(by Bethany Ball)
My mom liked to say, “If it’s green and in my kitchen, it’s probably mold.” Obviously, food was not the main thing in the house where I grew up. My mother, who worked full time as a Detroit public school teacher, was usually too tired to cook proper meals. Dinner might be a candy bar, or a mug of hot chocolate, or saltines with peanut butter or jelly. I learned early on to put a hot dog in the microwave, or a can of SpaghettiOs, or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. I could live off cereal if necessary. There were only a few things my mother made that I, a picky eater, would reliably eat. One was “river stew,” a concoction she’d eaten with her family while camping near the creek in Tennessee, where she was born and raised. It consisted of a can of Veg-All, a can of tomatoes, a pound of ground beef, and an onion.
If Mom had any down time, she loved to sit and read mystery novels while nursing a rum and coke. She had very little interest in food. Ironically, my dad was the food critic for the local newspaper where he was a reporter, so we ate out at lovely restaurants and got to taste real cooking. My parents had married late in life, and my dad was proud of my mom’s work, which she loved. Still, she would tell me: Don’t ever rely on a man. Make your own money.
She was actually rather domestic in other ways besides cooking. Although the house was generally a mess, she had learned to upholster furniture from her father who was a professional upholsterer in Nashville. My father built the wood frames in his basement wood shop, and my mother upholstered them. She made a lot of my clothing and the curtains in our house. My parents threw wonderful parties, with most guests drawing from one of the professional choirs my father sang in, and they’d serve crab legs or lobster. But at home, on a daily basis, food was just not the thing. It was more of an ad hoc scramble.
I’ll never forget the first time I smelled a cucumber. Cucumbers back home in Detroit were mostly tasteless garnishes, something to dig past in a salad. But this time, I was in the north of Israel on my husband’s kibbutz, in December, and my father-in-law was sitting across from me at an outside table, shirtless, chopping cucumbers for the Arabic salad. He cut those cucumbers into tiny cubes with minute detail. I’d never known that cucumbers had any taste, much less smell, at all. He moved on to the tomatoes, chopped onion and parsley, and added feta. It was an explosion of flavor—a revelation and an education.
I discovered other food on that trip. My mother-in-law was born in Fez, Morocco. It is said that every great chef in Israel has a Moroccan grandmother. My mother-in-law made light, fluffy meatballs, chicken full of paprika, vegetables stuffed with rice and ground beef. She was furious when I could not finish all that she’d piled on my plate, but she didn’t know how I’d grown up eating very little. It was in her house I learned to love and appreciate home-cooked food.
My in-laws and my parents met only once, at my wedding, and I can’t say with any certainty whether my parents would have appreciated my mother-in-law’s food as I did. My mother’s taste was unpredictable, and later in her life, before she died of cancer, she seemed to live off little more than Little Debbie cakes and peanut butter sandwiches.
(Savta Hannah and daughter Cecily)
When I was pregnant with my son, I craved hamburgers and French fries and Coke. But when pregnant with my daughter, I found myself hungry for the foods my mother-in-law made. No longer could I live off the cobbled-together meals we had been eating as a small family. I had to learn to cook. My daughter came out looking like a mini savta—the same delicate features and dark hair as her Moroccan grandmother. From a young age, she refused bland food. I had to learn to cook the couscous, the delicately spiced schnitzels, the stuffed vegetables, and the perfect broth for chicken soup.
(with my daughter Cecily)
When the world shut down two years ago, my now 13-year-old daughter had so much time on her hands that I got her to cook one or two meals a week with me. She’d roll up her sleeves and slide the chicken around in the olive oil with paprika and rosemary. She knows just how much salt to add and how long to keep the sweet potatoes in the oven. She can prepare the Sabbath stew called cholent for the weekend, making it more peppery than I would. (When a recipe says to use just as much hot sauce or spice as you can handle, she dumps in all of it.). She is proud of her creations, adores a home-cooked meal, and would rather eat leftovers than go out to a restaurant. She looks forward to each meal and relishes them. One thing I know about my daughter, food will always be the main thing in her house. Me, not so much. Give me a novel and an adult beverage instead.
Moroccan Fish (Dag Morocai) from Savta Hannah
1 lb. tilapia fillets
1 t. salt
juice of 2 lemons
1 large tomato
2 red bell peppers
whole head of garlic
1 green jalapeno pepper
salt and pepper to taste
2 T. paprika
1 t. chili flakes
1/2 c. olive oil
1 lemon, sliced very thin
1 c. chopped cilantro
Put tilapia in salt and lemon juice for half an hour ("to take out the dirt from the sea"), then rinse off and set aside.
In a big pan, slice tomato into rounds, and cover the bottom of the pan (no olive oil).
Remove core from bell peppers. Cut in half lengthwise, remove seeds, cut into strips, and add to tomatoes.
Separate garlic into cloves and peel. Cut each clove in half, and spread across the peppers.
Cut up a green jalapeno pepper, and spread on top.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Mix paprika and chili flakes, then stir into olive oil, and spread over vegetables.
Pour in enough water to cover the vegetables, about 1 cup.
Place over medium-high heat until the liquid comes to a boil.
Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 15 - 20 minutes, shaking pan periodically.
Taste for heat and salt.
Place fish on top of vegetables.
Place thinly sliced lemon on top of fish.
Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, periodically spooning some of the sauce on top of fish.
Add chopped cilantro, and cook 15 minutes more.
Serve with challah bread.