(by Elissa Altman)
My stepfather, a furrier to the stars, died suddenly on a frigid January night in 1997. Not given to excess apart from the triple Johnny Walkers-and-water he drank every night while watching The Cosby Show and the cigarettes he chain-smoked until my mother sent him for hypnosis, Ben was felled by a massive cerebral aneurysm. When I found my mother weeping in the Mount Sinai emergency room, she was sure it was an allergic reaction to the shrimp and lobster sauce they’d just ordered from Empire Szechuan.
An allergy, she wailed while I held her hand. It’s just an allergy.
But Ben was gone, and my mother—a former model who suffered for decades from an avowed fear of food—began to associate the act of eating with impending doom. She had proof: Chinese takeout = death.
Whether it was correlative or it was grief, weight began to roll off my mother’s already lanky body like droplets of water down a glass. I made it my job to feed her, or at least to try. Three or four nights a week, my mother was my dinner date: I cooked for her in my tiny studio apartment, or we went out. And three or four nights a week, at tables all over Manhattan, she deftly moved food around on her plate: Composed Cobb salads, rubbery egg white omelets, herby roast chickens were all deconstructed as if a toddler was attacking them, until they were barely recognizable. Vegetables were hidden under mashed potatoes, which were flattened with her knife the way a bricklayer uses a trowel to smooth cement.
I was a very famous singer, she would say, repeating her favorite story. They loved me at the Copa.
You have to eat, I would plead.
But then I had to model to pay for my voice lessons.
Mom, please, eat for goddsakes.
I’ll eat when I’m hungry, she would say, rolling her peas around. And then she would glare at my stomach and ask if I’d put on weight.
My mother was withering away before my eyes, until her clothes—her closet full of Armani and Kenzo and Sonia Rykiel—hung off her as if she were a scarecrow.
You just have to find something she likes, a friend with a three-year-old told me. Chelsea will only eat buttered pasta. You have a choice: Feed it to them, or they starve.
I stopped pushing. I furtively checked her refrigerator for evidence of nourishment and found eggs, sliced white meat turkey with the consistency of balsa wood, and half a roaster from Williams’ Chicken on Broadway, where she and Ben used to shop a few times a week. I stopped badgering her.
Eventually, when the weather began to change and the days grew warmer and longer, my mother slowly seemed to get her appetite back. I had recently begun dating the woman who would become my wife, and I was spending every weekend at her house in Connecticut, in the earliest weeks of an exceedingly carnal romance, which I kept to myself. My mother did not need to know that I was falling in love, and that our dinners would become less and less frequent. She did not need to know that she was no longer going to be the primary woman in my life.
There’s a place I want to take you to, she called to say, one afternoon. I love their turkey burger. I’ll meet you there after work.
The Film Center Café was located in a part of the city my mother only ever visited when she had a singing lesson down the street. In the nineties, Ninth Avenue in Manhattan was still dicey, but when I found her there, sitting alone near the window, she was radiant, and pulling apart the rolls from the bread basket in front of her. I kissed her and sat down, and she ordered two turkey burgers—one for herself and one for me—and ate hers as though she was making up for months of deprivation. She was suddenly, utterly ravenous; she pulled the burger, which resembled a tan hockey puck, off the bun, and gnawed at it like a donut. And then she ate the bun. And then she ate her fries, and then she ate my fries.
For the first time in months, she was happy. And I took advantage of her good mood to break the news.
There’s something I want to tell you, I said, taking a sip of wine. About why I’m not around on the weekends anymore.
Whut? she mumbled, her mouth filled with food.
I met someone.
She glared at me and dropped a French fry on her plate.
What’s his name?
Susan, I said.
Susan, she said.
You know, I said.
I forgot, she said, through clenched teeth.
She flared her nostrils, and wiped her bright red lipstick off on her napkin.
She waved the server over and motioned for him to take away her plate and what was left on it.
Do you want it to go? he asked.
I can’t even look at it, she said.
My throat tightened. I had lost my appetite too; I believed, somehow, that she would be happy for me, the way parents are when their adult children find love after a very long time alone. But with every day I was in Connecticut, I was not with my mother. And with every day that I was away from her, my mother would refuse to eat.
A month later, I introduced Susan to my mother at the café. We sat on one side of the table, and my mother sat on the other. She stared; she glared. We stared back. Susan held my hand under the table.
I suppose you should order, my mother said, waving the server over.
Turkey burgers? he asked.
Susan and I shook our heads yes.
You too? he said to my mother.
She shook her head dramatically. No.
I’m not eating tonight, she said wistfully.
Although I started to protest—to argue that she had to eat, that her health depended upon it, that she couldn’t just sit there and watch us as if we were a sideshow—I stopped myself. When my burger arrived, she reached across the table in silence and ate my French fries, one at a time, double-dipping into the puddle of ketchup on my plate, like a small child.
Elissa Altman is the author of Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing; Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw; Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking; and the James Beard Award-winning narrative blog of the same name. She can be found at https://elissaaltman.com.
The turkey burger invaded our culinary lexicon around the same time as the egg white omelet: They were thought to be lower in fat and calories, lower in cholesterol, and easier on the hearts of those of us with congested arteries. The flip side of this, of course, is that they can also—if not prepared with care—have the consistency of rubber hockey pucks. The key to making a tender and delicious turkey burger is to not dither with it too much in the pan, and to infuse it with ingredients that further impart flavor and texture. This is my go-to version: Sear them in a blazingly hot cast iron pan, don’t move them around too much, and serve them on warm buns with flavorful toppings.
1/4 c. grated onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. ground dark meat turkey
1 T. mayonnaise
1/2 T. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 T. neutral oil (grapeseed or canola)
4 burger buns
thinly sliced red onion
In a large bowl combine the onion, garlic, ground turkey, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.
Form four patties the shape of pucks, approximately 1/2 inch thick.
Heat the oil in a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat, until it begins to ripple and smoke.
Place the patties in the pan and let them sizzle in place for three minutes.
Press them down with the flat side of a stiff spatula until they spread slightly.
Continue to cook for another two minutes and then flip them.
Let them cook for another three minutes.
Remove them to a plate and let them rest
Meanwhile, in the same hot pan, toast the buttered buns cut side down until golden.
Top each bun with a patty, onion, avocado, and lettuce.
Serve immediately with ketchup and mustard.