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Dead Women in My Kitchen Cupboard

Susan Remson cooks with the women in her life, past and present. It’s not quite magical realism, but the conjuring capabilities of our recipe boxes come pretty close.

There are dead women in my kitchen cupboard. There are living ones in there, too. They are all tucked away in my recipe box, and from time to time I let them out. When I open the little metal container, they talk to me. Some of them say, “Pick me, pick me.” Others say, “Lots of calories, but oh so good!” or, “Low fat, very healthy. Make me.” Sometimes these women make me feel guilty. They say, “It’s been a really long time since you’ve made me, and I feel like you are ignoring me, and I don’t know why. I can deal with it, but I want you to think about it. That’s all. I just want you to think about it.” Others are more sidelong and just say, “Is that what you’re making?” At that point, I shut the lid, and they are quiet again for a while.

Many of these women come to cook with me during holidays, and my kitchen gets crowded with both the living and the dead. At Pesach, my deceased mother-in-law is making gefilte fish at the kitchen table, removing every bone of the fish before she puts it through the hand grinder. After the grinding, she pours the mass into the wooden mixing bowl, a family heirloom that has been scarred from five generations of chopping. She adds the matzah meal and eggs and stirs it all with her hands, and then seasons to taste. The water in the large white porcelain pot is boiling, and she plops each piece in, taking care not to splash the hot liquid on her face. The smell permeates the kitchen and the rest of the house, and is proof that she has made this concoction from scratch. She cleans the kitchen as she waits for the end product and the accolades that will follow later in the day.

My mother, deceased now also, is with me at holidays, too. Although she didn’t usually come to our home for Pesach, her recipes were always with me, especially her method for making kneidlach [matzah balls] for the soup, in a way that no other recipe I have ever seen calls for. She separates the yolks from the whites, and beats the whites with a wire whisk that, after so many years, has only one wire running through the middle. She adds the matzah meal — by feel rather than measure — and makes perfectly round balls to plop into her pot of boiling water. That’s it — no chicken fat, no oil — nothing but matzah meal. The balls will be light and fluffy and perfectly round, each and every batch, as they have been since she learned how to make them from her mother, a caterer at the shul and for private parties in Hamilton, Ontario.

At Rosh HaShanah, my aunts are there, too — Bessie and Marion, Sarah and Anne — two alive, two deceased, arguing over what kind of fruit to use for our family’s famous “Pie-Cake.” While they’re at it, I decide to make a recipe I got from Zlata, an old friend in Kenosha: her One-Bowl Apple Cake. My very-much-alive daughter Aviva tells me we should include a batch of Monster Cookies in the list of desserts this year, or maybe my niece Miriam’s Meringues. I prefer my friend Esther’s Carmel Pecan Squares, which is really a Passover recipe, but they are so good I like making them all year.

Sometimes I let my cooking companions out of their box because none of my many cookbooks seem to have the right thing. Not the cookbook that was a gift from my in-laws the first Chanukah after I was married; not one of the many cookbooks I have accumulated from Hadassah chapters and sisterhoods all over the country; not even the Moosewood cookbook that was a special gift from Georgia — a dear neighbor and friend. So I take out my recipe box and look through it. It’s like looking through the “All Women’s Family Photo Album,” each three-by-five card a memory.

Many of the cards are in my mother’s handwriting. I can tell when she wrote them by the quality of the script. The older recipes are neater and easy to read. The later ones were written with a shakier hand. Most are faded, and many have food splotches on them. There are recipes for cheese blintzes, kugel with raisins, brisket, and her yummy Chocolate Intrigue Cake. I can tell hers from my friend Carole’s (she’s also deceased) because Carole’s were always typed in light blue ink. So were my mother-in-law’s. I wish I had gotten more of their recipes so that I could linger with them longer in my recipe box.

If I compare the recipes that I get these days from my sister-in-law Marcia — who is very much alive — with those from 30 years ago, it’s clear how differently we have come to eat over time. Marcia’s more recent contributions come from finds in Cooking Light or The Food Channel. Spinach Cheese Balls, however, are still a must for bat mitzvah cocktail receptions, and we both know there is no recipe for my (very alive) brother’s favorite, Greasy Steak and Potatoes.

There is a special category for those women from whom I have received only one recipe, and in some cases I have never even made their dish, but rather just keep their cards as a reminder of our brief encounter. This is the case with Chicken Zingara from Sandy who died so unexpectedly and tragically. She was the first of my contemporaries to go, and a real reminder that sudden heart attacks do kill women in their early 50s. There is Japanese Miso Soup from Jack and Dotty, whom my husband and I knew from our student days and liked very much, but lost track of over the years. This recipe always reminds me of people in my life I regret not staying in touch with. Japanese Miso Soup goes with Joyce’s Cucumber Salad, and after 35 years and several hundred miles, I still talk to Joyce regularly, and not because of the salad.

There are photocopies and newspaper clippings, cards and post-its. They are not in any order, and I often think I should take some time and categorize them in a logical way so that when I go looking for a recipe for chicken, it will be filed under Chicken, and cake will be under Cake. The way I do it now is to flip through desserts and soups and whatever until I find what I am looking for. But then again, if I organized my box I wouldn’t get to think about all these women on my way to the right recipe — and I would deeply miss that part of the journey.

When I put my file box back in the cupboard, I do it gently so as not to disturb the women whose recipes I didn’t choose. As I close the lid I say L’hitraot. We’ll visit again soon, I am sure.

Susan Remson, retired from the biotechnology industry, is a writer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.