For as long as I can remember, whenever we went to my grandparents’ home for dinner, my father would encourage us to eat beforehand. Grandma’s cooking was that bad. My mother did not disagree with this criticism (which said a lot since my parents separated when I was six). Her mother’s cooking was unimpressive even while she was growing up in a low-income housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn during the 1950s. A Jewish mother’s disinterest and lack of skill in the kitchen at that time and place was rare, almost shameful. How could she love her family if she did not know how to make a good kugel? Grandma’s best meal was scrambled eggs with butter. And perfectly toasted white bread. With butter (while “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” was on the TV in the background). Her three favorite condiments were hot fudge, ketchup, and duck sauce (she bought her own bottles of a brand called Mee Tu).
Whatever my grandmother lacked in the kitchen, she made up for it with keeping a home. Everything was in its place. Beds were made daily, and towels in the lemon-scented bathroom were freshly laundered for a sleepover. The white couch in the living room stayed white, and the coffee table was meticulously arranged: her Weight Watchers water jug, an ashtray, the remote control, and a TV Guide.
This was my comfort zone. I was an only child whose nuclear family was falling apart in slow motion from my earliest memory. Before my father finally moved out, my grandparents’ home was my refuge. Buttery scrambled eggs, perfect toast, my grandfather’s big bear hugs, and my grandmother’s perfectly kept home—my calm in the storm.
My mother’s cooking prowess was only slightly better than her mother’s. She could make a meatloaf or apple crisp, but her strong suit was making reservations. On weekend nights, we were regulars at a local restaurant in Long Island (typically Chinese or Italian, like good Jews). She also kept an impeccable home where she would proudly state that “You could eat off of the floor!” When I returned from play dates and hangouts with my friends, my mother would demand, “Let me see the bottoms of your socks.” If they were dirty, it was evidence of a house that didn’t meet her standards. But she’d never ask what was served for dinner. She didn’t want to know, didn’t want any comparisons to delicious, home-cooked meals.
Now, as a wife and mother myself, I must admit that the apple does not fall far from the tree. The beds in my apartment are made with hospital corners; the refrigerator and stove sparkle. And I have no shame that my kitchen cupboards house more cocktail glasses and cheese plates than pots and pans. My daughter happily eats scrambled eggs with butter and perfectly toasted (whole wheat) bread. (Times have changed a bit; I go for the grains.) She also is accustomed to spending weekends going from one restaurant to another. Her mother makes excellent reservations. For a Jewish mother in Manhattan now, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s pretty great.
5 - 6 medium apples
1 c. flour
1 c. sugar
1 stick margarine
cinnamon, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cut apples into wedges, and arrange around the bottom of a greased 8-inch baking pan.
Mix flour, sugar and egg, and spread over apples.
Melt margarine, and pour over contents of pan.
Sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake for 35 - 40 minutes.