Recently a friend asked me what project I have been working on during my sabbatical. I admitted that although I have been doing research for several ongoing projects on women writers, the accomplishment that has given me the most satisfaction thus far this year is that I have finally learned how to make my mother’s legendary fishcakes
Like many other women, I have frequently felt ambivalent about cooking. Although I remember with gratitude the special Russian-Jewish foods prepared by my female relatives, many of whom emigrated from Europe to the United States, I am unwilling to spend a large part of each day in the kitchen. While it is undeniable that the person in charge of the cooking plays an essential role in every home, the labor involved in purchasing the ingredients, preparing the food, serving it, and cleaning up afterward is not appreciated sufficiently. Moreover, these time-consuming, repetitive tasks do not confer fame, fortune or power on the person in the household who performs them.
I came from a family that loved to eat, and many of the women who served as my earliest role models were excellent cooks. My father laughingly used to say that he married my mother because he fell in love with her mother’s cotleten, the Russian-style patties he remembered from his childhood. I can recall vividly my mother’s celebrated fishcakes, noodle kugels and blintzes, my maternal grandmother’s pickled herring with plump onions and carrot slices swimming in brine, my paternal grandmother’s incomparable knishes, my Aunt Rifka’s flaky strudel, my Aunt Sally’s cranberry mold, and the airy lemon meringue pies baked by the woman who used to help my mother whenever our large clan gathered in Brooklyn to celebrate holidays and birthdays.
Babushka, my father’s mother, lived with us during my childhood. I have always regretted that I did not apprentice myself to her to learn the secrets of making flaky knishe dough. Several years after she died, I tried to recreate that flaky dough. What I produced was so miserable a failure that I never again could summon up the courage to repeat the experiment.
When I became a college student, I began to seek other women as role models, women more defined for me by their intellectual than their culinary accomplishments. In my college courses, cooking was never mentioned, and the rebellious literary characters with whom I most identified — Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver and Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart — never were depicted donning aprons to prepare elegant concoctions for dinner.
The only time I ever cooked when I was a college student was during my sophomore year at Wellesley. Inspired perhaps by Wellesley’s motto, “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” a friend and I volunteered to work at a settlement house in South Boston one evening each week. The task we were assigned was to supervise a supper club for neighborhood adolescent girls. Recently my mother sent me a letter I had written home that year. “Help!” I beseeched her. “Send me some simple recipes. The girls in our group know more about cooking than Judy and I do!”
I got married two days after my college graduation. By the time I had given birth to my first child, I was a competent though usually a rather uninspired cook. Busy with the seemingly endless routine of caring for one baby and pregnant again, I saw cooking as a necessary chore rather than a creative endeavor.
During the sixties, I returned to graduate school as a part-time student. Burdened with schoolwork as well as the demands of caring for two pre-school children, I still spent as little time in the kitchen as was feasible. After my husband had completed his medical training, we settled into the suburban community where we have lived for the last 25 years. I still perform my daily culinary chores rather perfunctorily. However, during the first few years that we lived here, we were frequently invited to elegant dinner parties, and I, in turn, felt obliged to expend enormous effort on cooking gourmet dinners when it was our turn to reciprocate.
My ambivalence about cooking persisted, even intensified, after I had finally completed my graduate training and had begun to teach English at a nearby college. Until my husband and our three children began to cook many of our meals, I would assemble several casseroles each Sunday in preparation for the busy week ahead. I longed for the day that I would no longer be responsible for feeding three adolescents as well as my husband and myself.
It soon became evident to me that even though some of my women colleagues share my ambivalence about cooking, many of them nevertheless are excellent cooks. At the thrice yearly pot-luck dinners that are sponsored by our Women’s Studies Program, the food is outstanding. However, a noteworthy feature of this communal meal is that those who do not wish to fix an elaborate dish are free to contribute wine or cheese and crackers instead.
Now that my three children are adults and no longer live at home, cooking for the most part is a less onerous chore than it once was. My husband cooks almost as many of our own meals as I do, and when we invite people to dinner from time to time, he helps me in the kitchen. Moreover, our dinner guests usually offer to contribute something to the meal.
Last year one of my sons joined me in Florida to visit my mother. After devouring her fishcakes, a dish she had perfected during the meatless days of World War II, he promptly asked her for the recipe. I was somewhat abashed to discover that this transaction had made me feel defensive. “Do you remember with nostalgia anything I used to cook for you when you were little?” I asked him, my voice quaking with anxiety. I blushed when he finally replied, “Crisped up salami and sliced cucumbers!’ This was his favorite lunch when he would return from nursery school in those blissful days before we all became obsessed with counting cholesterol and sodium.
After I returned from Florida, I resolved to set aside time so I could learn how to prepare some of the foods that I remember so fondly from my childhood. More secure about my own identity, I am eager to expand my cooking repertoire, for I have come to realize that these foods provide an important link between my generation and the generation of women who preceded me. In the future, if my own grandchild should happen to ask me for the recipe after sampling my fishcakes, I shall be happy to oblige.
Charlotte Margolis Goodman, a professor of English at Skidmore College, is the author of Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), as well as articles on American writers.