More Is Better
Updated: Feb 29
(by Patricia Fieldsteel)
It was her nerves, always her nerves. Her bedside table was a stocked pharmacy of pills and salves and drops and syrups for every possible malady, including some she didn’t yet have but was certain one day she would. Grandma Ruth, my paternal grandmother, grew up on what was known as the East Side, a lower Manhattan quarter of Eastern European Jews, Irish, Italians, Russians, Poles and Ukrainians. After high school, she married a young man whose family owned an appetizing store nearby, and raised two sons in Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan area of German Jews (especially those fleeing Nazism), Greeks, Irish, Hungarians, and Poles. In a break from the past, she did not keep kosher. When Wall Street crashed in 1929, my grandfather, a stockbroker, lost everything. Grandma Ruth’s nerves galvanized her into action. She opened a dress shop and changed the size labels: a 12 became a 10; a 10 became an 8. Customers flocked to Ruth Fieldsteel’s, where they were always thinner. A staff of seamstresses did free alterations. The dress shop put food on the table and helped educate her boys at Ivy League schools.
Despite her nerves and frantic activity, she was always dieting. Even looking at a rugelach put inches on her hips. Grandpa Jack was skinny as a wisp and could eat non-stop without gaining an ounce, something he attributed to being the youngest (and only unplanned) of 13 children and to having been fed the feet of the Friday-night chicken the rest of the family ate.
Grandma Ruth’s operating theory when she cooked was: More is better, and even more is better still, whether it was the quantity of food prepared or the proportions of the ingredients. She was also a chopper, by hand, of course. One of her specialties was chopped chicken liver, a dish frequently served for Jewish Sabbath and special occasions. A lifetime’s frustrations went into chopping those livers and hard-boiled eggs.
My parents were ashamed of my father’s parents for being outwardly Jewish, a religion my mother took pleasure in declaring “barbaric” (right in front of her in-laws) and not observed by anyone “sophisticated.” When I joined a synagogue in Greenwich Village, she was enraged, especially since Grandma Ruth treated me to the $150 membership fee. My mother insisted that I return the money, but the family lawyer (also my parents’ best friend) told me not to dare return the check, that Grandma Ruth would be devastated if I did not accept her gift.
Our visits to Grandma Ruth’s apartment were rare, and for her, the purpose of our visitations was to feed us. Dinner was tense with my mother mocking Grandma Ruth, her cooking (excellent but not French), and her lack of a college education. The fact that my mother had never worked a day in her life was somehow overlooked. Often Grandma Ruth would roast and stuff a turkey, make her superb cole slaw, which I make to this day and which my mother called “low class.”
After dinner, Grandma Ruth would assemble an enormous shopping bag filled with tightly packed, rubber-banded and plastic-wrapped containers of food, replicating in triplicate the meal we thought we’d just finished, usually including a giant-sized Yuban instant-coffee jar packed with chopped liver. Once, as we prepared to leave, she handed the bulging brown-paper bag to one of my younger brothers, shouting to keep one hand under the bottom and hold it straight. When we stepped into the elevator, Grandma Ruth started to scream as if she were being hacked to death with a machete. Amidst unbridled hysteria, it was revealed my brother had mistaken the bag for the garbage and dumped it down the incinerator chute. Although Grandma Ruth lived for another 25 years, she never fully recovered from that evening’s events.
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
Grandma Ruth’s Cole Slaw
The secret is Savoy cabbage (the curly kind). Grandma Ruth did not measure; she cooked by eye, by feel, and by tasting. I am the same type of cook. My mother measured exactly, down to the last 1/16th of a teaspoon. I am sharing the recipe with you the way Grandma Ruth shared it with me. The only difference is Grandma Ruth was a hand chopper and grater. I use a food processor.
1 head Savoy cabbage, (approximately 1 1/2 lb.)
white vinegar (no more than 1/2 c.)
sugar, brown or white (up to 1/2 c.)
5 thick carrots
2 bunches scallions (8 - 10)
1 large bunch of fresh dill
Remove core and outside leaves of cabbage and cut into triangles small enough to fit in the feed chute of food processor. Use slicer blade.
Put cabbage slices in large bowl and toss with hands.
Slowly add vinegar and sugar, mixing and tasting as you go. The amounts of sugar and vinegar you add will depend on how you prefer your cole slaw—sweet or acidic.
Toss with your hands and let marinate covered between half an hour and one hour, tossing occasionally.
Peel carrots and grate in food processor with grating blade.
Add to cabbage and mix well.
Add mayonnaise until ingredients stick together. (You can mix the mayo with yogurt and/or sour cream.)
Slice scallions into small pieces and add.
Finely cut dill with scissors and add, mixing with other ingredients.
Cover and marinate for several hours in the refrigerator.
(Watercress or caraway seeds can replace the dill for different flavors.)
Grandma Ruth’s Chopped Chicken Liver
I make this for my friends where I now live in Provence, France. My Arab friends add cumin, and my French friends find this a fascinating type of pâté. There is a private history attached to the crock in the photo, which I found at a vide-grenier (“empty your attic"), similar to a garage sale, for one Euro. When I was growing up, friends of my family in Paris, would send the same crocks every Christmas, filled with pâté de foie gras (goose liver), a pricy and cherished delicacy. We would both ration and gorge on it, and then eagerly await the next Christmas. The rest of the year we ate chopped chicken liver, the delicacy of both poor and wealthy Ashkenazi Jews. Now I combine my pasts in this similar crock.
rendered chicken fat or butter
2 or 3 large sweet white onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. chicken livers
sherry or Madeira, to taste
6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat chicken fat or butter, and sauté onions and garlic.
Remove with slotted spoon, and set aside.
In same pan, sauté chicken livers in onion-flavored fat, adding more fat if needed.
Add sherry or Madeira toward the end of cooking.
Remove livers with a slotted spoon, and cool on paper towels.
Chop livers as if your life depended on it.
Mix with reserved onions, and add hard-boiled eggs.
Season with salt and pepper.
Chill before serving.