(by Ivy Baer Sherman)
My mother is a woman of myriad talents and interests: She can identify classical music with Shazam-like acuity; she can recite verses of verse with verve; she remembers historical dates, figures, and details with Jeopardy-sharp skill. She is a proud teacher. Though retired, she believes that everyone is ever a teacher, ever a student. There is always something in our lives to impart to others, and there is always something to learn in return.
Which brings us to the kitchen. The art of cooking anything seems to have bypassed my mother, a fact of life she’s the first to declare. Despite this lack of culinary prowess, the kitchen is the place where I picture my mom whenever I think of my childhood home. Mealtime in our house was not about the food–-gathering at the kitchen table for dinner was simply something you did every day, at about the same time, akin to brushing your teeth. But what I’ve come to appreciate, with each passing year, is how profoundly nurturing those mealtimes truly were-–that daily coming together of my mom, dad, and me to share stories around the kitchen table at workday’s end. Call it our form of comfort food.
I grew up in New York City in the 1960s/70s. My mother taught in the school I attended, so I’d often meet her when classes were out and accompany her to the local kosher butcher where Mr. and Mrs. Haber presided. To this day, I shiver at the memory of that shop. Mr. Haber, clad in layers of sweaters and a meat-stained apron, would disappear into the refrigerated room at the back of the store; re-emerging, he would proceed to chop, slice, trim, and then package, in brown paper, whatever my mother decided we’d have for dinner that night–-often ground beef or minute steak, possibly a chicken, occasionally a brisket. A budding vegetarian, I tried to focus on the giant roll of brown paper or on Mrs. Haber’s cash register at the front—old-timey even then with its rows of buttons and the cha-ching of the opening drawer, the stuff of movies. From the butcher shop, we walked one block over to Craig’s bakery, alluring in every detail, from the aroma to the silvery mechanics of the bread-slicing machine, to the spool of string that hung from a gadget above the counter, fit to be tied, to the jewel-like display of baked goods…ahhh. A sliced rye and box of assorted cookies in hand, we headed home.
(Mom with her first class, at the start of a career of which she remains very proud)
As for the actual meal, I’m not sure my mom gave it much thought other than to have the essential components on hand. With the exception of meatloaf, which was primed with two eggs and an unmeasured quantity of bread crumbs, all meats were prepared the same way (plain), and cooked, for better or worse, at the same temperature for the same amount of time (too long). No marinating. No nuanced flavorings. Ketchup served as a decorative coating for the top of the meatloaf, which my father and I compared, in presumed texture and taste, to moon rock. Don’t even ask about the brisket. We laughed about it, my mom most of all. Bowls of Campbell’s soup served as appetizer, Del Monte canned vegetables added color to our plates, and the bakery cookies brought the meal to a sweet end.
My mother would remain in the kitchen, probably for another hour or so, to clean up, hand-washing the dishes. She tuned the radio to the classical music station and pulled a stool to the sink. Whether she thought back over her day at school, or simply drifted into the music as she washed the plates and silverware, I do believe that it was a serenely satisfying time for her each night, a gift at the end of the day. It served as an enriching pause before sitting down to work on lesson plans and grade papers into the night. I’d be in my room doing homework, but knowing my mom was there in the kitchen, radio on, signified that all was well.
My mother’s “signature meals” are now the stuff of family legend. She states to this day that she has always preferred to leave cooking in the hands of true culinary artists. In her childhood home, her mother, Anna, brought recipes from Europe (Poland, Belgium) to life at each meal, and her father, a baker, filled the table with baskets-full of fresh bread. When I asked her recently for a favorite recipe, my mother handed me the paper upon which she’d taken down my grandmother’s recipe for sponge cake, which, as my mother wrote it, uniquely calls for “1 glass” of white flour. My mother never attempted to bake this cake, but I plan to, and hope to snack upon it with her at that very kitchen table.
Ivy Baer Sherman is the founder and editor of Vintage Magazine, a celebration of print offering a tactile romp through history. She can be found on Instagram .
(my grandmother’s recipe, as written down by my mom)
Sep. yolk from white (foam up)
1/2 lb of sugar
1 glass of white flour or matzoh meal (on Passover)
Mix all — Bake about 1 hour
My variation on Mama’s recipe:
1 c. sugar
1 c. all purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Separate whites from yolks.
Beat yolks at high speed for about 1 minute.
Whisk egg whites lightly, and add to yolks.
Gradually add sugar, and beat until thick and fluffy.
Whisk together baking powder and flour.
Sift flour mixture into batter gradually, folding as you go.
When flour is fully folded in, pour mixture into a 9 x 5 loaf pan, and bake for 45 minutes.