I write this as a tribute to my mom, the most important women in my life. It is Women's Month after all so who better to highlight than mom. As I sit in the kitchen writing this piece, I reflect on the fact that a few days ago marked 5 years since her passing. I thought it fitting to write about her while at our kitchen table, since so many of my important memories start here. Over the summer I made some changes to the kitchen and I think she'd approve - dad not so sure. She would have loved the new clean feel to it, but dad would be missing all the platters and plates that adorned the walls. I've been back here now for 5 years and these minor changes are making me feel more of a sense of peace and belonging - it's not their home, nor is it just the place where I grew up, it's now mine.
My parents didn't start off as foodies. Food and eating has always been an important part of our lives, but my parents came from what today would be considered very unsophisticated food backgrounds. Dad's mom, of whom I've written many times, believed that food had to be good and plentiful. She cooked typical Eastern European Jewish foods; foods that reflected her heritage and her life story. My mom on the other hand grew up in a household where authentic, heritage based cooking was less important. Her father was the main cook in the house and I've been told that basically if it didn't involve an orange and celery it didn't get cooked. I know that tradition had been passed on to her cousin, who today still uses oranges and celery in whatever he can.
My parents met - you guessed it, over food. Dad was working his way through Music School in the family Howard Johnson Restaurant in Times Square, when mom sat down for a cup of coffee at the counter. Immediately smitten, Dad knew she was the one for him and after a week, he proposed on the Staten Island Ferry. How romantic right! He told her he lived on Madison and she thought - wow, he must be a catch, Madison Ave wow. However what she found was that he lived on Madison Street on the Lower Eastside of NY in a railroad apartment - very far from Madison Avenue. But she was in love and it didn't matter. They married - that's a whole other story for later, and moved in with her parents in Brooklyn.
Once Dad finished school they moved out and got their own place, now mom had to cook! To say she wasn't the greatest was at that time an understatement. Together they decided to forgo the Kosher world, and started a journey together to explore new foods and cuisines. However there was still the problem that Mom didn't really know much about cooking. I still laugh at the story they tell about the chicken that just wouldn't cook and would just bounce - though I believe it's because the oven didn't work or wasn't on - but no they insisted that the chicken just wouldn't cook. There was a story about her making a dish that solidified once she put it on the table, complete with fork stuck in the middle of the plate. She learned, he learned and together they eventually began creating amazing meals. My parents loved food, and mom became an amazing cook. Entertaining was something they loved to do and once they became involved in wine they started entertaining on a grand scale. 10 course meals paired with wines were not uncommon, with most if not all dishes made from scratch. These meals would take days for them to prepare and I had the great fortune of being allowed to sit at the table and partake in these amazing get togethers. A far cry from a chicken that wouldn't cook or - Cement in in Pot as Dad called the dish that solidified the fork.
Once mom went into Hospital, I would bring her food every day that I could. Food doesn't just nourish, it brings joy, it creates memories. I could see the joy it brought her when I'd bring her one of her favorite foods. Potato pancakes on Hanukkah, a homemade turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, Chinese food from my favorite restaurant or just a plain tuna sandwich. We would sit together as she enjoyed these meals; it brought us both joy. Now I listen to the stories from friends who are going through a similar situation and am reminded that food, and enjoying a meal together helps create memories that can last a lifetime. One of my close friends would tell her mom that she was coming to me for a meal and her mom would remind her to bring back some leftovers. I still smile at this and think of the Guinness Stew I would save for her mom - or sometimes just make for her. Her mom was from Ireland and having her tell me that it was delicious was the best. Another friend of mine's dad would say the same when he knew she was coming over to me for dinner, to make sure she would bring back leftovers for him. Food doesn't just fill our bellies, it fills spaces in our lives and helps create memories.
How many of us find ourselves congregating in the kitchen and spending most of your home time in that space. I know I did and I still do. So I leave you with one of mom's go to recipes for a dinner party - salmon mousse that she always made in her copper salmon shaped mould. I treasure these recipe cards many of which have her handwriting and or lovely little notes and phrases. In her words "It is a snap to make, elegant looking and delicious to eat. It never fails to please guests and there is usually never any left." So if you make this, raise a fork to my mom, she'd love that.