A Kitchen of Her Own
My mother had the first kitchen of her own when we moved from a boarding house to Yeoville. As soon as we moved in, she started to lavish daily masterpieces on us as though her everyday sumptuous fare was nothing unusual.
One morning soon after we came to Yeoville, she carried a plate into my new bedroom loaded with crepes fine as lawn handkerchiefs. She wanted a shelf to keep them on and the kitchen was full of busyness. She gave me a crepe to taste. Ah! Later that day she folded the crepes to hold a meat filling she had discussed with my father. How to keep it light enough? How to recover the taste they knew in Lithuania and make up for ingredients she could not find in South Africa? I preferred the soft texture of her delicate crepes to the blintzes they became and still have not forgotten my wonder at their fine fabric.
Today I believe she intended her golden Sunday lunch roast chicken and potatoes, set apart and inviolable from meals we might miss, as a ritual meant to clasp us together as a family. We could invite friends but not accept their invitations. Sunday’s secular feast was sacred and set apart from other meals.
Her Sunday suppers of scrambled eggs and fresh tomatoes were also special and ineffable. I have tried to emulate the dish without success. Its harmonious tastes and textures fused the fruits of earth and the work of human hands to overflow with flavors, scents, and colors too particular and encompassing for me to recall them as ordinary. My parents might discuss that night’s particular instantiation of the dish — were the tomatoes ripe enough? another pinch of salt perhaps? — with earnest discrimination as though both had in mind its Platonic ideal form. Every nuance they mentioned was a phrase in a hymn of praise.
Proust describes how Françoise varied her bill of fare “as the labor of the fields and orchards, the harvest of the tides, the luck of the markets, the kindness of neighbors and her own genius might provide … like the quatrefoils that were carved on the porches of cathedrals in the thirteenth century, [they] reflected to some extent the march of the seasons and the incidents of human life … spinach by way of a change; apricots, because they were still hard to get, gooseberries because in another fortnight there would be none left; raspberries, which M. Swann had brought specially …” When I read this passage of Swann’s Way, I relished Proust’s comically self-canceling list of reasons and slipped to an imitative list of my mother’s food: fried aubergines because my father loved them, Granny Smith apples because they were healthy, white peaches from a case worth the price because they were particularly delicious, mangos a bargain that week because of a glut. And, days my mother hosted her rummy-playing women friends, feasts of luxurious scones and butter cakes so they would not go to waste.
We knew no M. Swann to bring gifts from his own garden and no cathedral porches to convey a culture through architecture, but my mother brought Lithuanian diet and Jewish history to the table when she set before each of us a ruby lake of borscht served with a steaming hot potato and sour cream. I liked to stretch the white blob into marbling streaks until the lake shone shocking pink and my father often wanted to improve the dish with diced fresh cucumber — Keidan cucumbers were famous — but my mother knew that distinctive flavor of their youth unattainable in Johannesburg.
In other dishes she did retrieve the taste of her past years, a spring soup of baby beet greens and another of young sorrel. Sometimes, shopping in central Johannesburg, she stopped at a store that sold a white cheese still bearing pucker marks where the whey-dripping cheesecloth was drawn closed. Several times she curdled milk herself and hung the thick liquid in a doubled diaper of cheesecloth fixed to a hook. Recently, in Somerville, I bought a white cheese that woke my mouth and memory to that taste and, hardly believing the treasure saved in my palate, read the label, “Baltic cheese.”
Some of her recipes, I suspect, had survived centuries and dated back to before Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century. She made a fish escabeche with onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice, lemon juice, and sweetening whose recipe I used to believe beyond human recall until a few years ago, when, in a passage on medieval food, I came on something that looked as though it might taste similar.
She accepted South African food too, fruits like litchis, granadillas, guavas, and pineapples, and local specialties like smoked snoek. She even accepted her children’s impatient hankering for fresh mielies though she did not share our enthusiasm. Mielies were a late spring or summer delicacy. In winter, when I came home from school, she dipped lobes of cauliflower in batter, fried them in butter, and fed me at the kitchen table. Satisfied by her apparently unremarkable delicacy, I went out to play or read. If it had been a bad day and my teacher hit me with my ruler, I was comforted. If it had been a day I thrilled at a lesson, like the music class where we learned “Waltzing Matilda,” I perpetuated the morning’s happiness with wordless gratitude.
In her preeminent domain of control and expertise, food and cooking, she taught us hospitality, and conversation, the natural progeny of shared meals, grew in its shelter. In other domains, my brother Simon and I came to mistrust her, to see vanity and manipulation. In this domain, where she excelled, she never boasted. Rather, in this, she accepted praise as though whatever she had done was simply what anyone would do.
A handful of her recipes exuded explicitly Jewish associations — chicken soup and matzo kneidlach for the Passover seder and tricorner hamantaschen baked with poppy seed and honey at Purim. For some years, she bought meat at a kosher butchery, used two sets of plates, did not mix milk and meat, did not serve milk after meat, and never brought treif food like ham or shellfish into the house.
“Please God” and “Thank God” littered her sentences though these phrases seemed little more than customary taboos — an umbrella opened in the house, a broken mirror, a black cat meaning bad luck, a horseshoe good luck, and “touch wood” an evil averted. But once, after a bad bout of the palpitations she was prone to, I saw her holding a first summer peach to her mouth and, before biting into it, saying a Hebrew prayer that thanked God for bringing her to that season.
Even without that moment, I felt her cooking numinous. It expressed things invisible in things visible, tactile, and edible. Her daily care led us to experience the richness of the world and revealed her trust that the world is good and that she knew how to unlock its goodness and set it forth for us. When I press, I feel her habit of giving daily delight like a plum yielding the juice and taste of faith sweet on my fingers.