(by Sheryl Stillman)
Chopped liver. How these two words can drive such fondness is a mystery. But they serve up warm memories for me.
Having spent my first eight years as an only child to a single parent who thought a nutritional breakfast was nicotine and caffeine, the kitchen wasn’t a place my mother and I frequented. Chopped liver is one of only a handful of dishes she has consistently made—for holidays, for her Mahjong nights, or any time she had a craving for iron-rich food. Now that she is 80 years old, I am keenly aware of our limited time together. One of my goals on a recent trip to see her was to learn how to make this delicacy. So, on a rainy afternoon, Mom handed down the process that began with her grandmother many moons before.
“First of all,” my mother says to me as she whips out a dark wooden bowl from the 1950s, “you need the right bowl and chopper.” My grandmother bequeathed these items to her more than 50 years ago, and she has transported them like treasured pieces of art from Chicago to Minneapolis and then to her retirement in Florida. They had one purpose only, and Mom is convinced that these tools alone make her chopped liver taste like no other.
“It’s a simple recipe,” she begins, “only requiring five ingredients, but it is essential to cook in small batches.”
I offer to help clean the livers, removing the connective tissues and grit that have made their way into the plastic containers from the grocery store.
“No, no,” she says, gently waving me away from the sink. I sense that she’s channeling her mother, a formidable force, standing at four-feet-ten-inches, with poofy jet-black hair that added another four inches to her heavyset frame. She was a second mom to me and the real cook of our family. My mom inherited her beautiful legs, and I will forever hear how I did not.
While Mom is preparing, I am transported back to being five years old, when the two of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the north side of Chicago. Like 99 percent of all children, my favorite food was the grilled cheese sandwich. I was barely able to see the top of the stove, but my mom and I would hold the pan while she flipped the sandwich in a dollop of butter until the white bread transformed into caramel brown and the Velveeta oozed out the sides, all while a cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth. She was a talented goddess to me
As she begins to cook, my mom tells me to “stand back,” as tiny droplets of oil splatter onto her face and arms that seem thinner than my last visit. She has survived eight decades; a little burn here or there isn’t likely to stop her from foraging ahead.
After the onions and livers are cooked through (with just a pinch of salt), they make their way into Grandma’s wooden bowl.
“How many eggs?” I ask my mother.
“It depends,” she says. “Sometimes I use four, sometimes five.”
“You’ve been making this same recipe for fifty years,” I joke with her. “How come the number changes?”
“I can’t answer that,” she says as she drops four hard-boiled eggs on top of the livers. “It just does.”
“How much mayonnaise?” I ask.
Removing the lid of the mayonnaise bottle, she squeezes in five dollops around the bowl, explaining it’s all about the color. “The chopped liver can’t be too dark, so you may have to add more.”
With all the ingredients co-mingled, Mom ceremoniously places the chopper in my hands, as though anointing me royalty.
I begin ever so slowly, testing the blade, seeing how it fits snugly inside the bowl, while practicing scraping, folding over, and chopping some more. Like a sleeping dog with one eye open, my mom watches from the other side of the kitchen. After several minutes, we have the right consistency, and she announces, “Genug,” a Yiddish word meaning “enough.”
Mom may believe the special touch lies in Grandma’s bowl and blade. But from my view, the history, fun, and love that goes into making time-tested food are the actual secret ingredients that transcend the easy into something everlasting. After returning home, I whipped up a batch myself, sans the right equipment, of course. Mom may be right (mothers always are), but the taste was very close. I will gladly wait forever before achieving perfection.
Sheryl Stillman is the proud mom of two young adults and a cockapoo. Her writing has appeared in Wired, PBS's Next Avenue, and local publications in Minneapolis, Minneapolis. She can be found at www.SherylOnline.com.
Gloria's Chopped Liver
approximately 2 lb. chicken livers
2 yellow onions
4 - 5 hard boiled eggs
3 - 4 T. Hellmann’s Mayonnaise (to taste, and must be Hellmann’s)
Clean chicken livers under cold running water, removing any fat or large veins, and dry on paper towels.
In a food processor, chop onions until they are in small pieces, being careful not to over chop.
Film a pan with peanut oil over medium heat, and fry onions until caramelized. Set aside.
Add a little more oil to the pan, and fry chicken livers in batches until cooked through, with no raw patches.
Place each batch of cooked chicken livers in a colander as they are done.
In a wooden bowl with chopper, combine chicken livers, onions, and hard-boiled eggs, chopping to a smooth consistency but not pureed.
Mix in 3 - 4 T. mayonnaise.
Add salt to taste and refrigerate until cool. Serve with matzo or rye toast. Note: Do not bypass smashing by hand. Opting for the food processor instead results in more of a paste, rather than an ever so slightly chunky delicacy.