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Stephanie Gertler

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Foods for Thoughts

Posted: 09/23/09 03:49 PM ET

The kitchen in our old house was a large room with planked wooden floors and a wood-burning stove. It was hardly state-of-the-art. The regular stove was basic - four burners and one oven. The sink was stainless and shallow. The dishwasher was old, and often needed coaxing. The counters were spare except for a large center peninsula that again, was not modern - not stone and filled with drawers and cubbies - but simply a deep green Formica with an overhang that accommodated as many as seven "bar stools."

The kitchen was the hub of the house - a conference room for conversation, the place where kids sometimes did homework, where I could watch the kids play in the backyard as I cooked, where on the all too many nights when we lost power in winter storms, the wood stove threw off enough heat to keep us warm with flashlights standing upright on the counter. There was an alcove for a basic oval oak table that comfortably sat six, although rarely used except for Sunday night dinners. Typically, we opted for the peninsula.

Our children were never "picky eaters" - presumably an outgrowth of pureeing whatever Mark and I were having for dinner (before they had the ability to chew). I used a coffee bean grinder and did this not because it was chic and I was concerned about preservatives (that wasn't endemic to the 1980s), but simply because it made sense. To think, had I realized then that I was "ahead of my time," I could have written some sort of hip kids' cookbook a la Jessica Seinfeld. My kids and I still laugh recalling that they were the only ones of their friends who "begged" for frozen dinners packaged in cartoonish boxes and things like hot dogs, chicken fingers and Tater Tots.

Looking back, I realize I was the product of my upbringing. My mother was a good and basic cook. Except for the occasional use of a canned vegetable and Campbell's Soup, every meal was "from scratch." I have memories of her shelling peas, breaking the tips off green beans, peeling carrots, and mashing potatoes. Unlike other families who had sodas with dinner, we had ice water. Ginger ale was pretty much the only carbonated beverage we had - and that typically when we had upset stomachs, or as a treat.

Eggs, butter, and fatty foods were off-limits for the most part - especially when my father was around. A cardiologist, he was obsessed with our coronary arteries: Nothing to be consumed that had a hint of cholesterol and only a scant amount of salt lest we suffer hypertension - medical words that were common in my childhood vocabulary. Ironically, with all my father's edicts, my mother ultimately died from untreated hypertension and atherosclerosis.

What with the austerity of my diet as a kid, I longed for invitations to dinner at my friend Janie's house. Janie's parents were Brits whose Sunday night dinner was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The meal dripped in fat and gravy...thick slices of butter in a bowl on the table...something sugary, drowned with whipped cream for dessert. Eating there felt nearly illicit.

Once I got to college and had a meal plan for breakfast and dinner, I was truly liberated: fried eggs, bacon and rye toast smeared with butter and jam was my morning staple, a greasy cheeseburger at night with French fries - and pie a la mode. Forget LSD - no interest. I was all about HFD (high fat diet). Sweet rebellion.

My mother and I had our treats when my father was either sleeping or out of town. Two of the favorites were bananas and sour cream liberally sprinkled with sugar, and cucumber and tomato sandwiches on white bread with a thick layer of mayonnaise and salt. And then there were the occasional lunches we had at Chock Full O' Nuts - the cake-like date nut bread sandwich with cream cheese, pizza from the stand near the subway, and the Papaya King hot dog heaped with salty sauerkraut. Shared vices.

I've always cooked, but lately I am cooking only for my husband and myself - and experimenting. The other night I made scallops with bacon, leeks and butter in a curry sauce. It once would have been deemed a culinary sin.

When our children lived at home, I cooked much like my mother - nutritious, basic comfort foods, and like her (despite my wild food days during college), I separated yolks from whites when I baked, substituted margarine for butter, used corn oil. Over the years, I struck a balance - slipping in a yolk now and then, reading that butter and olive oil were, in fact, healthier.

Even my mother, as she got older and perhaps bolder - either defying or ignoring my father, created a dish of pasta tossed with olive oil, stewed tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese topped with sprinkled Parmesan: a departure for her. It became a favorite dish for my kids when she made lunch at her country house on Sundays. Coined Mommy-Mommy Pasta (they called her Mommy Mommy, an off-shoot of Mommy's Mommy as opposed to Grandma which never pleased her), it remains part of her legacy - the kids' friends still recalling the dish by that name since I often made vats of that pasta when my kids showed up with their friends in tow, and everyone was hungry.

All of our children cook. Our sons are more basic cooks, but capable - the younger son perhaps more inventive than the older one. Our daughter is an amazing cook - perhaps my muse when it comes to experimenting lately. I'd never used leeks before the other night, and had to call and ask her what to do with the thick-leafed vegetable.

It dawned on me last night as Mark and I had dinner that family dinners, whether for five of us, or now the two of us, are heirlooms. Despite the fact that it is simply the two of us now for the last few weeks since our youngest took his own apartment, the dinner hour remains nearly sacred.

I set the table as I would for "company" (something I always did - another legacy from my mother): cloth napkins in jeweled rings, crystal wine glasses, colorful plates, and place mats. The meal is not merely about food. It is, and always has been, a combination of ingredients that nourish far more than the body. It is sustenance for the heart and soul; conversation that catches us up on one another's days - sharing the good and the bad, the frustrating and rewarding...a letting- go of the negative...an embrace of the positive. And so it was last night, that I remembered my mother's pasta, and the late nights when she and I furtively ate bananas heaped with sour cream together in the dim light of the kitchen. I got misty eyed.

"It's a trade-off," my husband explained, comforting me. "The pain of missing your mother so much is the price you pay for having so many sweet memories of her."

Of course, the problem is that I want both: To make that phone call and say, "Hey, Ma, remember when we ate all that sour cream? And by the way, I cooked with butter last night."
My younger son recently gave me a book called Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well. It was originally published in 1891. It is not merely a cookbook - it is a cultural and sociological journey (with recipes). The first few lines of the Preface read, "Cooking is a troublesome sprite. Often it may drive you to despair. Yet it is also very rewarding, for when you do succeed, or overcome a difficulty in doing so, you feel the satisfaction of a great triumph."

It captures my culinary reflections as I look back on nights of sour cream sweetened with sugar--memories filled at once with passion and despair--a troublesome sprite indeed.

 
 
 

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