum box grater. Helping her led to bloodied knuckles and stinging, onion induced tears. She had no recipe, only ratios; potato, onion, egg, a sprinkling of flour, then deft adjustments in the pan; number of latkes to depth of oil to the intensity of flame. Together in the kitchen we shared little talk, it never strayed to her parents or aunties. Her family fled with nothing towards the New World, she was just a baby, no one told her anything, but surely she must have overheard their dreams. Without stories there was only the two of us. I wanted our time to last forever. Only now it occurs to me to wonder what she didn’t tell. Stories are lamps in the dark. Without light it is hard to find my way. 
   Fresh from the pan, drained on torn brown paper to absorb excess oil, topped with apple sauce and sour cream, I eat the latkes out-of-hand, burning fingers and roof of mouth, one after another in rapid succession until uncomfortably full, filling something deeper than hunger, talisman against loss. I dash off emails to cousins. “Do you make latkes, did your mother teach you, did she tell you anything?” “Ah, yes, latkes” they reply. Everyone loves them, yet no one has stories to share, no one seems bothered. Alone I am twisting to peek behind myself, searching for hands at my back. I am lighting a wick, open to miracles, praying there’s oil enough to light my way.

   One of my sons embraced latke making. He’d help twist the potato shreds in a kitchen towel to squeeze out their water. Soon his strength superseded mine and he became sole twister, catching the water in a bowl so the potato starch could sink to the bottom, then the water poured off and the starch retrieved to bind the shreds we’d grated in a food processor. That is the trick of latkes, to bind the shreds without weighing them down. Soon he could form and slip the latkes into boiling oil and flip them, braving the blistering splatters. Asked what he remembers it is that each year he became more adept, his competence was praised. Latkes measured time. Only now I realize I’ve kept the recipe to myself, that year after year I proportion the batter for him, as if revealing the recipe I might lose him too.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wok Hay


     Remarried, my mother closed the door to her room which suit me just fine. Weekends, she and my stepfather drove to their country house leaving me on my own. This distance was good and bad at a time in my life of pushing and pulling. I suffered as teens do, worrying about short legs, hypocrisy and belonging. I combed my hair to hide my pimpled face, leaned forward to show off cleavage in lieu of valid ID, chain-smoked and ordered cocktails in Soho bars. To strains of Patti Smith my friends and I fretted the threat of nuclear annihilation and bemoaned the impossibility of orgasming during intercourse. And then the holidays came and I got a wok. A fabulous carbon steel vessel that occasioned trips to Chinatown for hoisin, fresh ginger and fermented black beans. The whole enterprise independent from dull prying parental eyes or fraught competitive romancing and college applications. 
      In my mother’s kitchen the perimeter of the cutting board was supposed to contain all mess. Implements and mixing bowls were rinsed as soon as they were sullied and swiftly put away. She’d pare and trim vegetables cradled in her palm. She'd mix the vegetables with hefty chunks of meat into a battered aluminum pot to slowly break apart. Inside the pot things reduced and intensified. She simmered, adjusting the flame accordingly. She kept the lid on, barely ajar. 
     With the advent of the wok I learned to make symmetrical cuts. Matchsticks or dices or diagonal slices were strewn across the counter. Seasonings and sauces filled a multitude of bowls. Who knew meat’s grain should be cut against, or that embryonic corn came canned. A teaspoon of water mixed with two of cornstarch thickened sauce to silk. Balanced on a ring above the burner, blue flames licked the bottom of the wok till it was just this side of combustion. Then, diving in rapid succession, the colorful matchsticks cried out a sizzle clinging to their identities but forever changed as they Cha-chaed in the searing madcap tempest inside the open expanse of pan. Wok hay, a Cantonese term loosely meaning ‘the spirit’ or ‘breath’ of the wok infused the food with fire and steel. 
     That September I took the wok when I left for college and rest it wobbling on an electric burner in the dusty dormitory kitchenette down the hall from my room. Late at night as tonic against homesickness, using ingredients snatched from the cafeteria, I’d stir fry rice. 
     During winter-session, jonesing for the fresh vegetables I’d taken for granted at home, I badgered the dining hall chef into letting me make a vegetable dish once a week to add to the steam table line. It was a brave new world entering his kitchen on Mondays at four. The rush of clatter, the dizzying arc of the clamp-on can-opener opening #10 cans of chickpeas to curry in the 28 qt. rondeau. Chef smugly watching, Chef’s gaze burning through the back of my skull as I struggled to heft the unwieldy pan. Subsequent weeks I brought the wok and stir-fried. 
     Spring semester came. Even though I wasn’t supposed to I moved off-campus into an apartment a few blocks from school. In my new kitchen the wok took pride of place and feasts ensued. Multiple dishes dashed in rapid succession for clambering coeds; the choreography of feeding a crowd my dance of independence.

