I grew up in a family with six people, with two sisters and a brother. My father was an orthodontist. My mother was a mother! They both came from New York City. My mother’s family were German Jews and my father’s family, they came from Lithuania. His family came at the turn of the last century to Boston and her family came over, we think in the 1850s, early. They met in World War II. My mother was a WAVE and my father an ensign on a ship in the North Atlantic. After they married, and started having all of us, my father practiced in Albany, New York.
My parents were culturally Jewish. My grandparents didn’t go to synagogue. Nobody ever went. So we ate bacon. We loved pig. That was never an issue for us. We were Reform Jews, but we weren’t even really that. Most American Jews are not kosher. Albany was not a religious town for Jews. I think there was a Conservative temple, but the big temple was the Reform temple. It’s like being a Unitarian.
By the time there were four of us we moved into a big, old Colonial house, with a big kitchen. The kitchen was like two rooms with a big passageway between them. So we had a big kitchen table. Dinner time was the big deal in our house. My father always came home. We always all had dinner together at the kitchen table – except on Friday nights when we ate in the dining room.
Her favorite cookbook was The Settlement Cook Book
My mother — I think her mother taught her to cook. I never really asked her. Her favorite cookbook was The Settlement Cook Book, which is an old German Jewish cookbook which I actually have a copy of, still, that she gave me. A lot of the dishes I remember, particularly the ones that were sweet, came from there. I particularly remember three desserts that she made really well. She made the best brownies you’ve ever had. There’s a recipe for brownies and there’s a double chocolate brownie. When we were young she used to follow the recipe. The chocolate was bitter chocolate – there was no sugar in it. So you couldn’t steal any when it was in the cupboard. It didn’t have any sugar and it tasted terrible. Sometimes she put walnuts in them, and they were really good. That was a very big treat.
She also made a thing called sour cream coffee cake which was made in a bundt pan. She made that a lot. It’s a sour cream, egg, and flour batter and then you have a streusel base. It was brown sugar, butter, and nuts. Sometime nuts, sometime golden raisins. I remember helping her do it. She would grease the bundt pan, and you put in some batter, and then you took some of this brown sugar-butter creation and sprinkled it in it, and then you put some more batter in it and you put it on the top. Sometimes she’d draw a fork through it so it would be kind of like marbled like a marble cake.
The third dessert, the special event for birthdays, sort of a birthday cake, was icebox cake. Icebox cake I think was Jewish tiramisu. It was! It was ladyfingers, whipped cream, and chocolate and I think there was actually even some coffee in it. For a little flavoring. It was like the favorite thing, a German Jewish dessert. It was the favorite thing for all of us for dessert that my mother made.
There are other things in that cookbook that I remember. My mother gave me one when I was an adult. I looked back through it saying, what else did she make from here? – that I watched her make, that she’d made it so many times that she didn’t look? Bread and butter pickles that I still make to this day. My mother’s recipe came out of that and I think the dill recipe. She used to make dills and put them in a crock in the basement. I don’t do that. It’s more elaborate. She’d make really good dill pickles.
What else was out of that cookbook? She made a meatloaf that I never really liked. They put ketchup on the top and then bacon, and they put it in the oven. The bacon never got crisp. I guess it was supposed to give it fat and be delicious. I don’t know, I thought it was gross. That may have come from there too.
My mother was not a great cook, but when I was young she didn’t like crap food. We never had any crappy food in our house. We never had potato chips. Rarely. There were crackers sometimes. But mostly it was really good produce, really good fruit, and meat. I’m not sure whether she went to a butcher or not. I think meat was just better back then in general when you got it. But we used to have either steak or prime rib. Sometimes she’d make spaghetti. She made good red sauce. She’d make spaghetti with meatballs. We liked that. She’d make corned beef, which none of us liked until we got older.
Simple, well-made food
So dinners were basically meals of simple, well-made food. But it was a very narrow set of foods. When you think about all the food that we know about now, that we have. You might get bay leaf, you might get thyme. But you’re not going to see cumin or ras el hanout. I don’t remember my mother ever using those things, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t. I just don’t remember them.
A thing I didn’t like much – my mother insisted on corned beef and cabbage. Which we also said was very Irish, but also very Jewish. I never liked it. She used vinegar in it. That’s a dish I ended up liking very much as an adult. I developed a real taste for mustard. I am a crazy mustard fanatic. I think I developed that in childhood. I don’t remember when it was the first time I had French mustard, which of course was a revelation. I know it was Grey Poupon. Because that’s the first one that came up, that Americans knew about. I remember thinking, “I like mustard.” Ketchup was only good for French fries. I didn’t really like ketchup. Once again, sweet and I don’t like sweet.
