“Kitchen Torah”

When we really begin to fathom that we are part of the Sacred Law of Reciprocity—that that which eats is later eaten—we con then truly reclaim eating, and cooking, as great holy acts of devotion. Certainly Grandmother Molly’s cooking is as religious on experience as anything that transpires on a bimah. This is from Devotion: A Memoir by Miriam Levine (University of Georgia Press, 1993, $29.95):

During the Jewish holidays, as my grandmother Molly performed the most extravagant pieces from her culinary repertoire, she would be attended by her children. They were geniuses of protocol and decorum. They had the seriousness of the men at shul, who assisted the rabbi by pointing to the place in the text. They would hand her a spoon; they would hold the bowl as she mixed . . . They were given over to her; they forgot themselves. Their faces were attentive, absorbed, and contented like the students in my poetry workshop who are able to appreciate fine work and assist. They were not like the transported audiences at rock concerts, clapping and raising their hands, swaying to the music: they never confused their roles with the queen’s, yet somehow they shared the gift.

At the end of my grandmother’s culinary feats, my father would usually be called in. He was thought to have the best palate in the family. He would stand quietly poised before the pot on the stove, holding the clean tablespoon his mother had just handed him, collecting himself, gearing down as if he were still a basketball player about to shoot from the foul line.

I’d watch my father as he carefully dipped the spoon into the pot, bending forward from the waist. He’d throw back his head and roll the broth across his tongue. They’d all wait for his advice. The most difficult flavor to achieve was the complicated balance of sweet and sour of the cabbage soup. So they’d add and add and get it right.

Sarah Orne Jewett posted Flaubert’s advice over her desk: “Write about ordinary life as if you were writing history.” The motto above my grandmother’s stove might have read: Reduction is the essence of taste.

And form was the cup that held flavor. None of my grandmother Molly’s creations outlived her. She never thought about whether they would or not. Molly created; we feasted until nothing was left. Jewett’s and Flaubert’s work will also disappear, but, of course, more slowly.

Hers was the passion to get things right, to shape, to plump, to reduce, to dazzle, to thicken, to boil, to clarify and complicate and create. Her art was not separated from the life of the body; she made beauty to taste, to wear, to wear out. While her children tended her, she whirled her needles, counting stitches with a rapidity that I could not follow.

She cut, she carved, she shaped. Even her throwaways were beautiful. The long, unbroken coil of red apple skin lined with the thinnest layer of white flesh fell from her small sharp knife.