For Roz Nelson, Mom in the Kitchen was a Recipe for Disaster

by Memoir Mentor on April 30, 2010

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.

I simply could not get it down, and at the age of about eight, I refused to eat it at all and often made myself a supper of cottage cheese or sour cream and banana, or even chocolate wafers and milk.

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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linda Missouri May 6, 2010 at 9:32 am

Dear Roz, I’m glad Dawn put your story, a Recipe for Disaster, on her blog. It’s a winner. I love the details, took me back to my Grandma’s Missouri farm. I love “before cholesterol was a household word and fatty was equated with juicy and delicious.” I like how you show a variety of your Mom’s qualities, both strengths and weaknesses, as in “If she was short on intellectual curiosity, she was long on common sense.” I can see the pseudo-Turkish patterns barely visible, brown bar of Fels Naptha soap, Mom’s pie crust could have anchored a battleship. Please submit this piece to the contest Dawn told us about, and CONGRATULATIONS on surviving the childhood dinner menus and writing about it. (Linda in Tuesday class.)

2 Annie Payne May 8, 2010 at 2:28 am

Hello Roz,
I live in Perth, Western Australia and have never experienced Jewish cooking and have always heard that the Jewish panacea for everything was chicken soup, often with Matzo balls.
After hearing your description, I’m not so sure that it would beat our Australian panacea – a strong cup of tea, a Bex (a now banned cheap powder containing aspirin and phenacatin, which was highly addictive and led to complete renal failure around the 60’s age group) and a quick ‘lie down’!! This was used for headaches, backaches, and ‘women’s aches & pains’, tonsillitis, flu or just a bad cold.
Only women used this ‘cure all’ and it was very common practice when I was a child in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Often at the same time as the lie down on the bed, a pan containing sliced onions and a chunk of butter was left barely simmering on the stove, filling the house with the aroma of tasty cooking. Mum would jump off the bed, dabbing at her forehead with a tea towel, as if she’d been ‘slaving over a hot stove all day!’

3 Joanna May 8, 2010 at 8:13 am

Roz, you have my sympathies. My mother was also a horrible cook. I didn’t know until I was grown and on my own that steak wasn’t supposed to be gray and rubbery. Or that real spaghetti didn’t come in cans and the “sauce” it came in wasn’t supposed to be pink and watery because she’d added a can of water to make it “go farther”. To this day I can’t eat cauliflower in any form because she’d cook it for THREE HOURS, and the smell would linger for days. Several decades later, I’m finally able to eat baked chicken, which she made for Sunday dinner every week, 52 weeks of the year without fail. Instead of plump chickens, she’d buy the cheapest, scrawniest (and probably oldest) in the butcher case, then bake it uncovered. The result being barely enough meat for one person, let alone a family of four. Saltine crackers in milk was MY alternative meal most days. Chocolate wafers would’ve been pure heaven!

She did make one or two things that we all looked forward to. One was banana nut bread, supposedly from her own mother’s recipe, but even Grandma could never make bnb as moist and tasty as Mother’s. Nor could anyone else, including myself , even tho I watched her make it dozens of times!

4 Savvaio May 9, 2010 at 4:09 am

This article is great. I would like to be able to write my own life memories like you do. But i suppose this is a gift, not everyone can do this stuff. I enjoy reading other peoples life memories, especially if they are talented and know how to write to keep the reader interest. Thanks again for sharing.

5 Carol Enos June 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm

I like this recounting even better the second time around. I do hope you’re still writing. You are too good to stop. Carol

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