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Where’s My Knife?

(by Lisa S. Greene)

“Where’s my knife?” she asks.


Mom sits in her wheelchair at the head of the white butcher block table, wearing a fleece jacket, as she is always cold lately. This is her kitchen, in New Jersey; it has been for four decades, since I was a sophomore in college. From this kitchen, she has engineered, with scientific organization and constant motion, I don’t know how many meatloaves and pots of spaghetti sauce, thousands of brownies and loaves of zucchini or banana bread. But today she sits, with a far-off look, in a kitchen that she no longer runs.


I pause, stunned. I’d been so busy trying to capture her interest in cooking on this visit, sure I would have to work at it, that I didn’t anticipate her response, although it was a natural response from the woman who taught me to bake and cook, to set an elegant table and organize a dinner party. How many times, while laying out the good silver, did she remind me which fork went where, and show me how the bottoms of the plate and the flatware should line up just before the edge of the table? In my high school years, Mom hired my sister Jackie and me to staff her dinner parties. We learned how to serve: Never reach across a guest, and never, I mean never, stack the dishes, or carry more than we could handle. The precious cargo was, after all, her Royal Copenhagen wedding china, timeless still, decades after Mom and Dad’s 1959 marriage.


(with Mom and sister Jackie)


Mom was a kindergarten teacher in more than occupation: organized, nearly unflappable, and never raising her voice. Her sense of order and pragmatism guided most everything in her life, and taught me pretty much everything I know about cooking and entertaining. Her counsel has always been in the kitchen with me, even when I bake late at night and she is long asleep halfway across the country. I hear: Cream the sugar and butter first. Don’t crack all the eggs into one container. Take out all of your ingredients before you begin to bake. Clean up as you go. I’ve repeated Mom’s kitchen advice to my children, firmly telling them to measure baking ingredients carefully (it’s a science) and not to dump all of the flour into the turning mixer at once.


When I moved to Chicago, I started cooking more often, but couldn’t find the recipes I wanted in the mess of manila folders bulging with stacks of torn pages and envelopes that Mom had mailed to me as I lived in Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Anchorage, and the West Village of New York. It was 1995, and we had just given Dad a modem for his 65th birthday. Mom wasn’t yet on email, but now when I needed a recipe, it arrived courtesy of RABBHG@aol.com, aka Dad, often with Mom’s cautions, like: Dry the blueberries before adding to the muffin batter.


Eventually I put all those recipes in a binder with Mom’s infinite kitchen wisdom gracing the opening pages:

● Take out all of your ingredients before you start.

● Keep a low flame under butter, milk, and chocolate.

● Don’t overbeat your heavy cream.

● When making applesauce or grape jelly, turn the Foley food mill forward, and then, every few times, turn it backward.

● Put ingredients away as you cook.

● Make enough—everyone eats more when it’s home-baked.


Mom’s wisdom has resided in the drawers and cabinets of all my kitchens. She unpacked and organized as I watched in a new home, weeks away from birthing my first child. As that child grew and two more followed, she would swoop into town with recipes, child-friendly cooking activities, and even a frozen Rosh Hashanah brisket in her suitcase. One autumn day, she made her trademark grape jelly, filling the downstairs with that scent of Concord grapes that draws one to the stove, saltines in hand



In more recent years, Mom’s presence in our kitchen came through FaceTime. My kids and I would call to check on an ingredient, locate a recipe, or ask if the meringue peaks were stiff enough. She still shows up in every batch of her signature brownies—hundreds (or is it thousands?) made for decades of synagogue receptions, welcome-to-the-neighborhood gifts, expressions of gratitude or condolence, and for at least one wedding reception (mine). One of my children baked Grandma Betty’s Brownies for a class project, explaining that the brownies are our family’s expression of kindness. Another baked dozens for a soup kitchen nearby as a bar mitzvah project.


And the ever-present stash of brownies in Mom’s freezer was kept up by her team of ladies, as we called her caregivers: Isabel, Patricia, and Paulette, her bakers by proxy, who made many of her favorite recipes. At best, Mom was a taster and observer, illness having stolen so much of her physical and cognitive abilities. But she was still interested in the outcomes of cooking and baking, and never turned down a homemade sweet.


When I arrive for a recent visit, lemon curd recipe in hand, my intent is to eke out any delight I can with my once nonstop mother. In her wheelchair, Mom sits in her place at the head of that white table that wobbles if the legs aren’t straightened out, opposite the Hockney poster that evokes her teen and college years in Los Angeles. We put the juicer and lemons on a silicone cutting board in front of her.

I put my hand over Mom’s on the yellow and white plastic juicer, and together we squeeze the first piece of fruit. Her hands look as elegant as ever, with long slender fingers, neatly shaped short nails, gold wedding band, and silver watch on her left wrist. Grasping the fruit or a knife is unlikely. But somehow, in that instant, the familiarity of the kitchen kicks in.


Seeing the other lemons before her, Mom asks, “Where’s my knife?” I hand it to her. She takes the knife and starts to cut.

---

Lisa S. Greene is a rabbi in suburban Chicago and mother of three happily baking children, two in high school, one in college. She can be found at https://ordinaryandsacred.com. She honors the memory of her mother, Betty A. Greene (1936-2022), with this story.

Lemon Curd

(adapted from Melissa Clark of The New York Times)


1 stick unsalted butter

2 t. finely grated lemon zest

1 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 4 - 6 lemons)

3/4 - 1 c. granulated sugar, to taste

3 large eggs

1 egg yolk

pinch of salt


Put butter in a large (at least 6 c.) microwave-safe glass bowl or measuring cup.

Set microwave on 50 percent power, and melt butter, about 1 - 1 1/2 minutes.

Pour butter in a blender and add lemon zest, juice, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, and salt.

Blend until smooth.

Pour mixture into the same glass bowl used for melting the butter.

Microwave the mixture on full power, in 1-minute intervals for 5 minutes.

Whisk furiously between intervals, especially around edges of the bowl. It should start to thicken.

(If it looks like it’s thickening before 5 minutes, stop and continue to the next step.)

Reduce power to 70 percent and continue to microwave for another 1 - 2 minutes, whisking every 30 seconds, until the curd thickens enough to coat a spoon, and looks slightly puffed and spongy. (It will continue to thicken as it chills.) An instant-read thermometer should register 180 degrees.

Whisk well and strain the curd through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl.

Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface and cool to room temperature.

Refrigerate until cold, at least 3 hours.

Makes 2 cups.

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