Remembering My Mom Four Years After Her Death – posted 12/14/2014
I was in Alaska in 2010 when my brother Rob called to tell me that Mom was back in the hospital and things did not look good. I never saw her again.
It is now four years since her death. Levine’s, the funeral place just north of Philadelphia, sent me a little blue postcard reminder saying Mom’s yahrzeit is to be observed on December 26.
Not being religious and being unlikely to go to synagogue on December 26, I wanted to do something else to remember my mom. Writing about her is my way of honoring and remembering.
In the world of memories, I think about my mom’s passion for food. It was certainly a joy for her to prepare food for her family and friends.
My mom used to make special food she knew I liked when I went back to visit at the old apartment in Wynnewood Pa. She would also bring food when she came to New Hampshire to visit. She would make roast beef and apricot noodle kugel. For dessert, she would make yummy crumb cake. She did not deviate too often although she did try some different crumb cake recipes.
It is funny to think about but when I was a kid this gourmet chef made me bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch at school all the time. I had that all through elementary school and I teased her about it in later years. I used to joke with her that I was only 5 foot 6 inches tall because she smoked during her pregnancy with me and then she fed me bologna sandwiches. I think she got tired of that joke.
That was before health food consciousness. Mom would also pack little Tastykake pies. For those unfamiliar with Tastykake (it is a Pennsylvania thing), they made a variety of desserts. My favorite was cherry pie but I could also go with lemon, blueberry or peach. I think I developed my original love of crumb cake from Koffee Kake Juniors.
Mom knew what I liked and she always made sure I had it. Now that seems like love.
Mom actually did that for everybody in the family, I think. I do remember meal times with Dad. Dad also liked Tastykake. He was partisan to Chocolate Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes and Butterscotch Krimpets. He famously would ask for “a mouthful” which was usually a lot more than a mouthful. He liked to have something sweet with coffee after dinner or Sunday lox and bagel brunch.
I am not doing justice to my mom’s serious cooking expertise. She had fantastic capability both as a cook and as someone who cared about food presentation. Mom was very artistic and her food often looked like something from Gourmet Magazine. That was not an accident since she was a subscriber.
In later years, she was something of a follower of celebrity chefs on TV. She liked Barefoot Contessa and Michael Chiarello but her absolute favorite was Mario Batali. We used to laugh about my infatuation with Giada. My mom was not a big Giada fan.
Mom seriously thought about marketing her struedel. Her struedel was a unique creation with coconut and currants and a puff pastry dough. She used a pastry marble slab that weighed like 50 pounds. Those who have tasted it know I am not exaggerating when I say it was out-of-this-world good. Mom had her own closely held family recipe which she was not willing to share. She had practiced and perfected this recipe for decades.
The struedel was very labor-intensive. I think the only two people who obtained the recipe were my niece Molly and my wife Debra. Both watched my mom make the struedel many times.
The struedel could never fly as a business proposition both because it took so much labor to make it right and because the cost you would need to charge would be too high. My mom did consult with business types about the project. They too raved about the product but it was not financially viable.
My mom returned to making it for family – not such a bad outcome for family members and close friends. The struedel was certainly not her only specialty. Her fruit salad known as “nana fruit” was a labor of love. She went to a nearby produce market and she would get seasonal fruit. There is fruit salad and fruit salad and as with anything, there are gradations of quality. Mom’s fruit salad was superior.
There are many things she made that were easy to take for granted but were really superlative because she was a pro. In this category I would mention her matzo ball soup. Her matzo balls were very light.
I remember very critical discussions about the relative merits of different matzo ball soup efforts by family members. My grandmother, Molly Keiser, was the gold standard. No one else could touch that level. Here I should note that Molly Keiser, my Nana Keiser, was a superb cook herself. She had a powerful teaching influence by example.
I remember my mom’s excellent latkes and she could make good gefilte fish from scratch. That was an accomplishment.
One other breakfast thing I wanted to mention was dippy eggs. For those who have never had the experience, you soft boil eggs and dip strips of buttered toast into the egg yolk. For my boys, Josh and Eric, Mom always got “little boxes”. That is cold cereal but those guys loved their little boxes.
My wife Debra reminded me of how often my mom would take care packages of her food to relatives who were sick. She did this repeatedly for my Aunt Ellie, my Aunt Arline and my Aunt Jane. She also often went to visit all of those I mentioned plus my Uncle Mort at a time they needed the company. Mom was a Florence Nightingale.
For my mom, food was a way to bring people together. At that she excelled. Young or old, people would come together when my mom cooked. She made food a communal experience. Some people have the unique capacity of being a glue to hold family together. My mom had that and no one can replace her.
I do want to thank my wife Debra for jogging my memory in preparing this piece and helping with her own recollections.