(by Annabelle Gurwitch)
I learned no recipes from my mother. I left home not knowing how to boil an egg, bake a chicken, or even so much as toss a salad.
The younger of two daughters in a working-class family, my mother was raised at the tail end of the Depression on offerings from my grandmother’s kitchen that were strictly kosher, utterly utilitarian, and verging on penitential. My mother never spoke about it, but I can only surmise that this early imprinting contributed to her lifelong disdain of cooking. To be sure, kosher cuisine is often gourmand and regularly delicious, but my grandmother, Frances, or Nanny, as we called her, had neither the patience nor the passion for pursuits she considered impractical. A devoted homemaker, who held a full-time clerical position at the local social services agency, hygiene and nutrition were paramount in her household.
Nanny never spoke of spirituality, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of chosen people—the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the planet spic-and-span. Cleanliness was not just next to godliness for her, it was a devout calling. In the same way that nuns see themselves as brides of Christ, Nanny pledged herself to Ajax, lord of germs, whose dominion covered the expanse of surfaces in her home and the domiciles of her offspring.
A typical meal at Nanny’s might include iceberg lettuce, meat, and a starchy vegetable. Lettuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vigor that each lifeless leaf emerged from these interrogation sessions virtually translucent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exotic item offered on dinner tables in suburban America. Not only was it a punishment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suffer for their own failure to be more appetizing. The legumes would be liberated from a can, only to be subjected to a pressurized moisture-extraction process that included several rounds of squeeze-drying in layers of paper towels. Chalky and granular, they sucked the moisture from your mouth.
Beef was purchased only from a kosher butcher, but you could never trust people entirely, so it was subjected to repeated rinsing and salting, and then would be secreted into paper towels for additional dehydration. Biting into it was like gnawing on particleboard.
This culinary routine wasn’t some neurotic affectation. Along with her nine-to-five work schedule, Nanny had children to raise, letters to write to her brothers serving overseas in World War II. Later, there would be grandchildren, a husband with Alzheimer’s for whom she was the primary caregiver, and a dedication to volunteer work at the local senior center where the residents were younger than she. Gloria, my mother’s older sister, attended Cordon Bleu classes when her kids were growing up and became a gifted baker, but not Shirley, my mother.
My mother was a dreamer whose girlish fantasies included becoming an actress, acquiring antiquities for a museum, or escaping “dreary” Delaware by marrying rich. She was a good student but lacked self-confidence, so she chose plan C. She would show them: She’d never need to put food on the table. Except my father’s finances turned out to be smoke and mirrors. After following him to Mobile, Alabama, to join his large, extended family, she wound up working a government job, not unlike her mother’s. Then, after my father burned every bridge below the Mason-Dixon line, she slunk back home to dreaded Wilmington, with a husband and two children to feed on a limited budget.
Thus, she followed the lead of millions of American women in the 1960s and ‘70s, and entrusted our nutritional needs to Good Housekeeping. The magazine offered monthly meal plans, and following them to the letter meant not having to think up recipes herself. Ground beef was repurposed all week in different shapes—first as burgers, later in spaghetti and meatballs, and ending up (fortified with whatever Hamburger Helper was made of) as meatloaf (more loaf than meat). The only surprise about Tuna Surprise with the requisite soggy canned fried onion rings on top was how often we had it. It was a diet that dulled the taste buds.
I was ten years old when my father launched one of his many get-rich quick schemes and our fortunes rose overnight, or at least, that’s how it appeared to my child’s eye. We relocated to Miami Beach and it was the first time I tasted vegetables that hadn’t come from a can. Meals in our home were still mostly prepared foods, but now we had access to fresh fruit and produce, and our store-bought meals came from a local gourmet market. Mangos! Kiwis! Kumquats! Where had they been keeping these delicious delicacies? It was like we’d been living in black and white and woke up in Technicolor.
(l: my bat mitzvah; r: me wearing Mom's dress on one of my book tours)
In Florida, my mother enjoyed entertaining, occasions that were mostly catered affairs, but she did learn to make what would become her “signature” dishes. She’d set out her best china, use the good silver (polished regularly), and serve Beef Wellington, with a flaky outer casing that defied gravity. It really was something special. I sometimes dream I am sleeping on top of it and wake up surprised to find a pillow under my head instead of that puffy pastry shell. For dessert, she had three separate recipes for Key lime pie. One featured a crushed graham cracker crust, one a pastry shell, and one was crustless. The Key limes came from a tree in our yard, and the chilled creamy fillings, which ranged from tart to achingly sweet, had the gloppy consistency of the Ponds cold cream she used in her nightly beauty routine. The entire meal was an artery-clogging, coma- inducing heart attack waiting to happen, and somehow seemed perfectly suited to the dining room of our Floridian home, decorated in a Bermuda Cottage style I can only describe as the result of mating Palm Beach elegance with cast-off rattan from the set of the 1970s TV show Fantasy Island.
Despite her working class background, my mother had an innate elegance and eye for quality that never failed her. It came in handy when my father became ensnared in what would become known as Abscam, the infamous FBI sting operation, conducted in the late 1970s in Southern Florida. In an attempt to ferret out Congresspersons on the take, the FBI concocted a patently ridiculous scenario. Undercover agents rented a yacht in the name of an Arab sheik, portrayed by an agent who spoke not a single word of Arabic, and invited local business people to numerous parties on said vessel to give the sheik credibility. Folks were lured there having been told that the sheik was looking to invest boatloads of cash.
