In the five years I’ve lived in a senior living facility, I’ve forgotten how to cook. Not surprising since meals are provided, but sad because I loved cooking. Memories of food, its smells, tastes, texture, begin in my mother’s kitchen, a room as spacious as the bedrooms in our house on Summit View. The floor was covered in black linoleum and the gas stove was on one side. (I didn't see an electric stove until I was grown.)
Across the room was the white-tiled counter with a black border and with drawers and shelves on each side of the sink and small high cabinets where Mother kept the Passover dishes. The refrigerator was near the hall door. One of my elementary school classmates wrote me after our 50-year reunion that she remembered a birthday party at my house. Not having a refrigerator in her home, she stood gaping at ours. Mother opened the door, took out some orange juice, and poured a glass for her. She said she never forgot that gesture.
What I remember most are not daily meals but holiday dinners: Chanukah with latkes, crisp potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days; Passover matzos that look like cardboard and tasted like it, too and, the sharp taste of horseradish that you could feel all the way up in your sinuses; Purim, the feast of Esther, with hamantashen, the three-cornered pastries that remind us of Haman’s hat.
I remember the frayed gray recipe book Mother kept in the corner kitchen drawer. She loved to bake, and her egg white cookies, “the little white cookies” were popular at synagogues luncheons. No one could make them like my mother. In fact, rumor had it that when asked for her recipe, she never gave out the correct one. The rumors were not true, she insisted. The secret was to bake them in sunny, warm weather, never on rainy days. When I was grown and presided over my own kitchen, I tried to replicate them but never could, and I know she gave me the real recipe.
Her upside-down cake was spectacular. It wasn’t an ordinary upside-down cake with crushed pineapple but a magnificent creation covered with slices of jelled cranberry sauce, apricots, and brown sugar.
My favorite dessert was warm cherry pie topped with chocolate ice cream—cold and hot mixed together. The tart cherries and the achingly cold ice cream were irresistible. The memory of the pie stays with me even though when I was an adult, chocolate gave me migraines. Coffee ice cream has become my substitute and my comfort food. Whenever something upsetting happens, I head for the grocery store freezer to stock up on Hagen Daz coffee ice cream. It has sustained me during this dark year.
My grandmother lived with us for a few years. Our kitchen was not Kosher enough to meet her rigorous standards so she had her own dishes, utensils, and pots and pans and she cooked her own meals. Sometimes she made delicious cornbread. I’ve often wondered how an immigrant from Ukraine whose family settled in the Midwest learned to bake what I think of as a southern specialty.
Daddy’s culinary expertise was fresh squeezed orange juice that he made every morning for breakfast. That was the best way to start the day.
I inherited my mother’s love for the kitchen and have a specialty of my own: vanilla wafer cake, with cookies taking the place of flour in the batter. But nothing I ever made surpasses the food of my childhood. When I think of those long-ago days, my first image is always of the kitchen.