My great-grandmother ate like a savage. When she was in America, she told everyone, “Dahlings, on the Continent everyone eats like this.” And when she was on the Continent, she’d say, “Dahlings, in the States everyone eats this way.” When I first visited her best friend Aimée in Paris, she pulled me aside. “Iz eet true, zey really eat like les sauvages een zee States?” No, I assured her.
Ray, my maternal grandfather’s mother, was born an American citizen in Moscow in 1880, and came to New York with her parents when she was three. Her mother viewed New York as a backwater boondock compared to the glittering sophistication of Moscow. To bury her loneliness and grief, she spent her days cooking and baking. When she died, she was so enormous, her coffin had to be lowered out the parlor-floor window. Ray was tall, especially for her time: five-feet-nine, buxom, haughty, and regal, with the air of a gypsy queen. My grandfather Pop-up, her only child, always said, “She’s British when you want her to be Yiddish, and Yiddish when you want her to be British.”
(Ray with her only child, my grandfather Ellis H. Wilner)
She would take me to the movies when I was little. Long lines did not daunt her. Swathed in fur or head to foot in gray or royal blue cashmere, she would draw herself to her full height and push to the head of the line, demanding her tickets, declaring, “You don’t know who I AM!” I would die of embarrassment, but she got her tickets immediately.
Summers, she closed up her palatial apartment on West 54th Street across from the Museum of Modern Art’s garden and decamped to her baby sister Ida’s in the Five Towns on Long Island. Ida had less than a choice. “Dahlings, it’s her pleasure,” Ray would announce. Ray and Ida had a cabana at The Inwood Club by the Atlantic Ocean, where Ida would play canasta with her ladies and Ray would hold court, sashaying up and down the beach, displaying herself. On Saturdays, we’d pick up Ray, allowing Ida a day alone with her own family. My mother would pack a picnic supper, and we’d go from our club in less chic Far Rockaway. One time my mother made a dozen deviled eggs (24 halves), setting them out on the table ahead of the rest of the meal. Ray emerged from her cabana in her latest swimsuit creation: a floor-length beaded décolleté evening gown with the skirt chopped off into a tutu and the train wound round her head in a turban. As we sat down for dinner, the eggs appeared to have vanished, save for an empty platter. “Dahlings, I was hungry,” Ray announced. My mother accused her of stealing food from the mouths of starving babies—my chubby three-year-old brother. Presumably the rest of us didn’t count.
During the year, Ray had a live-in cook/housekeeper. Lunch was always the same: three pink prime rib lamb chops, a baked potato with sour cream and chives, and creamed spinach. The specter of Ray attacking her plate was gladiatorial and not for the delicate. Everything was mixed and mulched together with grunts and groans, and while on West 54th Street, her neighbors (the Rockefellers, Knopfs, Gertrude Lawrence, and other luminaries) may not have eaten that way, we were assured that “on the Continent,” everyone did.
(Ray at the age of 86 in her Manhattan apartment)
One of the roles Ida and her housekeeper played in Ray’s life was to keep her supplied with home-baked Irish raisin cakes to bestow on others. My great-grandparents had been in the linen business, which was centered in Belfast, where they maintained a home, as well as homes in Paris, London, and New York. Ray had a cook in Belfast, and the recipe had come from her, most likely a cherished recipe from her family. The cakes were renamed “Ray Cakes” by Her Ladyship, who had no idea how to cook or bake, and the Irish cook was forgotten. Ray refused to share “her” recipe, but after her death, Ida did. My mother, too, refused to share it, but now that she’s dead, I can. At one point in my life, I sold the cakes privately. They are ambrosial, and there are none quite like them. While Ray may not have been ambrosial, there was, and I doubt will ever be, anyone like her.
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
Raisin Cake (“Ray Cake”)
3/4 lb. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 1/2 c. flour, plus additional for raisins
1 1/4 T. vanilla
1 ½ lb. dark raisins, rolled in flour to coat
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Beat butter and sugar in electric mixer, then add eggs one by one.
Slowly add flour and then vanilla.
Fold in raisins by hand with rubber spatula.
Spoon into a well-greased and floured 9 x 5 loaf pan for 30 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 300 F. and continue baking for 2 more hours.
Let cool thoroughly before removing from pan.
Wrap in wax paper and then tin foil.
The cake will stay fresh for several months if stored and wrapped properly. It can also be kept in the refrigerator.
Slice very thin.
My Mother's Deviled Eggs
3 T. mayonnaise
1/2 t. mustard powder
salt and pepper to taste
Place eggs fully submerged in a pot of cold water, covering the pot.
Bring to a boil, remove lid and boil for 6 minutes for a moist, soft but not runny yolk.
Drain and immediately run eggs in pot under cold water.
Leave eggs in water until they are cooled and easy to hold in your hands. Peel.
Slice eggs in half and remove yolks.
Mix yolks with mayonnaise, mustard powder, salt and pepper.
Mound the yolk mixture in the whites and dust with paprika.
To update the recipe a bit, omit mustard powder and add 1/2 t. curry powder, 1/4 t. white horseradish, and finely chopped fresh dill or chives according to taste. Decorate with a small sprig of dill or a few chopped chives.