I think my mother loved to cook, but she never said so, and if I’d asked when she was alive, she would have brushed me off. Though spirited and outspoken, she never would have admitted feeling joy or loving anything. I suppose this was rooted in Old World superstitions–the family was from Moldova–because her five siblings were much the same: praise squelched, grievances aired with abandon. And yet, never did my mother complain about her decades in the kitchen, preparing meals for her immediate family or hosting holiday dinners for myriad relatives.
We always ate a salad before our entrée, and the fruit bin in the refrigerator was full of whatever was in season. Except for frozen peas, our vegetables were fresh, and the sweetest memories from my mother’s kitchen begin with produce from local farm stands, like beet borscht with warm potatoes, cucumbers, and sour cream. Dessert was a key part of our meals–often sherbet or ice cream, sometimes with a special Friday night plum cake or apple brown Betty. But she loathed junk food. We didn’t drink soda, nosh between meals, or commit the ultimate sin of filling up on what she called chazerei.
(I'm the wiggly youngest one.)
I assumed everyone ate as we did until I saw that my classmates were grossed out by the sandwiches I brought for lunch, neatly wrapped in waxed paper: cheese and green pepper on rye, or cream cheese, olive, and tomato on pumpernickel. (A perfect sandwich, when tomatoes are in season and the pumpernickel is dense and freshly baked). No Wonder Bread, no baloney. No Ring Dings or chocolate milk. And I had no cravings for "their" food, no desire to rebel, which I did in every other facet of my life.
My mother was dismayed when I announced that I no longer ate meat and never stopped asking why. Whenever I was coming for dinner, she’d say, “I don’t know what to feed you.” But she did know, and she continued making delicious dinners for me, and later for my family, until she was nearly 90, serving us vegetarian chili, pasta, enchiladas, Middle Eastern food, and a Romanian vegetable stew called gvetch. Even so, she never stopped fretting or querying me about why I’d given up meat, until one day, I said with exasperation, “But Mom, you were the one who taught me about good food!”
This wasn’t exactly true. My mother taught me how to sew, iron a shirt, and make a bed with hospital corners. She introduced me to books and drilled me on my responsibilities as a citizen–but nothing about cooking. True, she couldn’t stand anyone in the kitchen during meal prep, and was so fussy that she’d rearrange any item someone else put in the dishwasher. But lately I’ve begun to think that cooking was not something she could easily share.
Why else would she be so dismissive when I first asked for recipes? (“There’s no recipe.”) It took effort to coax instructions from her, along the lines of, “Sauté some onions and mushrooms, and put in a pinch of salt.” Later, around the time she insisted that I take her serving pieces and silver, she began sharing actual recipes, written in her neat hand on lined 3 x 5 inch cards–for baba ganoush, for puttanesca sauce, for tuna walnut pâté.
When the holidays come around, I take those handwritten cards out of the recipe box, haul out her serving pieces and cut-glass bowls, unwrap the silver, and think of her enthusiasm, which she denied, and her talents as a cook and host, which are so much greater than mine. I tie her apron around my waist and wait for the guests to arrive, and remind myself that words are only one way pleasure is expressed, that the proof was on her table every night.
Jane Bernstein, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of five books, including Rachel In the World: A Memoir and Gina From Siberia. Her newest book is The Face Tells the Secret. Her website is janebernstein.net.
Spaghetti Puttanesca with Clams
2 T. olive oil
1 T. finely minced garlic
1 T. finely chopped fresh basil or 1/2 t. dried
1 t. dried oregano
4 c. crushed tomatoes
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
1 dried hot pepper or 1/2 t. pepper flakes
salt and black pepper to taste
12 kalamata or other cured black olives, pitted
2 T. capers, drained
2 oz. can anchovies, chopped
either 1/2 c. bottled clam juice and
18 littleneck clams, scrubbed
8 oz. bottled clam juice and
6 - 10 oz. canned clams
1 lb. spaghetti or linguine
In a large skillet, heat olive oil.
Add garlic, basil, oregano, tomatoes, parsley, hot pepper, salt, and black pepper.
Bring to a boil and simmer partly covered for 30 minutes.
Add olives, capers, and anchovies.
Add clam juice and clams, and simmer 5 minutes more.
Discard hot pepper, if using.
Meanwhile, cook pasta al dente in boiling salted water, drain, and serve with clams and sauce.
Serves 4 - 6.
Tuna Walnut Pâté
10 oil-cured black olives, pitted
1 T. capers
5 anchovy fillets
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 T. Cognac
2 T. lemon juice
1 T. fresh thyme or 1 t. dried
9 1/2 oz. tuna packed in olive oil
12 T. unsalted butter, softened
freshly ground white pepper to taste
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
extra walnuts halves to decorate
In a food processor with the steel knife, blend olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, Cognac, lemon juice, and thyme until finely chopped.
Add the tuna with oil and process until pureed.
With processor on, add butter two tablespoons at a time, incorporating each before adding the next batch.
Put mixture in a bowl, and fold in pepper and chopped walnuts.
Scrape into a 3-cup terrine or other serving bowl, and level the top.
Refrigerate for 20 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap, but do not let the wrap touch the top of the spread.
Refrigerate until serving, then decorate with walnut halves.
Serve cool but not cold.