The fall makes me think about my mother who taught me to cook, to love parties and– most importantly for a future writer — to listen. “If you stop talking, people tell you everything,” she told me. It took me many years to recognize the full range of her wisdom.
When I married and settled into my own house and kitchen in the 1980’s, I needed to prove I was a home cook nothing like my mother.
Would fancy me ever succumb to my mother’s generational preferences for string bean casserole sauced and garnished from a can? Bottled Green Goddess dressing? Pie dough made with Crisco instead of butter? Beef brisket flavored with onion soup? False charge that one, as my mother’s brisket was slow braised with sautéed onions, celery and carrots — midway through the braise she tossed the vegetables and braising liquid into the blender to produce a smooth sauce. Not that I cared what brisket recipe my mother favored: in my opinion brisket defined brown and dull.
My nothing-like- my mother kitchen style produced a deracinated Silver Palate kind of cooking oblivious to cost, season, country of origin or John’s or my ethnic origins. I followed recipes, but I had no framework for thinking about food. Which explains how I could have decided early in our marriage to serve pasta with homemade pesto at a February dinner party for John’s colleagues. Buying fresh basil for twenty guests in Boston in mid-winter in 1985 cost me 75 bucks, twice that in 2017 dollars.
Of course I wised up eventually, mastering culinary fundamentals such as sautéing, roasting, soup- and sauce-making, and attending to seasonal availability that to this day inform the menus I create for dinners large and small.
Thirty years married, I specialize in meals that are simple, tasty and aesthetically pleasing. I care about ingredients and flavor. I care about the colors on the plate, the composition of the salad, the flowers on the table. I have my toolbox of secret ingredients. I up the flavor of chicken soup with fresh ginger and bean soup with the heel of the Parmesan cheese. I add a shake of Espelette pepper to the stew. I chop fresh oregano for the vinaigrette. I worship at the altar of shallots and leeks.
Over time I have come to understand that my gift as a cook isn’t my dazzling mastery of the classics or my fearless approach to the new. My gift is human. I reach out with food, producing meals that please those who gather around my table.
Knowing who I am as a cook has led me back to my mother. Not to her generational. fondness for convenience foods, but to her essence. My mother infused her cooking with her fundamental kindness and generosity. She had a talent for making people happy with food.
And so we return to the much-maligned brisket.
Last winter following the death of my aunt, nearly a dozen cousins gathered ‘round my dining table for dinner. The day had been long, cold and distressing. I served brisket, using a recipe similar to my mother’s from Nach Waxman, the owner of Manhattan’s Kitchen Arts and Letters cookbook store. Like my mother, Waxman, relied on fresh onion to flavor the meat and provide cooking liquid. Like her, he removed the meat from the oven halfway through, cooled it, sliced it and then returned it to the oven– if you wait till the meat is soft to slice it, the brisket will fall apart ruining the presentation.
So there we sat, a dozen cousins from cities up and down the East Coast on a cold, wet winter night. On the sideboard: a large white ceramic platter filled with brisket and caramelized onions; another platter, providing color, held roasted carrots and broccoli, and a third, with a pilaf of basmati rice. The plainest meal in the world. My cousin Lynda, daughter-in-law of my difficult, now deceased aunt, cut into the brisket with her fork. She raised the fork to her mouth, paused and then looked at me with large eyes. “This is the most delicious food I have ever tasted,” she said.
As a cook I had become not my mother, but mother’s daughter.