It’s May, the month we honor the mothers in our lives. When we think of our moms, some of us naturally picture her in the kitchen, elbow deep in flour, making one of her mouth-watering dishes. But not all moms were adept in the culinary arts, as Roz Nelson reminds us in this heart-warming story. While Roz acknowledges her mother’s many wonderful qualities, cooking was definitely not one of them. This story will surely make you smile.
Recipe for Heartburn
by Roslyn Nelson
The backyard of the kosher butcher’s shop was lined with cages containing live chickens, ducks, and turkeys. One Sunday morning when I was about five, my mother took me with her to buy a chicken. Weekdays she worked; Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath and, of course, on that day the shop was closed. So Sunday it was.
My mother was not reticent about the chicken she wanted. It had to be big and plump. She toured the cages carefully, oblivious of the cackles and quacks and crowing that fascinated me. She wouldn’t let the butcher talk her into any bird that wasn’t fat. Planting her stought five-foot frame firmly in front of him, she told him, “No, not that one, this one.” She pointed to the fattest bird in the cages. It was in the days before cholesterol was a household word, and fatty was equated with juicy and delicious. I had to hold back tears as the beefy butcher opened the cage, seized the squawking chicken by its legs, and held it upside down as it flapped its wings in a desperate attempt to escape.
I could not, could not watch as he beheaded that chicken, cut off its feet, and eviscerated it. A shudder went through me with the sound of each chop. But I did watch and was mesmerized by the two women who sat all day plucking the feathers and singeing the stubborn ones that remained. The pungent odor of burnt feathers assaulted our nostrils. “Chicken Flickers” was what my mother called the women.
When we returned home, my mother set the gas burners alight and, holding the chicken over them, singed and removed the remaining pin feathers. With all that trouble, one might have expected a Lucullian feast when the bird was cooked. But, while my mother was a kind and good-natured woman, she was also, unfortunately, among the world’s worst cooks. Woody Allen jokes that his mother had a deflavorizing machine. I think my mother invented it.
I could say in her defense that she worked long hours as a seamstress, back in the Depression days, when women normalled stayed at home. We needed the extra cash desperately, however, and so each and every morning my mother headed out the door by seven a.m. for the long trolley ride to the garment factory, and didn’t return until six o’clock.
Neatness was not her long-suit either: as she undressed after work, she flung clothing around on chairs and tables. Dressed, her bra strap peeked out from her cotton housedress, her slip hung below her hem, her heavy oxford shoes listed to the sides. Important papers and photographs lay jumbled together in a drawer, along with her underwear.
Yet, she was strong on cleanliness. Every Saturday, she scrubbed the linoleum-covered floors, their pseudo-Turkish patterns long since erased by foot traffic. Then she washed the family laundry in the stone kitchen tubs, rubbing the clothes with the brown bar of Fels Naptha soap on a corrugated wood-framed scrubbing board, and hanging them out to dry. Afterwards, she polished the coal stove, and the exposed brass pipes under the sink.
If she was short on intellectual curiosity, she was long on common sense. As a child, it was my father’s intellect that I admired, but as an adult I realized that it was she who was the backbone, she who kept the family together under trying circumstances.
During the week, cooking the family dinner fell to my older sister. She faithfully followed my mother’s recipe for chicken soup. The chicken was boiled for hours with a five-cent bundle of herbs and parsnips that went by the immigrant parlance “soupen greens.” I secretly thought of it as boiled rubber, swimming in a fatty sea.
My father, who was something of a gourmand, loved Beluga caviar, which sold for seventy-nine cents an ouce (a great extravagance then), and smoked sturgon and pickled herring, and ate them often, in spite of our poverty. But for some unfathomable reason, he also loved boiled chicken and chicken soup, the fattier the better, and so it was on the menu two, and sometimes three, nights a week.
My mother prepared the vegetables for the meal. I can barely make that word vegetables plural. What we had were peas and carrots, carrots and peas, either canned or boiled to a mush. I was in my teens and eating in other places before I discovered that vegetables were varied and could taste wonderful.
Our menus didn’t have much variety: the soup, of course, fried veal cutlets, which tasted OK but were guaranteed to produce heartburn a few hours later because of the fat, and a shortcut version of blintzes, in which the cheese mixture, instead of being wrapped in a crepe, was splaced between soda crackers, dipped in egg and, of course, fried. On rare occasions there was pot roast, loaded with fat, the way father liked it, and even more rarely, steak, soaked kosher-style in salt and water to remove the blood. It was so tough that stitched up, it would have made a very servicable briefcase. Even though we weren’t observant Jews, it was the only way my mother knew how to prepare it.
On Saturdays we had the best meal of the week. A trip to the Jewish deli produced corned beef and pastrami or salami, hard-crusted rye bread with caraway seeds, kosher sour pickles, and invariably, a can of Heinz vegetarian beans that my mother heated in the unopened can, label and all, in boiling water on the gas range. To this day I don’t know why the can didn’t explode. To give her her due, my mother made cole slaw and potato salad to go with the meal, which were excellent, because she had worked in a Jewish deli years before and learned how to do it right.
Every now and then, on a Sunday, my mother would make an apple pie. The crust could have anchored a battleship, and she frequently forgot to put sugar over the apples. Knowing my penchant for sweets of all kinds, she was always puzzled when I turned it down.
Long after my father died, when my mother had remarried and came to visit me in California, she drew me aside after the second dinner I had prepared and said, “Listen, don’t make such fancy meals. You’ll spoil Louie.” Louie was her second husband and hardly a gourmet.
When I look back now, my nostalgia is for a kind and generous mother, warm and loving, hard-working and undemanding. But I have to admit that I have no fond memories of, or longing for, her meals. Well, maybe the potato salad and cole slaw. They were the best I’ve ever had.