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By Frances

I was twenty-two years old, a new nursing graduate and a new bride.  I was  now playing wife in the apartment above my mother-in-law in her two-story  house.  This was my first experience at taking care of myself let alone a  husband.  All my life, I lived in my mother's house or in the dormitory, at  the teaching hospital, where I "trained" to become a registered nurse.

My mother was not a good cook.  She over cooked her roasts; over-fried  hamburgers (made of beef, eggs and bread crumbs;) baked greasy chicken and  used kasha with bowties and canned peas as side dishes.  Actually, the kasha  was quite good.  We also ate wieners and, a favorite of my father, sliced salami fried with onions and eggs.  Why am I not surprised Daddy developed high cholesterol?

I was confident I could cook at least as well as Mama.
That would not be good enough, I realized, when I was invited to my mother-in-law's dinner table.  Now that lady could cook!!   And she could bake!!
 Unfortunately, her culinary efforts were also heavy with fat.  It was the style of the day.  No one had heard of "low fat diets" or saturated fats.  We were happy in our ignorance.  Smaltz (chicken fat) added a wonderful flavor to soups, gravies and even to a slice of rye bread.  Frying our foods was fast and very tasty.  We loved our fry pans.  My mother-in-law had learned to cook as a young child in Hungary.  She was the oldest girl and was expected to keep house for the family when her mid-wife mother was called out to tend to the laboring women of her community.

At nine, she could bake bread and put a decent, filling meal on the table.  She improved her cooking and baking skills until, when I met her; she was a Maven, an expert.

There was nothing better than the mouth watering, paper thin, richly filled apple strudel she made on the dining room table.  The dough was almost translucent.  It was sprinkled liberally with the filling of apples, raisins, chopped nuts and seasonings and then rolled up with the assistance of the tablecloth.  The pastry was covered with powdered sugar, cut and baked.  Again, I say, “There was nothing better tasting." 

She could casually clean a chicken, make a soup or a paprikash and produce home made noodles or dumplings without breaking her stride. Everything looked easy.  Her cheese- filled blintzes were rich with cream and butter and the best celebratory meal anyone could want.

She introduced me to a variety of fresh vegetables, which she bought in the market across town, carrying her woven basket on the streetcar.  She would come home laden with tiny pickles for  slicing and soaking in brine with sliced onions, a delicious accompaniment to a meat meal.  Fresh spinach was steamed and covered with gravy of butter, flour, salt and pepper and served with fresh eggs she bought at the chicken store.

The chicken store!  As a new bride, Mom took me to her favorite live chicken store.  The place was filled with all sizes of chickens in cages, the floor littered with feathers and sawdust. Unwashed eggs were sold by the dozen and carried home in a paper bag.  Mom would reach into the cages and squeeze the agitated breasts, looking for the most tender fowl or for the fattest hen, depending on what she needed that day.  When she found the best available chicken, it was taken to the shocket, the ritual slaughterer.  A quick slice of his sharp knife while holding the victim upside down, and its life's blood flowed into the deep sink.

I could never bring myself to shop there for my meals.  My chickens have to be devoid of all signs of original life.  I need to pretend the headless, footless, gutless, well-wrapped package I bring some never grew from an egg or ran around pecking and squawking.

Mom tried to teach me to cook her way.  The problem was, she had no recipes. She put her meals together automatically.  I could stand at her side and write done the ingredients, but a little of this and a little more of that did not produce the same results she got.

I cooked a chicken soup one day and left it to simmer on the stove while I rested in the bathtub.  I deserved the soothing soak.  I had worked hard, cleaning the skin of all left over bristles, scraping off the scaly yellow skin from the legs, pulling out the heart, liver and other parts left by the butcher to be disposed of by the housewife.   I placed the carcass into boiling water and added salt onions, carrots and parsley.  I cleaned the kitchen and was exhausted.  I needed that bath.

Did I mention that Mom lived downstairs?  It was unthinkable to lock the door.  I suppose it was a good thing I didn't.  Mom was a frequent visitor upstairs as I was downstairs.  She came in the kitchen door that day and investigated my soup pot.

The soup was boiling over, the initial scum that appears floating on the top of the water when fresh meat is cooked, needed to be skimmed off and much worse; I had left the bile bag attached to the liver in the soup!  It would make the whole meal taste vile!  For all I knew, it might even have been poisonous.

Mother-in-law knocked on the bathroom door and opened it to tell me she had just saved her son from having to taste that mess.
That was a scene I have not forgotten in fifty years.  I picture myself, a young decent looking naked woman sitting in her tub, mouth open in astonishment and embarrassment.  I knew, at that moment, that I would never learn to cook well.   I was right.  I can put together a decent meal and the grandchildren, not knowing better, request my chicken paprikash.  They never ate Mom's magic culinary efforts.

Copyright©2001 Frances