My mother was a gifted cook. Without lessons, and within the limitations of being Kosher, she was nonetheless able to make magic in the kitchen. My memories of her cooking in the small row house in which I grew up were of her back. The kitchen was tiny. Sink at the rear of the room. Stove to the left. Refrigerator to the right. Her work space was the small area to the right of the sink.
I watched her back when I used the house phone, located on the wall in the eating alcove that adjoined the kitchen. I watched the plucking and dismemberment of chickens, the endless pots of soup being seasoned on the stove, the pans going into the oven and coming out. I remember having no interest in how she created whatever she did. One time, I asked if I could help. She laughed and said, “The best thing you can do is stay out of the kitchen.” It was an easy order to follow.
During my first year in college, my mother started her own home-based catering company. The basement became a kitchen. My mother hired two women to work with her. She catered weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Although the food she created became more and more elaborate, my interest level in what she did remained the same. I continued to stay out of the kitchen.
Then, at age twenty-two, I had my own kitchen, a place to house the shiny new pots and pans and dishes and appliances bestowed upon me as a reward for becoming someone’s wife. Having lined my shelves, made curtains for the windows, and displayed my new cooking toys, I didn’t know how to proceed. I had to admit that in the genetic lottery of life, my mother’s cooking abilities had not been gifted to me.
Seven years later, my mother died. I kept the few cookbooks she had, although I already knew that she cooked without recipes. The cookbooks had been gifts given to her when she got married. I can’t imagine that she ever actually referred to them. Within their pages, I found several sheets of paper with “recipes” written on them. I could not have followed those random scribbles if my life depended on it. I need directions as precise as those used by people in laboratories.
Thirty-seven years passed. In that time, I managed to keep an ex-husband and three children alive with my cook-by-the-numbers style. Through the years, I even made many of the dishes I remember my mother having made: the brisket, the strudel, the knishes, the blintzes, the stuffed cabbage. Each one was homage to my mom.
A few months ago, I was looking for linen dish towels (I still love the decor of the kitchen, if not the actual cooking) online, and I came across a woman who made dish towels from family members’ old handwritten recipes. Her Etsy store site said to send her the recipes, and she would screen them onto the towels.
I made a mad dash for the attic, and I found the carton that contained my mother’s cookbooks. The handwritten recipes were gone. I searched the carton, taking every item out. No recipes. I looked through all of my own recipe books, through other cartons, through my file cabinet. No recipes. I told myself that since my mother probably never even used the recipes, it didn’t matter. But I knew it did.
I decided to go through the original carton one last time. I didn’t find the recipes but I did find part of an old spiral notebook, minus front and back covers. I hadn’t seen it since my mother died. It was her handwritten catering menus. I remember sitting with her as she wrote these out, being fascinated by the names of all of the exotic hors d’oeuvres and desserts that danced across those pages. I remember discussing prices with her. I am, by nature, a business person. And the business side of catering always appealed to me more than the actual cooking. A folded page inside was typed on onion skin paper. I was the one who did the typing.
I emailed four of the pages to the woman who made the towels, and a couple of weeks of communication began. Then, one day, the towels arrived. All are simple and white, with no decoration. Three display my mother’s handwriting. The fourth is typed.
I already use my mother’s old metal measuring spoons and her Pyrex measuring cups. I keep an old teapot on display that we had at home. So my mother has maintained a presence in my kitchen all along. But these towels are something else. These towels bring my mom into my kitchen in a way the other items do not. They remind me not only of what a gifted cook she was, but of the hours that she spent creating the business that would bring such joy to others. I see her seated at the kitchen table, writing. I am next to her, watching, asking questions, and giving opinions about menu layout and pricing.
I have not been given the cooking abilities that my mother had. But I will always be grateful that I am able to express with words what my mother did so easily with ingredients. Both food and words are powerful. They each have the ability to nourish the soul.