Growing up in Boston during lean times, I had little occasion to observe my mother's cooking skills. Many evenings, a bowl of lima beans with a bit of tomato sauce sprinkled on top was our dinner. By the time things had improved financially, I was a teenager, more interested in dancing, music, and sports than what went on in the kitchen.
At 21, I went to work in New York City, but I missed my family and often took the train home on weekends, where I began to help my mother in preparing meals. One day I asked her to teach me how to make lima beans and tomatoes, but she said she would never cook that dish again.
She did teach me her renditions of macaroni and cheese, chicken potpie, meat loaf, and pot roast, a perennial Passover favorite for me and so many others, but beyond the cooking lessons, spending that time together was an opportunity to learn about my mother’s early life. A happy and outgoing person with an adventurous spirit, no one would guess that she’d had a difficult childhood.
I discovered that my mother was born in Jordanesti in the Austrian Empire. Her father fled to America to avoid being conscripted into the army to fight the Russians; she and my grandmother followed when she was two years old. In the old country, marriages were arranged for young people, with no courtship between the future spouses. Love matches were rare, and there was little affection between my grandparents. Soon after arriving at Ellis Island, Grandma Rose learned that her husband had fallen in love with a young American woman and wanted a divorce.
With only $25 to her name, and unable to speak English, the only work Grandma could find was as a live-in housekeeper, and she was not allowed to have her child with her. A few relatives already settled in New York City took my mother in, and while they were not unkind, she didn’t get much attention and grew up lonely. Her saving grace was reading, especially Louisa May Alcott. Since Mom did not have a middle name, she took May as hers: Bella May.
My mother’s cooking lessons served me well when my first paychecks meant a tight budget, especially when I fell in love with the man I would marry. Although I was cooking in a kitchen so tiny that every onion had to be accounted for, he fell for my pot roast.
Make that Bella May’s pot roast.
1/2 c. water
1/4 c. rice vinegar
1/4 c. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c. ketchup
1/4 c. dark corn syrup
2 T. vegetable oil
2 T. prepared mustard
2 t. instant coffee granules
1 t. salt
3 lb. beef brisket, well trimmed
Preheat oven 325 F.
In non-stick 1-quart saucepan, stir together water, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, corn syrup, oil, mustard, coffee granules, and salt until blended.
Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Place brisket in 13x9 baking dish.
Pour sauce over brisket. Cover baking dish with foil and bake about 3 hours or until meat is tender, turning brisket once during baking.
Remove meat and skim fat from sauce.
Slice brisket and serve with sauce.