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Cooked Into Submission

(by Jessica Josell)

Rosie was a scholar, not a cook. A loving, tender, and supportive mom, but not a cook. Neither was her mother who, shortly after Mom and Dad married, fed him (by “accident,” although he was always a bit suspicious) a hamburger laced with pieces of broken glass. We had very few family dinners at Bubby Minnie’s house.

Mom grew up with no interest in food at all. A book, a cup of coffee, and a slice of white bread with jam, and she was all set, which is why she was the skinny one in our family. But my father was raised in Bubby Esther’s house, where carp swam in the bathtub in preparation for gefilte fish, and fattening us up was a sign of health, wealth, and love. So Dad was the one who clipped recipes from newspapers and magazines, which Mom prepared to please him. But he was into quantity, not quality, and his favorite meals consisted of oversized portions of criminally overcooked meat, boiled vegetables leached of all nutrients, and sugary desserts.

To make those desserts, Mom and I turned to Betty Crocker Super Moist Angel’s Food or Devil’s Food cake mixes. Together we licked the wooden spoon clean once our confection was finally in the prized yellow Chambers stove. While we waited, with the smell of butter and sugar permeating the house, Mom and I would practice our ballet moves, pirouetting and tour jeté-ing around the living room, or, with me cuddled up in her arms, we would discuss whatever was troubling my seven-year-old self.

The Snyder House Rule: We were all in our places at the dinner table at 6 p.m. No one was excused, but my brother and I could have a friend or two any night of the week. I would carry in the lamp from my bedroom for each meal—there was no furniture in our home other than beds and desks, but we probably had 10,000 books. The food might be inedible, but the conversation was enlightening (we took turns diagramming each other’s sentences).

I had to move away from home to learn how to cook, from books, and in college I prepared meals for friends to earn spending money. But I still return to one of my dad’s favorite recipes that didn’t suffer at the hands of my mom—it’s the classic Romanian stew called ghiveci in which the vegetables are actually meant to be cooked into submission.