My mother was an amazing chef. She felt the ingredients. It came to her naturally. She had this innate talent, whether it was cooking or baking, to add some surprise element that was counter-intuitive and yet made whatever it was she was whipping up taste extraordinary.
She had no training and, in fact, did not begin to cook professionally until her late thirties. At that time, freshly arrived in this country, she given the chance to run a cafeteria from scratch. When told she would be making sandwiches and the like, she asked, “What’s a sandwich?”
Actually, the joke was on everyone else, as she went on to make so much more than sandwiches. Her place became such a success that there were lines out the door. As small children, my sister and I were relegated to washing the dishes and cutting up fruits or vegetables as prep. People would ask, as we got older, whether we had my mother’s recipes, for posterity. We would shrug. “No recipes?”, was the response, eyes wide open, person asking aghast. My mother would say, “what’s a recipe?”.
How to explain that our mother did not work with recipes. It was all in her head, in her fingertips, the way she felt that morning, the dreams she had the night before. She would throw in a pinch of this or a handful of that, as the mood struck. And if we trailed after her, asking for a an explanation, a method to her madness, she would become impatient with us. “I have no time for this nonsense,” she’d say, “we have to prepare the menu today.”
Truthfully, my sister and I were quite content not to push. We would never be able to cook or bake as well as our mother. We were perfectly happy to eat the fruits of her labor and wash up afterward. She’d always be around, so what was the point? Besides, she never used a measuring tool. And there was always that certain mysterious “something” she added, that no one knew about and that she would forget to share.
Besides – we were the first generation to grow up in this country, lucky enough to receive the benefits of a free and robust education. No manual labor for us. We were to live by our wits, not our hands. The life of the mind – that was what we aspired to. College at a minimum. Graduate degrees a plus. I went on to law school. And through all those years of study, I lived off the care packages my mother prepared for me. Which was fine. When I would begin my practice, I intended to survive on food delivery from neighborhood restaurants, a viable option in New York City.
As much as my mother intuitively understood food and its preparation, she had an astounding capacity to read people and divine the essence of situations. She could tell, with one swift, dismissive glance, who was cheating on whom, who lied, who stole, who was a coward – which boyfriends of mine were losers, and which situations I should walk away from. She had a wealth of knowledge, depth of experience, and breadth of wisdom that I, of course, in my youthful arrogance, ignored. And then, she was gone. And it was only after that, as I grew older and at times enlightened, did I realize what I had lost. Wasted moments when I should have asked her questions. When I needed her, she was no longer here for me to reach out to.
The irony of my life was that, after twenty years of practicing law, I burned out. In looking around for some inspiration as to what to do next, I decided to go to culinary school and train to be a pastry cook. I was terrible at it – I did not have my mother’s skill or aptitude. But the three years spent baking were happy times for me. Somehow, I channeled my mother’s spirit and relived the love we had felt through her food. Even though I did not have those recipes of hers.
In the end, I came to my senses and returned to my career as a lawyer. There was food to put on my children’s table. I am, it appears, a better attorney than a cook.
But I miss my mother and I regret the insights I did not give her the opportunity to impart to me. It would have spared me so many bumps and bruises that I have sustained in life. So, I invite you on my journey – and, by way of this blog, I will attempt to share with you the life lessons I learned the hard way.
Recipe for Rugelach
I asked my mother for her rugelach recipe, as they were, of course, like no other I had tasted. Here is what she gave me:
½ lb. margarine
½ lb. cream cheese
2 cups flour
And that’s it – see what I mean?