     Arriving to Ellis Island in 1928 my maternal grandparents never learned English. My grandfather dovened with a minion of landsmen in a storefront shtiebel and manufactured menswear on the Lower Eastside. He moved his family from tenement to tenement chasing rent deals. Seven beds crammed in stuffy rooms and for extra cash cousin Marvin on the living room couch. Mom went to Brooklyn College at 15 where she excelled in math but studied education. She was shy and lived at home and took care of her mother who was dying from cancer. 
    I never heard the details of my parents courtship. They’d divorced by the time I began to wonder and then anything my mother said about my father was muttered under breath. When they met, my father was a rabbinical student. He was ambitious, fiery, flirtatious; my mother never understood what he saw in her. The answer is he didn’t see her, only himself in her dark sad eyes. Their marriage lasted 10 years and all that time he carried on. While my mother was pregnant with me he was already chasing the blonde shiksa who became his second wife.

     I graduated in 1979 and spent half dozen years juggling being an artist with day jobs to pay the rent--waiting tables and restoring folk art. Approaching thirty and trying to be responsible I took a professional cooking course, then landed a job in a hospital cooking for a medical diet study. Working with a nutritionist in a kitchen filled with test tubes and gram scales I stumbled upon my husband-to-be, a medicine fellow studying kidneys. Our first date we went to the movies. He sobbed through the film like a baby. We went to Chinatown for dim sum. He used a knife and fork to eat a pork bun because he doesn’t like to touch food. I didn't notice he was filled with rage or that anxiety had him in a chokehold that would tighten with every passing year. We married. We honeymooned in Spain. We visited Paris. We ate at starred restaurants and drank the expensive recommendations of the sommeliers. And without questioning or hesitating, as if preordained, I pushed the wok aside for the slow-cooked braises of Cuisine Bourgeois--in other words, my mother's stews. Our marriage lasted 10 years. All the while I simmered. Inside the pot everything intensified. I kept the lid on, barely ajar.
     A pot is not a harbinger but maybe it is. The way we cook, the way we organize to nourish is a window to the soul. Friends and family remind me how my mother’s eyes twinkled when she smiled. They mention her wry wit and that she listened in such a way as to make them feel special. I got a different legacy. I carry her sadness and darkness. When she is a lump in my throat I rest my hand across my clavicles and think how she pushed beyond a stifling upbringing and left a loveless marriage at a time women were stigmatized by divorce. She was brave, a survivor, but things unfolded that held her down. When she became ill it was a slow unbearable reduction. With lid ajar fleeting wisps of her escaped and dissipated. I stood by her as always. I’d like to believe she willed her death, that it was a last defiant act, but it is also true that when she died there was nothing left.

I wish for her as for myself
Lift the lid. 
Raise the flame till this side of combustion. 
Cha-cha in the tempest.

Fried Rice with Scrambled Eggs
American style fried rice loads on additional ingredients, making a simple Chinese solution for left-over rice into some kind of extravagance. Sometimes in addition to what I’ve mentioned here I’ll add cashews or switch it up with Thai basil, diced pineapple and a dash of fish sauce. Add whatever you have on hand—the sky’s the limit as long as it cooks quickly. The whole enterprise should be quick so that the rice doesn’t turn to mush and the vegetables retain a bite.

