Food Friday

One of the big secrets in my family, was that my father did much of the cooking. Growing up, my mother's job was to do well in school. She didn't help with cooking or food prep at all. It may have been just as well, because my grandmother was such an awful cook.

When my parents got married my mother had two culinary tricks up her sleeve. She knew how to make Jello. She also knew how to make tuna salad. It was a really good tuna salad, but for my father, tuna and jello was simply not life sustainable.

My father began to cook. My mother also began to cook more.

When I was a kid, I used to help both of my parents as they cooked. My mother did all of the cake baking and anything that needed a delicate hand. She always cooked with a cook book by her side and she followed recipies pretty closely. She would sometimes add a bit more cinnamon or vanilla to a recipe. But she pretty much stuck to what the book said.

My mother's cooking was also greatly influenced by the women in my parent's first congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There was no TV in Halifax at the time. People used to entertain. Because my father was the Rabbi, and they were new to town, my parents got invited to lots of dinners.

My mother did something brilliant. When she would eat a dish that she loved at one of those dinners, she would compliment the hostess and ask if the hostess would teach my mother how to make that dish. My mother learned Lithuanian Jewish cookery from master practitioners of the craft.  She also learned how to set a table, and how to platter foods in the most elegant ways. My mother is the queen of the radish rose.

Cooking with my father was a different sort of an adventure.  While my father liked to read cookbooks, he never followed a recipie. He was a completely intuitive cook. My father cooked by the vat-full. He would bake an dozen loaves of challa at a time. He would cook several weeks worth of Kasha all at once. Several times a year he would cook up a vat full of chicken soup. At big company meals my father would take a bit of the food that he had cooked and sigh and then say " Zipporah, this soup is just heavenly.". My mother would accept the compliment graciously.

My father liked things organized. We always ate exactly the same Shabbat dinner. He felt that if he cooked  in bulk it would be hugely efficient.  My father's style of cooking took brute strength. My mother's style of cooking was far more delicate.

I was afraid to bake bread. I thought that I wasn't strong enough. It took me a long time to be brave enough to try. Ii then realized that while I may not be strong enough to knead dough for a dozen loaves at once,  I do have the strength to do four loaves.

When I knead my challa ( on alternate Fridays), I often think about my father. Like my father, I rarely cook with a cook book at my side. I like to cook by feel. My father used to bake his bread by weighing all of the ingredients. I only have two entirely fixed elements in my challa. I always make it with 2 1/2 cups of water and 1 tsp of yeast. everything else has flexibility. I usually make the challa with six eggs, but I have made it with 5. The amount of oil and sweetner vary. The sweetener may vary. I might make the challa with white sugar, honey, brown sugar or a combination of the above. I always add spices to my challa. those spices vary from batch to batch. The amount of salt  always varies. I add flour until the dough just feels right.

Sometimes my father would attempt to recreate a dish he had eaten or had heard about. Sometimes the David Jacobs version was far superior. He decided that standard Matza Bei was not good enough and came up with a soft custardy version, which is what we grew up believing proper Matza Brei to be. I grew up thinking that chicken fricasee was chicken wings stewed in a tomato based sweet and sour sauce ( really delicious). I have never had a real fricasee, But looking at recipies, I see that my father's version was his own fantasy of the dish. Lasagna went through a similar transformation.

Some of these culinary experiments were less than sucessful. My father was in love with babka.  He figured that since he baked bread, the leap was small enough so with fillings and a bit of extra butter, babka should be a sure thing. I think that even my father knew that these experiments had gone awry. He didn't even call them babka, but cake -bread. The results were heavy and weirdly booze laden. My mother used to instrct us to compliment the chef.. And we dutifully did.

I have tried to raise my kids to learn how to cook by feel as I learned to do from my father. I think that they are getting it.


Popular Posts