The Working Girl Must Eat
(by Aimee Lee Ball)
My mother pioneered the biscotti trend, although she wouldn’t have recognized that word. To her, the crispy, dunk-able, sliced and twice-baked cookies were mandelbrot, or, as my friends liked to call their care packages, Mandelbaum. And the care packages were frequent; as one recipient said: If you were my friend, Gladys dropped a love bomb on you.
I certainly recognized what my friends saw in my mother—that she was generous and charming, devoted and loyal, funny and fierce. But she was my mother, and that presented a whole set of issues that nobody else had. A mother’s voice cannot be drowned out, no matter how grownup the daughter. A mother has squatter’s rights to your soul. She was ridiculously proud of me, with the highest possible threshold of boredom or impatience when it came to my welfare, listening to minute details about my problems. She’d take the kind of bad behavior that would get a person kicked out of a friendship or a romance, and emerge with her love intact. But I was the only child of older parents, and sometimes that love felt like smothering.
Mom was a reluctant cook. When she met my father (he saw her fabulous legs while picking up a box on the floor of his brother’s grocery store and decided he’d marry them), she'd already been married and widowed but had somehow avoided learning how to feed herself, so Dad gave her a book called The Working Girl Must Eat, with the inscription: “Darling, now you will not have an excuse.” Once she had a family to feed, she figured out basic meat-and-potato meals, eventually developing an eclectic, multi-cultural repertoire that included spareribs, veal Parmesan, matzo balls (at Passover seders, our relatives would greet her with “It’s Mrs. Ball and her matzo balls”), and those mandelbrot.
She wasn't too interested in imparting kitchen wisdom, so it was really Julia Child who taught me to cook. (I gave Mastering the Art, Volumes I and II, equal attention to Austen, Dickens, or Doctorow.) Mom's recipes were filed in a small Lucite box, stuffed with magazine clippings and 3x5 index cards. But she was not a stickler for detail, and she had dreadful penmanship (which I inherited; couldn’t I have gotten the fabulous legs instead?), so the only way I could learn to make any of her specialties was to watch her in action.
At some point, she decided that baking the mandelbrot in old-fashioned metal ice cube trays suited her inclination for tidiness better than free-formed logs of dough, so we spent many weekends in flea-market searches for those artifacts. I’m less precise and tend to like humble, homemade-looking things. Either way, the cookies constitute a perfect memory of Mom: not too sweet, full of goodness, and the best kind of company for gossip over a cup of tea.
Aimee Lee Ball is the co-founder and editor of Eat, Darling, Eat, and a journalist whose work is at www.AimeeLeeBall.com.