2-3 cups cooked rice (I prefer Jasmine)
3 t vegetable oil (divided)
1-2 cups additional vegetables including: scallion, shiitake, snow peas, broccoli, etc.  
3/4 cup diced cooked meat including: pork/ham/Chinese sausage/chicken/beef/shrimp or tofu (optional)
1” knob of ginger 
1 lg. clove garlic 
1 smallish knob fresh turmeric
2 eggs
a handful of finely sliced scallion greens (use the remainder as part of the additional vegetables)
salt, pepper to taste

Cut whatever vegetables you’re using into evenly sized “matchsticks” or small pieces and set aside.  
Peel ginger, garlic and turmeric, thinly slice then stack the slices and cut into fine shreds, set aside. 
Break eggs into a small bowl, mix well, set aside.
Heat wok until very hot. Drizzle 2 t. oil down the sides of the wok. 
Add the vegetables. Stir the vegetables so that the ones on the bottom come up to the top, almost as if you were flipping them. Continue stirring 2 minutes until the vegetables are barely cooked. If you are using a variety of vegetables, stager how you add them to the wok—what needs the most cooking, say small pieces of broccoli, should be added first and what needs the least, say snow pea pods, last. You want the vegetables to retain some crunch. 
Add the ginger, garlic and turmeric. Stir fry 1 minute more. 
Add cooked meat (if using) and stir fry 1 minute more. 
Add the cooked rice, breaking up any lumps with your fingers. Stir fry and additional 1-2 minutes then make a well in the center of the rice. 
Add remaining teaspoon of oil. Pour beaten egg into the well and cook undisturbed for 1 minute. Stir eggs and then gradually stir rice and eggs together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with scallion greens. If you’d like, serve with soy sauce and Sriracha on the side. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Canard á l’Orange

    Chicken, steak, fish panfried and drowned in tartare sauce, interspersed with toaster-oven pizzas or spaghetti and pennies saved. Vegetables followed seasons. There was plenty. Our ups and downs were not about food. Still, the occasional exotic dish felt inexplicable and disgusting. Calves liver, cow’s tongue, and boiled flanken with barley I interpreted as hostility. There was no place allowing my mother pleasure in anything other than what I approved.  
    I traveled by subway and bus downtown to junior high, crosstown for the orthodontist. What was important was staying up late to watch Laugh-In, or that on Thursdays after drama class my friend Julie and I would go all by ourselves to Blimpies for a hero topped  with shredded iceberg , pickled jalapeños and mayonnaise. 
     Week-ends were for sleepovers. I don’t remember the meals at my friends houses or what they ate at mine but I do remember our giggly caresses as we played ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ under the covers during long sleepless nights, drifting off, then waking near noon for French toast and bacon smothered in Log Cabin syrup.
     What changed my world was the Canard á l’Orange from a restaurant called The Library. We'd pass from the familiar lights of Broadway through a forest of fern overhanging the heavy wooden door. We’d navigate past a long dark bar to the backroom which was a maze of bookshelves holding real books. Tables were tucked between the books. We’d pick a table, pick a book, read out loud. It was a treat, the whole thing, every part. 
     How did I love thee? Mahogany, shatteringly crisp skin taught over melting flesh. Sticky sweet glaze and salty fat soiling eager fingers and lips. Gilded, elegant, French; everything my mother was not. She never made duck. With its lousy bone to meat ratio and abundant fat it was not something it would've occurred to her, to us, you could make at home. 
     It wasn’t till much later, when I’d moved downtown after college that I’d stride with bravado to the butcher shop to ask for duck. At that time ‘New American’ and lite were all the rage and I switched allegiance to barely seared Magret breasts lacquered with star anise glaze, or  infused with lemon and thyme. I fancied myself a connoisseur forgetting ducks migrate only to fly back home. My lavish cooking might not be as different as I thought from my mother’s liver or pot au feu. Maybe, maybe when she made these things it was a throwback to her mother’s cooking, but just as likely she was trying something new. Maybe she had passions and hunger. Maybe she was having fun. I am only considering these possibilities now that she is gone. 
     When she died I started cooking her food as a way to remember. I gravitated towards dishes from when she was the center of my life. I needed to feel her close. I fell for Canard á l’Orange at the cusp of adolescence. It was not the Vindaloo or platanos maduros and cafe con leche that I preferred during full on teen-aged rebellion, the duck had heralded only the start of that long push away. That it’s in my mind now is fitting. My mother is gone a year. She is slipping from my grasp. The things I never got to know and didn’t think to ask, things I have forgotten, the things that won’t happen or will happen but without her weigh heavier then she herself.
     I went out and bought a duck, available as if it were nothing special at the Key Food down the street.That duck and I slow-danced griefs’ stages; denial it was in the fridge, regret I had bought it, anger that if I didn’t get it cooked it would go bad. It was the thought of dousing the duck with all that sweetness that slowed me down and tripped me up. What was it I had liked anyway, why bring back something so long gone? Taste and memory and the person remembering changes. What is remembered isn’t necessarily what was, sometimes it is just a wish. After a week in the fridge when it was just on the edge I cut off the duck’s legs and stuck them in the freezer. I boiled the carcass and made soup.
     Later I bought another duck, cut it in half, added one leg to the legs in the freezer, defrosted the old breast and added it to the new breast to quickly sauté. The other whole half of the duck I pricked with a knife to release the fat and while it roasted skimmed half a dozen recipes for sauce. Concentrate or freshly squeezed juice and julienned zest simmered with way too much brown or white sugar, or honey, sherry vinegar or cider vinegar, Grand Marnier or marmalade. Once the dish was the sexiest I’d tasted then it became quaint, now it seems lurid. 
    Everything changes. Pieces are missing. There is no one to ask. Grief arrives regularly but what am I grieving? What is it I long for? A token really, I’d like to hear my mother say my name. 
     Busyness is soothing. Cooking recalls the past but requires attention now. At supper the crisp meltingly tender half lay by a rosy breast, au naturel, the orange sauce abandoned to memory, the meal a map, history made better having been stripped bare.   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

