(by Carole Priven)
My mother couldn't cook for beans. Inevitably, the gummy contents of a can of Heinz Baked Beans would burn at the bottom of her cooking pot, all traces of its “deliciously rich tomato sauce” long since evaporated. Mom would grab a spoon and angrily dig into the gluey mess. Then she'd serve us the loose beans she pried free of the congealed mass, the ones that didn't cling too desperately to the bottom of the pot or to each other.
At the table, my brother and I would stare sadly at the lump on our plates. Maybe we would get a burned hamburger to go with the goop. Or perhaps a sandwich of fried processed American cheese on Wonder Bread. We never complained. Our punishment would be far worse than eating the scarred remains of my mother's foray into the kitchen. My father’s nickname for my mother was The Cossack. She was born in a small town near Kiev, Ukraine, and she had fighting spirit. If she were still alive today, the Ukrainians undoubtedly would have won the war by now.
To save us from rickets, my boatload of aunts would sometimes share leftovers from their nightly family feasts—kugel, brisket, stuffed cabbage—but they would inevitably wind up burned and adhered to their re-heating utensil. The all-time favorite of everyone, especially my dad, was Aunt Bea's borscht, whose recipe came to her directly from our Ukrainian grandma. When Aunt Bea appeared with a takeout shopping bag of anything, we'd shriek for joy, but especially when it was borscht. My dad would hold my hands and whirl me around the living room, singing, “Lumpdedadita varnichkas, lumpdedadita verenikas.” No translation comes readily to mind.
The borscht usually contained potatoes, but the most special touch was when Aunt Bea added flanken to the soup. Occasionally, my mother would add some sour cream to the purple nectar, but not if there was flanken in it. It’s not kosher to mix milk and meat. I’m still not exactly sure what type of meat flanken is, but I remember it was fatty and stringy, and it tasted delicious. Dad would smack his lips and say, “Delicious like a plate of....?” “Knishes,” we'd yell, patting our stomachs.
In her defense, my mother once created a dish that we still talk about. There was a night when she emerged from the kitchen and unveiled her infamous “side thing.” She announced “side thing” as a dinner accompaniment for our hamburgers. My brother and I snuck looks at each other. We both smelled danger. But “side thing” was really good. “What is this, Ma?” we called to her. “What did you put in it? What's the real name?"
“It is called ‘side thing,’ and my lips are sealed. I won't say anymore.” And she never did. Apparently, an undercover FBI agent lived surreptitiously in a garden apartment in Queens, New York, and no one knew about it but us.
Until I moved to California in my 30s, I thought cranberry sauce came out of a can. It never occurred to me that it came in any form other than jellied. When I finally mastered the art of eating an artichoke, I was suspicious of any novel food that crossed my plate. Do you eat it with your hands or use a utensil? Is it supposed to be dipped in a sauce? It was all a mystery.
These days, on my own, I mostly buy from Trader Joe's. I'm careful not to burn the blintzes on the stove-top. Most everything is frozen and gets cooked in the microwave. It's sad. I am my mother's daughter. I have no wish to be prisoner of a cookhouse. And I have never watched a cooking show in my life.
Carole Priven is an aspiring writer who lives in San Francisco, California. She can be found at email@example.com.
(my mother’s best recipe)
Put toast in toaster.
While toast is browning, remove butter from refrigerator.
When lightly browned, carefully remove toast from toaster.
Spread butter over warm toast.
Sprinkle cinnamon over buttered toast.
(Warning: Do not put the cinnamon on too thick. The taste can be overpowering.)