"How about I make you something in double butter?"
This was 2008 and my mother was in the thick of undergoing chemo. She had been a great cook yet a terrible eater; obsessively watching her weight meant some days all she'd allow herself was a slice of raw tomato on half a plain bagel. And three vodka martinis. With her weight dropping steadily, however, I managed to get her hooked on French toast that I grilled in double butter, a butter that had twice the fat and a super rich taste. I'd add almonds to the pan near the end of cooking and sprinkle the whole thing with confectionary sugar and I loved watching her eagerly dig in. I was even making her bacon to go with it and the second the bacon would hit a perfect crisp she'd demand it on a plate so she could eat it before her French toast cooled.
Our mealtime routine had finally gotten some rhythm: she'd sit at the kitchen table swinging her feet while she called out what she wanted, and then she'd stare out the window while I cooked. I loved cooking for her and would cart linguini or spaghetti from Rafetto's and homemade mozzarella from Joe's Dairy with me every few weeks I went up to be with her. I'd saute peppers and onions and bits of bacon in a kind of fake carbonara sauce and watch her devour it. If she ate half the plate I was thrilled, given her lack of appetite. To get even a few bites into her felt like a success.
This evening she didn't want pasta or French toast or roast chicken or even ice cream. "I want ..." She looked out the window at the townhouse condo across the road from hers. "A black family just moved in there. The son is handsome." She looked at me and wiggled her eyes. "Maybe we'll see some good action."
Her small condo complex was a typical middle class complex with short streets named Fox Run Road and Pheasant Hill Lane where everyone speed walked in pastel sweatpants before the cocktail hour began. A few townhouses made a 'unit' and a handful of units sat around a pond while the rest sat around each other on curvy little streets. In the middle of it all was a pool, tennis court and clubhouse.
The people across the street were actually Ethiopian and my gut said they were wealthy and were living there temporarily. (Which it turned out, they were. Living in New York has taught me well.) When I told my mother what their ethnicity was she just stared at me, confused. "I want to eat something different. Go look at my cookbooks."
She had a shelf of them under a desk and as I called out each title -- "Not that one, not that one, not that one" -- she yelled "That one!" when I got to The Sisterhood Cook Book from Temple Beth El in Swampscott, Massachusetts. She was going back to her roots.
This was a benefit cookbook where the ladies of the sisterhood solicited everyone they knew to include their favorite recipes and then sold the book to benefit the temple. This version had last been updated in 1975 and when I opened it to a random page I read cream 1 lb. lard and 1 lb. butter. Flipping through it quickly - the biggest section was for desserts - I found the main courses and began to call out recipes. "Hamburg Noodle Bake. Quick and Easy Stuffed Cabbage. Sweet and Sour Tongue. Meat Blintzes."
"No no no. Read me the names. I'll know what I want to eat by who wrote the recipe."
I went to the casserole section of the book. "Carrot Tsimis and Knadle, by Rose Silberstien." No response. "Sweet Potato Pudding, by Ruth Goodstein." Silence. "Potato Knadle, by Helen Harburg." I flipped a few more pages and got to Meats. "Beef With Horseradish Sauce, by Ruth Solar. New England Boiled Dinner, by Hope Gushen. "
"We went to a Bat Mizvah for someone's kid and Mitzy Fleggand - she was Hope Kutcher's cousin - "
"Hope had on a dress from Saks that was so beautiful. She paid full price and didn't tell her husband. He would've died! Her daughter -- she's either a Catholic or a lesbian -- there he is!" My mother started to frantically wave. I looked out the window and her Ethiopian neighbor was walking to his car. He waved back, friendly, and got in his car. "He is so handsome."
"He's about twenty-five mom."
"Like Don was. Do you remember my Donny?"
My father died when I was fourteen and soon after she had a new boyfriend, Don. She was 39 and he was 22. Don started staying over a lot until my sister Rachel attacked him with a can of peas and then they started going away. "I remember Don well," I said. "Two weeks after dad died he came downstairs in dad's bathrobe. What were you thinking?"
"He was a looker. He looked good in your father's robe."
"You'd go away and leave me with Rachel. You know how many times I had to sleep at a friend's or pull an all nighter somewhere - I slept in a church once to get away from her. Meat-Filled Mashed Fucking Potatoes, by Helen Younger."
"Oh - Helen is Mortie's cousin. You know Mortie, he was Norma's ... or was it Franny's ... Franny hates her daughter-in-law. Can't stand her. Says she's fat and ugly and is a terrible cook." It would be another year before we could talk about the past.
"If my mother-in-law thought I was fat and ugly and a terrible cook I wouldn't be nice, either."
"You don't have a mother-in-law. Can't you find a man anywhere?"
"No, but thank god I found an excellent therapist. Beef Stroganoff, Kosher Style, by Doris Finberg."
"Doris was lovely. Her mother was married to Mitzy Feinstein's uncle who had a sister ..." I watched her face quickly consider all her Jewish geography pairings and then she went blank. She looked at me, suddenly near tears, and her face filled with remorse. My heart started pounding and just as quickly her face changed. "Look for recipes by Hope Langbird. She's a wonderful cook."
"Is that his sister?"
"How'd you like French Toast in Double Butter with Lightly Fried Almonds, by Pamela Harris?"
"That sounds good. And I want bacon, too." She started waving at the window again. "There goes Bill walking his dog! Wave to Bill!"
I waved to Bill and kissed the top of her head. Then I got out the double butter.