At that time, my father’s primary boondoggle was a film distribution company that released what were known as exploitation films, super low budget films promising sexually explicit and violent content. Titles my father’s company released included Poor White Trash (subtitled Scum of the Earth) parts l and ll and The Fat Black Pussycat. Copy for TFBP read, “This is the tale of five Wanton Women and the Fat Black Pussy.” After attending one shindig, my mom was able to persuade my dad that they should recuse themselves from further involvement because she was convinced the whole enterprise was fishy. What tipped her off? They were served Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers on the yacht. Although they quickly cut ties, when the sting came to light, my parents were roped into the investigation, which is how it came to light that my father’s company had neglected to file tax returns for a number of years. Still, when we were back to our cash-strapped cuisine, my mother plated our Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners on her Royal Crown Derby china.
My mother never realized her own ambitions, but she gifted my sister and me with subscriptions to Ms. magazine, museum outings, and private lessons in the subjects of our choosing, when we were flush enough to afford it. Sure, she didn’t prepare the meals, but she served up a heaping platter of second-wave feminism. Hence: no training in the kitchen. It didn’t occur to her that as working women, we might be required to put food on our own tables, if not for a family. My sister, who excels in everything she attempts, somehow managed to become an excellent cook, but not me. I guess that I take after my mother more than I’d ever anticipated. Even though I found myself ill-equipped at what Gen Z calls adulting, I emerged from my childhood home without a clue as to how to balance a checkbook or hammer a nail, much less do a load of laundry without shrinking, staining, or otherwise destroying the items in my care, I can’t help but appreciate that of all the endeavors my mother failed to accomplish, she succeeded at giving me zero preparation in the domestic arts.
Ironically, and much to my family’s merriment, I spent seven seasons hosting movies and offering themed dishes based on the films on the program “Dinner and a Movie.” I absorbed a large amount of culinary wizardry from our talented chef Claud Mann, but cooking at home turned into something of a busman’s holiday, and the skills I acquired didn’t stick.
My family calls me “the forgetful cook.” I’ll start preparing something, but like a cat distracted by a shiny object, two minutes in and I’m off scribbling notes on scraps of paper, checking for an errant chin hair, or chatting up friends. I burn pots and pans, and I cannot be trusted to brew a cup of tea. I can make a mean matzoh brie, which is kind of the Hamburger Helper of Jewish meals, but now that my child has flown the coop, I'm trying to develop the patience to feed myself properly. The first year, I lived on rice cakes and hard cheese. I add a sprig of arugula to the rice cake now.
There is no nutritional value to this dessert, so these recipes should be only deployed on occasions for which you intend to impress guests with your impractical, whimsical elegance. And please, use the good china. It’s all about the plating.
Annabelle Gurwitch is a New York Times best-selling author, activist, actress, and co-host of the Tiny Victories podcast who lives in Los Angeles, California. Her most recent book, You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, is available in paperback and as an audiobook. Her other books include I See You Made An Effort; Wherever You Go, There They Are; Fired; and (as co-author) You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up. She can be found at www.annabellegurwitch.com.
Key Lime Pie
Alas, I don’t have my mother’s recipes, but these are similar.
(1) With a graham cracker crust (adapted from Food Network):
1/3 of 1-lb. box graham crackers, broken into pieces
5 T. melted unsalted butter
1/3 c. sugar
3 egg yolks
2 t. lime zest
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
2/3 c. freshly squeezed Key lime juice
1 c. heavy cream, chilled
2 T. confectioners' sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place graham crackers in food processor, and process to crumbs.
Add melted butter and sugar, and pulse to combine.
Press into bottom and up sides of a 9-in. pie pan, forming a neat border.
Bake until set and golden, about 8 minutes.
Set aside on a wire rack, leaving oven on.
Meanwhile, in an electric mixer with the wire whisk attachment, beat egg yolks and lime zest at high speed until very fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Gradually add condensed milk, and continue to beat until thick, 3 - 4 minutes. Lower mixer speed, and slowly add lime juice, mixing just until combined.
Pour into prepared crust.
Bake for 10 minutes, or until filling has just set.
Cool on a wire rack, then refrigerate.
Freeze for 15 - 20 minutes before serving.
Whip cream and confectioners' sugar until nearly stiff.
Cut pie into wedges, and serve very cold, topping each wedge with a dollop of whipped cream.
(2) Without the crust (adapted from Wall Street Journal and Sunny Raymond of Union Square Café, New York City)
1 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 T. grated lime zest
1 1/4 c. freshly squeezed Key lime juice (from about 15 limes)
6 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
optional: 2 gelatin sheets
1 1/2 c. heavy cream, plus additional for garnish, optional
In a heavy saucepan, whisk together sugar, zest, lime juice, eggs and 2 yolks.
With pot over medium-high heat, cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 8 - 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
If using gelatin, place in a small bowl of cold water until soft, about 3 minutes.
Discard water and stir gelatin into lime mixture.
Strain lime mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a stainless-steel or glass bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic directly onto surface to prevent a skin from forming.
Refrigerate until cool, about 1 hour.
With electric mixer on medium-high speed, whip heavy cream until soft-medium peaks form, about 5 minutes.
Fold whipped cream into chilled lime mixture, then pour into individual cups or ramekins, or a single serving dish.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 1/2 hours.
Remove from refrigerator 15 minutes before serving.
Serve cold, with additional whipped cream, if desired.