She came to America when she and her family fled Austria just before the start of World War I. She was the youngest of 11 children. She never lost her heavy Austrian accent, which just made her more endearing. Her name was Marian. I adored her, and I wasn’t the only one – she had many admirers.
She was my maternal grandmother. And she taught me to cook.
Mama, as we called her, was about five-foot-nothing of fierce energy and constant motion – a little firecracker of a woman who knew her way around a kitchen like nobody’s business. Any celebration at her house was a guaranteed food orgy. There was always a huge spread, multiple dessert options (although her cheesecake was everyone’s favorite), and plenty of Mogen-David to sip. My first hangover, at the age of 15, was a painful result of drinking WAY too much wine during the Passover Seder at Mama’s.
Mama grew up in Dallas, married my grandfather, a milliner, in the late 20s and started a family. Eventually, they moved to Fort Worth and settled here. The house where my mom and my uncle grew up was where my most significant food memories were created.
You know those little hand-crafted signs or ceramic tchotchkes that say something along the lines of “Grandma’s house – where the cookie jar is never empty?” Yeah, well, screw the cookie jar – Mama didn’t have a cookie jar. Mama didn’t NEED a cookie jar! She had a freezer! And it was always full of cookies; giant tins full of every kind of cookie or bar that you could imagine. She kept them on hand for frequent visits from her grandchildren, or to serve to her bridge club, or for some event at the synagogue, or anytime someone she knew needed a plate of refreshments on a moment’s notice.
Mama was like the Boy Scouts of baked goods – always prepared.
If you wanted a cheesecake, all you had to do was ask. Not only did she make them for her guests, she also made them for other people to serve at their feasts! It was not uncommon to visit her house just before Rosh Hashanah or Passover and see 7 or 8 cheesecakes lined up on her breakfast table, just waiting to be picked up by grateful friends who didn’t have the same knack for baking that she had. I am certain there is a baking gene, and I have been fortunate enough to inherit it, and it came from Mama.
I learned the basics about baking from Mama – following the directions in a recipe and not skipping steps. Greasing and flouring pans, and mixing until the batter was the right consistency, and how sifting the flour affected the density of the cake you were making. And when I helped Mama in the kitchen, I got the drudge work too. I think of myself as the original food processor, because when something needed to be ground or chopped, she had an old crank grinder that she attached to her kitchen counter, and I was the power source. When I was still too short to reach the crank, she dragged a chair in from the breakfast table and I stood on it and cranked away.
There was nothing fancy about Mama’s kitchen, but magical things were created there.
There was a huge General Electric refrigerator, circa 1934, which was filled with wonderful things. It was like a big treasure chest on legs, and with a giant motor sitting on top. It got colder than any fridge I’ve ever had, and there was always a tub of whipped butter in there – Land ‘O Lakes or Falfurrias, maybe – to spread on matzohs. Back in those days, butter was king. Mama used only butter when she cooked. Like an Austrian version of Julia Child.
The other major appliance at Mama’s was an O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove, slightly newer than the fridge. It had actually been my parents’ first stove, but it went back to Mama’s when they built a new house in the early 60s. To light one of the burners, you had to turn the dial and hold a match to it, and then there was that little whoosh noise and voila! There was your beautiful blue flame, ready to cook something to perfection.
I was terrified of it.
I expected that I would catch fire if I tried to light it, or blow up Mama’s house. But Mama always said that it was the best way to cook. Even though she could have replaced it with a more modern electric stove at some point, she never did.
Up until the early 80s, both the mammoth refrigerator and the stove were still going strong. They don’t make appliances like that anymore. I still have the fridge. It doesn’t run now, but it makes a wonderful baking pantry. Besides, it’s like a family member. Wherever I go, it will always go with me. Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the old O’Keefe and Merritt, but just a few years ago, we moved to a new house with gas available in the kitchen, so we bought a gas oven, and I was able to experience gas cooking again. And Mama was right, of course. It’s the best way to cook.
There is a smell that comes from a gas oven which is particularly distinct. If you grew up in a house with a gas oven, you know that smell. The first night we were in our new house, I had a pan of lasagna from the freezer that I was going to cook. I turned on the oven to let it warm. And there it was. That smell. I stood stock-still in my chaotic, still-not-unpacked kitchen, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.
Me: “Smell that?”
Husband: “What, the oven? Yeah, why?”
Me: “It smells just like Mama’s kitchen.”
It smelled just like home.