(by Paula Marks)
I’m a boomer, born in the Bronx in 1949, to a foodie mother nicknamed “Goody” and a father who would have preferred it if there was a pill to replace the chore of eating. My mother was always disappointed that my father didn’t eat a lot or ask for seconds. She wanted to feed people, and her recipes have outlived her by a few generations. Once we moved to a middle-class home, food was the center of our universe.
Both my parents were first-generation Americans born into poverty. Prior to emigrating from Vienna, my maternal grandmother was a cook for the Guggenheim family, who became fabulously wealthy from the mining industry (their money created New York’s Guggenheim Museum). My mother was the youngest of six, whose father occasionally disappeared for long periods of time. She often went hungry, except when the butcher gave my grandmother offal meant for the cats. Allegedly, my grandma knew how to make potatoes a zillion ways.
By the time I arrived, my mother was no longer literally hungry for food, but she remained emotionally and spiritually hungry all of her life. Our family would drive to the beach on weekends with three Tupperware tubs filled with fried chicken, mayonnaise-laden potato salad, and coleslaw—God forbid we should go hungry. (My mother was a stickler for the rule about waiting after eating to swim, although she was afraid to go in the water herself.) I remember live fish swimming in the bathtub before major Jewish holidays so that it would be “frisha” (Yiddish for “fresh”). During my childhood, a serious cold would send Mom to the kitchen to whip up a “google-moogle,” which consisted of warm milk, honey, and butter. “Polachkala,” she’d say, “drink this. It will make you feel better.” And invariably it did. (I’m convinced my mother was the original founder of Google.)
I must have learned to cook by my mother’s side, although I have no memory of it. I do remember big, fatty, carb-intensive meals that seemed creative and delicious to my unskilled palate. My parents chose not to keep a kosher home, unlike their parents, which meant the sky was the limit. My cousins used to come from the Bronx to Queens for Sunday breakfasts because Aunt Goody made bacon.
Unfortunately, my mother made tacit agreements with me: I will feed you, you will never go hungry, but you must repay me with extraordinary love and adoration, forever and always. I was dutiful in some ways. But if I didn’t automatically agree with her, I was labeled stubborn and called a pig head. As I got older and she had less control of me, the barbs were more frequent, and my food psyche was shaped. She would say to my sister and me, “How can I wrap up just six slices of brisket?” Then I’d dutifully eat the leftovers and was rewarded with “Look at you—you look like the side of a barn.” (Ironic, since she was obese.) But my body image was born.
As I got older, I cooked and entertained often, sometimes tackling complex dishes like homemade pasta and beef Wellington. My mother couldn’t understand how I could invite two couples and be a “fifth wheel.” (My attitude was: Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I should give up a nice meal with friends.) Many of our conversations were about food. She would often ask how big the portions were in restaurants. “Sounds delicious. Was it delicious?”
My mother was very competitive. Once my husband and I quadrupled a chocolate mousse recipe to bring to a cousin’s bar mitzvah in Connecticut. When we received kudos from the guests, my mother wrinkled up her face and said, “It’s too sweet.” She rarely acknowledged anything positive about me. But ultimately, I learned to love cooking and bringing groups of people together for a good meal from her. Before the pandemic, it was not unusual for my husband to ask before a dinner party, “Okay, dear, how many people did you really invite?” Can't wait to do it again.
Paula Marks is the CEO of Hire Resources, a consulting agency in New York City.
Aunt Goody’s Fried Chicken
raw, wet chicken pieces
Italian seasoned bread crumbs
optional: onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Shake wet chicken and bread crumbs with optional spices in a paper or plastic food bag.
Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for 35 - 50 minutes, depending on portion size.