Tag : food

July 9, 2019 by

The Foremothers of Food Memoirs

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Food memoirs have been springing up like chanterelles after a rain. For 20 years or so, we’ve been treated to a harvest of life stories with recipes included; an Amazon search for “food memoir” turns up more than 2,000 entries. 

Reading food memoirs may feel like eating dumplings (or maybe kreplach): they’re comforting, produced by people hailing from all over the world, and easy to love. Look at a few titles, and you’ll see the scope: Poor Man’s FeastTreyfMy Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw (Elissa Altman); Lunch in Paris (Elizabeth Bard) and Talking With My Mouth Full (Bonny Wolf). 

When, in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Mimi Sheraton and Laurie Colwin, and later Ruth Reichl, were writing about the conjunction of food and family life, they were looking back in ways that anticipated and influenced the contemporary food memoirs. 

“Food is like no other trigger, physiologically,” says Traci M. Nathans-Kelly about her 1997 study Burned Sugar Pie: Women’s Cultures in the Literature of Food. “It has a physical presence that something like a song doesn’t. It is one of the few things that are hard for people to forget. So, when you combine it with memory—people, places, things—it’s really powerful.” 

Mimi Sheraton, author and New York Times restaurant critic from 1975 to 1983, can attest to that: “Food was so much a part of my life, so if I cooked, or longed for, a food that my mother made, it evoked a whole scene. …The tone of my family life informed the cooking, or the other way around. I always wanted to tell the story of my family as a surrounding for the recipes,” she told Lilith in a recent interview.

Sheraton’s book From My Mother’s Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences was first published in 1979. It alternates chapters featuring recipes from Sheraton’s mother with fond essays about growing up in a food-obsessed Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the 1930s and 1940s. “I just always conceived the book that way,” Sheraton said of its unusual format. It was practical, too: “We didn’t want to do memoirs first, then recipes,” or vice versa, Sheraton explained. “No one would read all of it!”

Sheraton’s mother was an experienced and skilled home cook, and while the book contains many classic Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, like brisket, chicken soup, and farfel (egg barley), her repertoire also included non-kosher American favorites like shrimp Creole and chicken pie.

While responses to the memoir sections were “very, very positive,” From My Mother’s Kitchen “got an adverse reaction from Jewish organizations because it wasn’t kosher,” Sheraton recalled. Although she provided kosher substitutions, “B’nai B’rith started a letter-writing campaign” to the author in protest. 

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April 2, 2019 by

Poetry: Brisket Wars

The oven preheats to 325. Mama prepares the brisket.

In the warming kitchen, she follows her recipe for the meat

as her mother and grandmother had, tenderly

placing the slab in a roasting pan, pointed-fat

side up, sprinkled with onions, salt, garlic; bloody-

flat side down, hiding the family’s rough-cut

 

history. Mama proclaims the piece is prime, first cut.

She buys from Irv the butcher. His koshered brisket

promises a sacred knowledge. He throws a bloody

extra chunk into our package already leaking from juicy meat.

He winks at me, thick arms hovering, fat

cheeks quivering, and hands our purchase over tenderly.

 

At the Formica table, I smooth Doris Day paper dolls tenderly.

Bad luck to tear thin skin. Along dotted lines I cut

evening gowns for figures that never fatten.

Mama brags to her two sisters that she makes Cleveland’s best brisket.

I prod stringy strands, forklift a bite of gristly meat,

chew hard until I can swallow without gagging on the bloody

 

legacy. Mama and her sisters escape Poland, its bloody

pogroms in 1938. Batya, the elder, uses bone broth to tenderize,

and horseradish to spice up her beef. On Shabbos she meets

Mama and me for cake and coffee. At 13, Batya cuts

out patterns 8 hours a day for a seamstress. Batya advises brisket

should be choice, not lean; do not trim the saddle of fat.

 

That layer makes the dish delish. My tongue’s slick with fat.

Mama whispers her papa beats Batya bloody

when she refuses to hand over her wages. They only eat brisket

on Passover. He gambles the money away even when Batya tenders

her living. Doroshke, the younger sister, doesn’t cut

her schooling short. She’s his pretty favorite. But her meat’s

 

dry, tasteless, tough. Mama and Batya for once agree. Meetings

over. Done. All gone. No leftover recipes for how to cleave a fatted

calf or breed a better beast. I move far, order take-out, and try to cut

the cord clean, but can’t staunch the bleeding.

No recipe to dress wounds that remain so tender.

Mama worries who’ll marry me if I can’t make a decent brisket.

 

You can’t overcook brisket. Stick it in the oven and the meat cooks itself.

Men like a little fat to grab hold of as long as it’s tender. Learn to make

the bloody recipe. Be generous. Brisket’s a forgiving cut, a very

                 forgiving cut. 

 

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Part of what charms me about this poem is that it is a sestina, a complex form: six stanzas of six lines plus a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi. You get special points for end-words that have double meanings. Sestinas are hard to write but easy once you get the hang of them—just like cooking a good brisket. Originally used for refined topics such as romantic love, a sestina can be used even for the nourishing tragicomedy of multigenerational Jewish family life. So the poem uses a recipe, and is itself a recipe—for celebrating survival. The details, of course, are what make it so delicious.

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