OK,I know I said on Friday that Y&H was finished with our short hymn to a mother’s influence on chefs, but late yesterday, Mark Furstenberg, a man of some renown, wrote a moving tribute to his mum and her kitchen skills. You need to read it, and not just because it’s a 71-year-old chef praising his mother, who’s nearing her 100th birthday. This is a missive from another era:
My mother will reach her 100th birthday on May 20th and she is in very good shape. That fact alone would seem to vindicate her cooking (as well as her genes and her will and her energy).
I was one of six children. We were an eating family. We ate dinner together; we even ate breakfast together. And although our food was influenced by my father’s having been born in Sweden (herring and knaeckebrot for breakfast), my mother made the food decisions.
She came from a somewhat aristocratic German-Jewish family and her mother didn’t cook. Her family’s meals were prepared by Miss Hen (one generation out of Slavery) followed by Bobbelee who started working for my grandparents when she was 15 years old. (She lied about her age.) My mother may never have turned on a stove until the War.
But in 1942 my father was assigned to Florida and my mother had to learn to cook. Happily she had an aptitude.
Our family dinners were simple — it was a time of simple food. I have memories from the War when rationing demanded from even experienced cooks a level of ingenuity that our affluence today has made entirely unnecessary. We didn’t have meat very much; we certainly didn’t have butter. But even without ingredients easily obtainable now we ate very well.
It was in the Fifties that my mother’s cooking flourished. She used to describe meals as “the flower of my art.” Scallops, pot roast, Swedish meatballs, Beef Stroganoff, always vegetables simply cooked, nearly always potatoes that my father loved, salads, and desserts. We ate well. The dinner table was chaotic. Six children, all eaters, my father trying to tell stories from his workday, my mother trying to gather our attention for my father. She was the cook; she was the mistress of ceremonies.
“Mom,” someone (usually me) would say, “We just had lamb.” And my mother would bolt from her chair and bring back from the kitchen her notebook, look through it to say, “We haven’t had lamb since March 10th.”
It’s sad that what we have exists so little now. Dinner wasn’t always joyful. My sister (Carla Cohen, owner of Politics and Prose) regularly knocked over her water glass and, in anticipation of my father’s disapproval, would begin to cry.
But whether joyful or not, stormy or not, our dinner was a family time, the most important family time. And always my mother was in charge.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery