(by Amy Axler)
My grandmother, Sadie-Honey, always said you only need to know how to make four
dinners, but they have to be really good. Hers were: brisket, stuffed cabbage, borscht,
and broiled chicken—a kosher fryer, eight-part cut, heavy on the stale Hungarian
paprika, light on deliciousness. Hers was a rigid four, although fish cakes and a lovely
schnitzel-esque veal chop made occasional guest-starring appearances.
When I was five or six, on a family trip back east from California, we were invited to join
my grandmother’s best friend, Tootsie, for a meal. Tootsie and Sadie-Honey became
friends because their children were friends. But while my mother’s friendship with
Tootsie’s daughter died a natural death (after high-school graduation? the end of World
War II? the move to California? who knows?), the friendship between Sadie-Honey and
Tootsie survived anything and everything, including bitter fights with their husbands over
the cost of the long-distance telephone bills.
The reunion took place in Tootsie’s mother’s dark old apartment, with everything
crowded together and only a few narrow windows at the far end, which probably
wouldn’t allow much light on even the sunniest day. But it all changed at the
table—expansive, generous, welcoming. My mother was normally careful and polite, but
she took some of everything offered, well aware that she’d be subjected to a jealous
quiz by her own mother, who remained reluctantly in California. There were two kinds of
herring, chopped liver topped with frizzled onions, gefilte fish gleaming in its aspic, and
horseradish strong enough to tickle my nose even across the table. Two platters held
main courses: a goulash that was like meat candy, draped over lokshen noodles like the
linen cloth draped over the table. And, in a retaliatory strike aimed to punish my
grandmother for her absence, stuffed cabbage.
I asked my mother later why she simply dismissed the salad. She told me she hadn’t
gone back to the Bronx to waste room on iceberg lettuce. The Hungarian grandmother
who, like any proud cook, had been keeping track of who ate what and how large the
portion was and did they go back for seconds, said, “What’s the matter—you don’t like
When I was around nine, my parents split up and married other people. The only
vestige of our past life that my mother kept was a wooden salad bowl. It was carved of
monkeypod wood in a style the Internet now calls mid-century modern, an artifact from
the Late Luau period during the Tiki era of California. Gleaming from years of oil, never
washed, only carefully wiped. I imagine the salad bowl was a gift from my grandparents
from their first trip to Hawaii. We used the salad bowl every single night, and my mother
and I always ran our fingers around the bowl at the end, to get the last bit of vinaigrette.
Sometimes, a scrap of lettuce, a sliver of scallion remained, and one of us would say
with a knowing smile, “What’s the matter—you don’t like salad either?”
I remember there was a time when my mother used to make yummy dishes. I know that
she made a delicious dish she called “chicken rabbit,” but I don’t know if she substituted
chicken for rabbit or merely said that the rabbit was chicken. Then there was a time when she didn’t. I don’t remember how I started doing the bulk of the family cooking, only that one day my mother stopped making anything delicious.
I am now an accomplished cook, enchanted by the lovely smell of the three kinds of
fat—bacon, butter, and chicken—when I’m sauteing a chicken. I make many more than
four dishes, in constant subjugation to boredom, seasonality, determination not to waste
any food, and indulgence of my son and my husband(s).
Salad is on the menu almost every night.
Amy Axler is a writer and greenmarket devotee who lives in New York City. She can be found at https://www.amyaxler.com.
Borscht à la Sadie Honey
16-oz. can of beets
salt, pepper, sour salt, and sugar, to taste
chopped green onions
Drain beets, reserving juice, and chop.
Pour juice plus 1 1/2 cans water into a saucepan.
Bring liquid to a boil.
Add salt, pepper, sour salt, and sugar, tasting for quantities.
Beat egg in a small bowl, and slowly drip in about 1 c. hot liquid.
Serve with cucumber, green onions, and/or sour cream.