flour, water, salt, yeast

Jasper Johns "Bread" 1969

     After school, week-ends, every spare minute I am at the pottery throwing pots, dreaming I’ll apprentice with a stern Japanese master and my life will be set. At home in my mother’s kitchen with floury hands, palms pushing, lifting, folding, turning, I practice Japanese spiral wedging technique on warm yeasty dough. The repetitive motion burns my burgeoning triceps. I see my arms as I imagine them seen, in doing I am also posing. With each thrust braless nipples graze the inside of my sleeveless tank top. My hips gently rock. Black curls sway.
     Kneading develops wheat’s tightly curled proteins. The proteins lie dormant until hydrated and prodded by floured hands. There is no hurrying the process. Awakened proteins unfurl and tangle, weaving a lattice that traps the yeasts breath enabling the bread to rise. 
     In my kitchen now a mixer does this labor but when my hands gather the shaggy dough I feel that seventeen year old; not time’s passage but the actual girl, as if we are nesting dolls. My hands shape the dough into a crystal ball revealing widening, drooping, greying, also strength the girl didn’t yet know. And I am not sure, is that my own coming frailty or am I confusing myself with the image of mother’s deathbed repose seared on my mind’s eye. 
    The drying residue of dough makes my hands look like artifacts. I pick at the flour in the crevices of my nails and smile remembering that the most radical thing the girl-me’s hands ever held was my high school love. Such tender hands, tentatively probing and stroking until we’d swoon with desire. 
     My mother had recently remarried. They’d bought a weekend house in the countryside and drove off Friday afternoons leaving me behind. My life was in the city at the pottery and playing house, sleeping next to my lover in my parent’s double bed. The potters would come for supper on my parent’s new antique dining table. Thick soup in stoneware bowls, buttered bread, raucous chatter. We’d sip wine from hand thrown goblets that often tipped. Frantically I’d mop the spills least incriminating evidence greet my parents on their Sunday night return. 
     When the dough has doubled, punch down, pat flat, roll into a bundle to fit the lightly greased pan. It is like starting over. During the second rise the yeast ferments the dough. This contributes to the depth of flavor.
     To pass time the years I sat with my mother when she could no longer speak I’d inspect our hands side by side; hers yellowed, gnarled, curling in upon themselves. Mine are marked by callouses and cooking burns. No longer tender the skin appears crackled like porcelain glaze; the  lines tell a story. I’ve made pots, bread, love, lifted my babies, soothing or fussing. In a moment of drama I lifted a vase above my head, smashing it to bits at my husbands feet yelling “get out, get out” and he walked out the door. My hands held my sister when she took her last breath. They carried my mother’s ashes home.
     In the oven crust forms. The wheat’s natural sugars caramelize and the scent fills you with promise, the loaf becomes domed and golden. What was once dense and sticky has filled with air and grown buoyant. Turn the loaf from the pan, let it cool, let it rest.

     I’ve grasped my hurts, held them waiting and waiting and forgotten the joy. My mother did the same. Her hurts were our constant companion. She held them to her chest, stoic and silent. I do not know the half of her, yet she was my model. What now, shall I I opened my hands? This is mourning, sorrow instead of smoldering, and letting go. Maybe joy might rise, once, twice, and  from there, the chance to break bread.