Whenever I slice and sauté onions, I think of my mother.
No, she did not make me cry, but her meticulous handling of a mundane kitchen task left a lasting impression, one that informs my own cooking. Slice the onions and monitor their progress in the skillet so the result is a bronzed, sweetly fragrant tangle. Do not rush: Keep the heat on medium, and stir frequently to guarantee no bitter burned edges.
My mother, Annette Newman Gertner (1908-1975), was a Jewish American housewife from Manhattan. Before I was born, she was a secretary at an advertising agency, Lord & Thomas, where she had to sign letters using a fake man’s name. (They did not want a woman’s on the correspondence.) But cooking was in her DNA, and now in mine.
She learned from her mother, Fanny Newman, who was born in Russia and died when my mother was 19 — and for whom I was named. But my mother’s cooking went well beyond the chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, kasha varnishkes and chicken soup of her Eastern European background, both in attention to detail and imagination.
She would inspect chicken livers to excise discolored spots, and singe pinfeathers off chicken over a gas flame. Her chicken soup had to be clear gold, strained through a linen napkin, with “small eyes” of fat, as she put it, not globs like floating paddleboards. Before cooking a leg of lamb or shanks, she would peel off the chewy silver skin.
Innovation was her style. She did not throw hamburgers on our backyard grill. Rather, she seared slices of filet mignon for sandwiches and grilled whole beef tenderloins for parties. She loved dining out with my father, and would sometimes incorporate what she tasted in her own cooking, like broiling lamb chops medium-rare instead of the leaden well-done of the 1950s.
While I cannot recall her consulting many written recipes, preferring to follow her own instincts, I enjoyed cooking at her side, and saw how she tweaked flavor with a spritz of lemon or another pinch of salt. Now that my children and grandchildren are accomplished cooks, I regret that they were never able to share the kitchen with their “Nana.” They would have experienced the meaning of patience and generosity.
There was nothing special in her arsenal: Her kitchen, which was not kosher, was equipped with everyday cast-iron and Farberware cookware, a well-worn wooden chopping bowl and mezzaluna, a glass double boiler, an enameled oval blue-and-white-speckled roaster and a pressure cooker. But she insisted on having a Chambers range — top of the line in the 1940s.
She loved to entertain and did so frequently, with the dinnerware, linens, serving pieces, Limoges fish set and crystal stemware necessary, in her view, to accommodate and, yes, impress her guests. Even for family meals in the kitchen, a bottle of milk or maple syrup would be decanted into a pitcher, a habit that I carry forward, with wine the singular exception.
When shopping for food, she was demanding. The butcher and fishmonger at the local Gristedes market catered to her, as did an Italian greengrocer, setting aside her favorite black-seeded Simpson lettuces. I recall expeditions from Westchester County to Macy’s Manhattan food shops for croissants, the ones my parents preferred, and wine and imported cheeses.
Care and inventiveness were not just culinary routines; they reflected how she kept her home and how she dressed. Her taste was more elevated than that of her sisters and most of her friends. I still wonder what influenced her, and wish I had asked her. She wore samples from cutting-edge American designers like Pauline Trigère, Claire McCardell and Arnold Scaasi obtained by her Madison Avenue dressmakers. She had a shoe salesman at Saks and someone who made her hats.
She treasured individuality, never wanting to wear what “they’re wearing,” or handbags that displayed logos, and she sought offbeat touches that expressed her desire to be distinctive, like a bathing suit with one shoulder strap, or a chic black velvet outfit with an unlikely white pique collar. When she died, I inherited 120 pairs of gloves — silk-lined kid in different lengths and colors. So many gloves became necessary because she had rheumatoid arthritis, and as her fingers gnarled, she required bigger sizes.
Her love of individuality came out in other ways, too. Unlike many women of the time, she was surprisingly adept around an automobile engine, and she loved to fish, traveling with my father to Florida for bonefish and to Maine for landlocked salmon. I did not inherit the fishing gene but, growing up, I welcomed being part of a household that valued good food both at the stove and in restaurants: That appreciation generated and shaped my decadeslong career writing about food, and to some extent, my very being.
So did her social life. My parents were partygoers, attending benefit dinners and regularly visiting supper clubs like the Blue Angel. And they were devoted to the restaurant scene, frequenting the lavish Forum of the Twelve Caesars, a French seafood bistro called L’Armorique and the more elaborate Chateaubriand, now just memories. They also liked Pietro’s and Pen and Pencil for steaks, and, before theater, the Algonquin, all still in business today. My father loved going Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; my mother did not, so I was corralled. But my mother prepared his favorite steak “Italian-style,” rubbed with olive oil and garlic, and strewn with parsley.
I remember those steaks. I can make her peerless chopped liver and chicken soup by heart. Her braised lamb shanks with bell peppers and onions, a study in succulence, were her version of a dish from the Balkan-Armenian, a restaurant on East 27th Street. Her potato noodles were a family recipe. She also loved to roast whole racks of veal, slathered with a mosaic of onions and oranges run through in a small iron meat grinder clamped to the kitchen counter. I’ve streamlined the recipe using a food processor and downscaled it with chicken.
My mother would have welcomed the food processor. But chicken instead of veal? Doubtful.
Recipes: Braised Lamb Shanks With Peppers | Chicken With Orange and Onion | Potato Noodles
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