My mother helps me cook now more than ever, even though she’s gone.
I’ve always liked to cook, but since the Michigan lockdown in March, I’ve been spending lots of time perusing cuisine websites and the online food sections of the New York Times and Washington Post for new ideas. All those hours in the kitchen have made me feel as if my mother was with me while I turned pages and scrolled through website recipes.
She was a meticulous but relaxed cook and I loved watching her in the kitchen. She broke eggs one-handed with casual grace. Her omelets were perfect and seemed effortless. Sugar cookies always came out just right and when she baked marble cake, she poured batter as if she were an artist finishing a canvas. Her sausage and cream lasagna took hours to assemble and was the favorite dish of an opera singer she admired. It sure tasted operatic: big, bold, unforgettable.
Some years after she died I found out from her surviving brother in Israel that she had actually given piano lessons in Poland before the Holocaust, a secret she kept to herself for some reason. It made me wonder if there was music in her head when she composed her meals.
photo by holytoastr*
My father once said that because she grew up with a maid and joked that she barely knew how to boil water when they got married. I think she learned to cook after the war from a neighbor in Brussels who was a street walker (prostitution was legal in Belgium).
Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. They met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and had absolutely nothing except the aid and clothes they started out with that was given to them by various relief organizations in Germany and then Belgium.
They lived in a rundown part of Brussels but above a bakery and woke every morning to the heady aromas of fresh baked bread. One story my mother told me was that every day an elegant, well-dressed beautifully made-up woman left from a nearby apartment. My mother asked her what she did. “Je fais les boulevards.” I walk the streets. That wasn’t an idiom she was familiar with and when she asked other survivors she had come to know they were horrified and afraid some pimp was trying to recruit her.
She also told me that this woman sometimes baby sat for my older brother who was born in Brussels. That’s what makes me think the same woman helped my mother learn how to cook, since my parents must have liked her and trusted her.
My mother gave me many gifts. A love of languages, since she spoke half a dozen; a joy of reading; a fascination with art, music, history and current events. The gift of savoring every moment of preparing food is something she probably didn’t realize she was passing on. But whenever I dice, whisk, sauté, or bake–she’s there.
Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery.