There is evidence to indicate I have no business contributing to anything called Nosh. My college roommate still recalls the time I removed a cold, hard Idaho potato from its produce bag and asked, “So is this a baked potato, or do I need to do something to it?” Fast forward two college degrees (yes, from accredited universities) and you will witness a similar scene as my husband – in one of his more patient moments – walks me through the complex art of boiling an egg.
Much to his disappointment, I didn’t inherit my Nana’s 36DDs, but I did inherit her inability to kvell over a matzoh ball. Like Nana and my mother before me, I am a Jewish girl who can’t cook. And unfortunately, the trait has gotten progressively worse with each generation.
At least Nana (of blessed memory) had a few dishes that received modest accolades, like rolled meat in cabbage. Her son-in-law makes fun of her liquefied vegetables to this day. Papa, on the other hand, just ate.
As Uncle Eric tells it, Nana spooned out her overcooked meals to Papa day in and day out for over 60 years. On an uncharacteristically solicitous day, Nana asked Papa if he preferred tapioca or rice pudding. “I’ll have rice,” he responded. “I don’t really like tapioca.” “What?! You don’t like tapioca?! Since 1932, I’ve been serving you tapioca. How come you never told me?” “You never asked,” he said.
My own mother has an uncanny ability to serve monochrome meals in shades of yellow and orange. Quiche, mac ‘n cheese, frozen corn, cottage cheese. In other words, would you like some cheese with your cheese?
The men in my family aren’t much better. With the precision of a physician shoving a thermometer up a baby’s ass, my dad routinely gauges the temperature of every slab of meat, every hunk of poultry.
With these roots, does it come as a surprise that I would be perfectly happy subsisting on granola and yogurt, turkey sandwiches, and apples?
Cuisanart? Never used it. China and silver? Nowhere to be found on my wedding registry. Salt and pepper shakers? Empty – never been filled. Brisket? Never tasted it – let alone made it. Baster? What the hell is that?
Food lovers of Oy! Please tell me why I should spend hours making a meal that will be devoured in eight minutes flat. Why buy a bouquet of flowers that is just going to wilt? Why dirty a serving dish when it is far more efficient to plop a bag of chips in the middle of the table? (Or on the floor if the table is too full, as was the case last week.)
I am aware that most Jews equate food with nurturance, ritual and family. As I type this, my husband is upstairs reading a Jewish holiday cookbook to our 5-year old daughter with far more passion than I’ve ever heard him read Goodnight, Moon. He has exclaimed, “Yummy, this is my favorite!” nine times in the past three minutes, and they’ve only finished Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Tu B’Shevat. “Oh ho, look at this chicken. Man, you know what’s inside this? Apples with cinnamon and nuts. Let’s remind savta to make this next time we go to Israel.”
The cookbook was a gift from my mother-in-law, shortly before her poor son married an inept chef. Little did she know he was marrying me and a guy named Joe who would provide many healthy meals for her son. Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, is a guest at most meals at our house. He once said, “In France there isn't all this fuss about pricey, vintage wine. They just pour the stuff and drink it." Now that is an attitude that I can respect.
Joe is so cool, I also take him to work. The current no-fuss contents of my bottom desk drawer include the makings of a Trader Joe's feast: split pea soup, sardines, rice cakes, organic quinoa, soy milk in a box and dried cranberries. To this, my colleague and fellow Oy-ster Sarah Follmer will tearfully attest.
At Chanukah, if Trader Joe’s runs out of frozen potato pancakes, my family heads to Walker Bros. and if the lines there are too long, we are shit out of luck. Year-round, my freezer remains stocked with frozen brown rice, roasted vegetables with balsamic vinegar, and blueberry waffles. So don’t worry, folks. Joe may be a west coast goy who sold his business to a German conglomerate years ago, but he keeps my family well nourished.
My husband helps, too. Benny grew up frequenting shuks with his mama in northern Israel and prides himself on his ability to pick out the juiciest watermelon, the freshest avocado, the most succulent tomatoes. On multiple occasions, he has tried to show me how to cut a mango. I look the other way, as I did when a former secretary tried to show me how to mail merge. I just don’t want to know.
I am starting to realize it is not that I’ve failed as a cook – I just haven’t tried. With apologies to Nana, I do care if the people I love prefer tapioca pudding or rice pudding. It’s just that such requests usually send me to the store, not the kitchen.
Maybe this will be the generation that knows baked from raw and can boil an egg without incident. My girls, familiar with goodnight cookbooks, accompany their abba on his weekend jaunts to the produce market to smell melons. My 5-year old can already make a mean turkey sandwich. My 4-year old loves flowers, wilted or not.