(by Beth Levine)
“The people who give you their food give you their heart.” (Cesar Chavez)
It’s good, not great. It’s just missing a little something something, I thought, after trying
to recreate my mother’s borscht recipe from memory. It was all there—the beets, the broth,
the shaved carrots, garlic, sautéed onion, a dollop of sour cream—but where was the
yummy factor I remembered so well?
When my 93-year-old mother passed away earlier this year, I told my siblings, “You can
take whatever you want, but that recipe book is mine.” She had a beaten-up binder full
of recipes from here and there and everywhere; some torn from newspapers, some
written in her impenetrable script. It actually makes for fun reading. So when, during
this summer’s heat wave, I had a hankering for her cold borscht, I went to the binder, but
the recipe wasn’t there. Somewhere in the mad scramble to clear out her house, it had
gotten lost, and my determined attempts rendered close but no cigar.
It's hard to think about my mother without thinking of food. She lived in utter panic that
someone under her roof might not be fed, might even feel a little peckish. Early on, she
bought a stand-alone freezer for the cellar in which she packed and packed pre-made
meals, to be defrosted in case a few thousand might drop by. (“Don’t argue!”) She
baked and froze her Thanksgiving pies in July. She made batches of soup to freeze,
because “you never know.” Know what? The Cossacks might come and we could buy
them off with soup?
When she found out that someone was coming to visit—it could be six months hence—her first response was always to look at me and hyperventilate, “BUT WHAT WILL WE
“Do we have to think about this now, Ma?”
“WELL, THEY AREN’T GOING TO FEED THEMSELVES!” she’d say, and out would
come her little pads to write down menu after menu. (The recipe book contains many of
these menus, and they make me cry to look at her little hen scratches.)
But as much as we teased her, food was her undiluted expression of love. Whenever
her grandchildren came to visit, the first thing she’d say was “We have…,” then list off
an endless amount of food, enough for a village. My niece Ellie recalls, “I always loved
how she used the word 'we' instead of 'I' in that sentence. That we are forever a 'we' and
that nummy food is a never-ending love language.” When it was time for them to fly back home, she would always pack lunches, even juice boxes—TSA three ounces rule
And for the record, when we were growing up, she packed school lunches in brown
paper bags every day for all four of us, kindergarten through high school graduation.
And good ones, too. Steak or meatloaf sandwiches from last night’s dinner. A piece of
homemade pie. We were the envy of the cafeteria.
My sisters and I remember when we were little and she made a blueberry pie, she
would give us each a little metal (cleaned!) ashtray with a pinch of dough and pie filling
to make our own little pies. We felt so important. She passed this love down to her
grandchildren. “She always treated us like we could do whatever she was doing,” says
my niece Leah, who continues the tradition with her children.
Mom had a 1947 Sunbeam mixer that had been a wedding present. The Beast, as we
call it, works to this day. (Quality!) My sister Martha grabbed that one. We would watch
her whipping cake batter and using the spatula to wipe the sides of the bowl as it spun.
She would even let us dip our fingers into the bowl and taste the batter. “It was like I
was dipping my finger into her knowledge of cooking and of life,” Martha says.
I would come home from school to find her in the kitchen. I would hop up on the
counter and tell her about my day while she beat some meal into submission. Three
meals a day for six people, and she never seemed to resent it. And she still had time to
talk with me about my crushes, friends, schoolwork.
True story: When I turned 30, I threw myself a party in a New York City bar. The woman
whipped up a batch of frosted cupcakes, drove in from Connecticut to this dive just to
drop them off, turn around, and go home again.
Mom was a brilliant botanist who taught for many years at The New York Botanical Garden, even winning Teacher of the Year once. She wrote a well-respected textbook that is still used today. But she managed to balance the two sides of herself in a way that I can just now start to appreciate with awe. When she had to leave on a botanical trip—to the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica—she made a pot of stew for my father that was to see him through. (Anyone remember the Peg Bracken I Hate to Cook Book? See under: Stay-a-bed Stew. Because you just threw everything together and went back to bed.) It made us see that Mom could always maintain her fierce love and commitment to us while at the same time feed her own intellectual drive.
And the brisket. The brisket was her call to fame. Anytime any one of us came home, it
was brisket. To die for. Anyone else’s might be good, but it wasn’t the work of art hers
was. When she passed, I cleared out her magic freezer and found various containers of
just the brisket gravy, frozen. I grabbed them and now portion them out to myself in
judicial doses. Now I am down to the last, and what occasion could possibly be big
enough to contain that—brisket gravy actually made by Mom?
In the last few years, Mom started to lose it. Because she had been so sharp and smart,
it took me longer than it should have to realize what was going on. One night, she
invited my husband and me over to eat. “I’m defrosting something from the freezer,’ she
“What is it?” I asked. Not an unreasonable question, I thought.
“Hmmm. I’m not sure…oh, wait, I think I see noodles,” she responded, lackluster.
“Well, it’s not poison,” she said, irritated.
I should have seen it then. When Mom didn’t care what she served, I should have
known that something was up. And when it became more and more apparent that each
dish we got from her might be the last, it became that much more important to me, to us, to
hold onto it, savor it. Because Mom was all things love wrapped up in a brisket, carrot
cake, stuffed cabbage, or a July pecan pie. It was her love language. She was never
terribly gushy, tending toward the sensible, just-get-on-with-it view of life, but that woman
could cook the blues out of anyone.
“We have.…” How I miss those words. It was her way of hugging and holding us close.
You may have had a bad day, felt a little lost, but everything was going to be okay,
because, “We have….”
And now I know what is wrong with my borscht. The missing ingredient is Mom.
Beth Levine is an award-winning health and humor writer, and coach of college
application essays. A resident of Stamford, Connecticut, she can be found
at www.bethlevine.net. She is not sharing the last of the brisket gravy, so don’t ask.
Brisket in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce
(adapted from Levana's Table by Levana Kirschenbaum)
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
2-in. piece fresh ginger, peeled
6 large cloves garlic
1/4 c. Dijon mustard
1/2 c. dry red wine
1 1/2 c. Coca-Cola or ginger ale