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The Farmer's Wife

(by Lisa Cohen)

I grew up on a chicken farm in New Jersey, with parents who were a part of the Jewish migration from the city back to the land after World War II. My mom came from an affluent New York family. My father was a poor orphan who thought farming was the answer to anti-semitism. He had wanted to be an engineer but was advised against it because of his religion. My mom, Diane, was crazy about my dad and thought being a farmer’s wife was romantic. She wanted to be a housewife and raise five kids.

I was the third and last. Then she went back to college and became a teacher. She saved us from poverty. I was too young to understand her importance in our survival, but she was the driving force in our family. Her maiden name was Fischer, and my sister, daughter, and I refer to ourselves as the Fischer women because we all inherited her take-charge, no-nonsense ability. I wasn’t particularly happy to have my mom teaching at my elementary school, and didn’t realize how unhappy I’d be when she became my fifth-grade teacher, but I survived and still know my multiplication tables by heart.

(A "farmer's wife" that my grandmotheran antique dealer/decoratorgave to my mom)

My maternal grandparents loved the farm and visited often, especially for major holidays. My grandmother was a great cook, something my mom didn’t inherit, although she was a good baker—her walnut sponge cake for Passover was legendary. During holidays, the womenfolk would gather in the kitchen, talking and laughing, while we prepared the meal. As a youngster, I was given menial jobs like setting the table and doing dishes. My fondest memory is of helping my mom make chopped liver, first frying the onions in butter (oh, the aroma). My job was to operate the electric food grinder. I loved watching the meat and hard-boiled eggs cascade from the holes in the grinder into the bowl below. If I pushed the eggs too hard, they’d burst out forcefully, something I loved but my mom didn’t appreciate.

(Diane and Gianna)

I learned to cook when I was in high school by perusing Mom’s old Settlement Cookbook and the magazines she subscribed to, like McCall’s and Better Homes and Gardens. With my mom working, I was assigned to prepare dinner a few nights a week for my parents and me (my siblings had already moved away). At first, I wasn’t happy about the extra work, but I came to enjoy the chore, with its tasty reward and the appreciation of my parents. I was most proud of my macaroni and cheese, made extra creamy with a bechamel sauce, and a meatloaf that had a swirl of string beans in each slice.

Years later I joined a cooking club with my husband and three other couples where my cooking skills took off. My mom, grandma, aunt, and sister all dubbed me the “turkey expert” because I could divine the exact moment the Thanksgiving bird was ready to be pulled from the oven. As the baby of the family, I felt I was rarely taken seriously, so I wore the title with pride.

After moving into an apartment that could accommodate a crowd, I started hosting yearly parties for the Jewish holidays. My mom always drove in from New Jersey, enjoying meeting our friends and neighbors—often so many that I was pressed up against the stove with barely enough room to move. I improved on my mother’s chopped liver by not putting the hard-boiled eggs through the grinder since people used to wonder aloud the “white specks." The star of the Hanukkah party was always potato latkes—a recipe that came from my great-grandmother, Sarah Glembosky Shalitzky, who emigrated to the United States from Belarus to avoid my great-grandfather being drafted into the Czar’s army. Mine tasted different, until my mom realized that her grandmother had used peanut oil, which of course became my practice as well, making a perfect replica of a cherished recipe.

(Sarah Glembosky Shalitzky)

There were so many batches of latkes that guests volunteered to help, so I put them to work, teaching them my technique. After years of watching me in the kitchen, my daughter Gianna eventually became my partner at the stove and party co-host. Married now, she has become a terrific cook and intends to resurrect the latke party tradition. Her great-great-grandmother would surely be surprised and happy to know how her recipe has endured through generations in a family of Americans, free from the Czar.

(Gianna and me)


Lisa Cohen is a former prospect researcher who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She can be found on Facebook.

Sarah's Latkes

4 medium russet potatoes

1 small onion

2 eggs

2 heaping soup spoons flour

large pinch salt 

several grinds of pepper 

peanut oil

Scrub potatoes, but don't peel.

Cut potatoes to fit in the feeding tube of a food processor with the grating attachment.

Grate all four potatoes, and place in a big mixing bowl. 

Re-fit processor with chopping blade.

Cut onion into quarters and chop until minced but not mushy.

Add about half of the grated potatoes back into the processor and pulse 2 - 3 times.

Add back into the big mixing bowl. 

Cover bottom of fry pans with peanut oil over medium-high heat.

To the big bowl, add eggs, flour, salt and pepper, mixing well with a wooden spoon.

Drop spoonfuls of batter into hot oil, and pat them down gently with back of the wooden spoon, pushing edges towards the middle. 

Turn when the edges are quite brown.

When both sides are browned and crisp, transfer to paper towels on a serving plate.

Best eaten ASAP but can be kept warm in a low oven.

Makes about 18 latkes, enough for about 6 people.

Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream.

Great with brisket, roast chicken, or just as they are.

Mom’s Pesach Walnut Sponge Cake

softened butter for pan

1 dozen eggs, separated

1 1/2 c. (scant) sugar

zest and juice of 1 lemon

zest of 1 orange

1 c. matzo flour, sifted

2 T. potato starch, sifted

pinch of salt

1 c. walnuts, chopped finely


Preheat oven to 325 F.

Butter a tube pan, line the bottom with parchment, and butter the parchment.

Beat egg yolks and add half of the sugar, beating until thick.

Add lemon and orange zests and lemon juice.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry.

Add remaining sugar to the whites.

Combine matzo flour, potato starch, salt, and walnuts, and set aside.

Fold egg yolk mixture into whites, then gently fold in flour mixture.

Pour into pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a tester comes out clean.


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