Then there’s the famous tongue that my parents liked. That we all detested because it came to the table as a tongue! It was pretty disgusting to look at. As a kid, you taste it and it had that weird consistency. We just thought it was absolutely disgusting. That’s something I’ve never developed a taste for. The corned beef I love now, but that I don’t like.
She got really great bread. There’s a Jewish deli restaurant, it was called Joe’s Deli. It was in downtown Albany, that we used to go to for birthday dinners. They used to make a real Jewish rye. When you stood in line to wait for your table, they would cut off the heel and give it to us to chew on. Best crust I have ever had. Nobody makes it that way anymore. It was fabulous, fabulous bread. I think the technique was lost.
My mother would get her vegetables from a farm stand out past Slingerlands. It was summertime. She didn’t get them from the grocery store. She would go out to the farm stand and that’s why the vegetables were so good. I remember going out with her and helping her pick things out. We ate all kinds of vegetables. None of them were strange, but it wasn’t just peas and carrots. She almost never had frozen vegetables. We’d go out to the farm stand and that’s where I developed an appreciation for really good tomatoes. All the different kinds of cucumbers.
The Albany region was an apple region and we had fabulous apples. My mother used to go to the orchard and we’d get wonderful cider. My mother used to buy Northern Spies. They are great pie apples. I remember going to get the Northern Spies with my mother, and going home and making apple pie. The farm stands were really important, but as that area got built up they lost a lot of them, most of them. It was really a shame. But it was a great area for truck farming and for apples in particular. She used to keep a big bag of apples – we had a refrigerator in the basement, the old refrigerator, and she’d keep things in them. Because she had a lot of kids she was feeding and you couldn’t put it all in the refrigerator upstairs. That was a very cool thing, too.
Breakfast was basically cereal. The cereals weren’t the really sweet cereals. I know there was Wheaties – Wheaties and Cheerios, I remember that. There was less sugar in them back then. Bananas. Bacon and eggs kind of things. But it depended on whether it was for the weekend or school days. What would happen is we’d get up, have breakfast, and my father would drop us off at school on his way to his practice. It wasn’t chaotic. I don’t remember it being super chaotic but it wasn’t like everybody sat down and had breakfast together. You just ate breakfast.
I went to a private girls’ school. They offered lunch but we weren’t allowed to do that because you had to pay for it. My mother said, you can take lunch from home. Which of course we didn’t like to do because all the cool kids got to eat at school. We didn’t bring really good sandwiches. It was really terrible. A lunch box, I think. I think there was probably fruit and a sandwich. That was plenty. At school on Fridays – I guess everybody ate at school on Fridays – they used to make egg salad, tunafish salad, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They cut them in corners on the diagonal, and they’d stack them on big trays. So you would have big trays with these triangles of sandwiches. I hated peanut butter and jelly. I don’t like sweet things unless it’s for dessert and I hated peanut butter and jelly as a kid. So I to make sure to scramble for the tunafish and the egg salad. It was white bread, but it was Pepperidge Farm white bread. It was informal, it was cheap – at our fancy private girls school! They had a hot lunch, and then they had salads and they had sandwiches. You had a tray and you lined up. We used to get milk and stuff in the line but we didn’t get food. Not that the food was particularly any good. I’m sure I had it a few times, but I don’t remember anything standing out. I do remember stealing the Good Humors out of the freezer when I was in high school. We used to push the bar out of the way and get our hands in and steal the ice cream.
A German lady whose name was Clara
When I was about – not ten yet – my mother hired a German lady whose name was Clara. Clara had come from Germany after the war, with her husband Julius. Julius had died and she was a widow. Clara cleaned. Clara also could cook.
On Friday nights Clara cooked and we ate in the dining room. My parents’ attempt to civilize us was really pretty funny. My mother would get out the tablecloth and we had the whole thing – good china, the good silverware. We didn’t act any more formally. But it was a really pretty setting. She had candles on the table.
Clara did German cooking like my mother, but it was good, very straightforward, but really nicely done. We never had an overcooked vegetable. Nothing was ever gross at all. So I guess we were really spoiled in a lot of ways. Nothing was particularly fancy but it was all really good quality. I had a sense of that from very early on.
Clara used to take potatoes and she’d cut them up and she’d soak them in water. Then she put them on a pan and I guess she used Crisco and lots of paprika. She slowly cooked them in the oven so they’re really crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They were to die for! Better than French fries. When we were lucky she’d also put in some onions and the onions would get soft and crispy at the same time. That was a real treat when she did that.
Clara had hands like you wouldn’t believe. She made a pie crust – it was one of the things that influenced me to learn how to make pie crust. To be a cook. She would do it just with Crisco, or she’d use lard. She didn’t even need butter. She made the most beautiful flaky, not sweet, pie crust. And then she would make pie. She made this one meringue pie like you’ve never had. It would be beautiful. The meringue would be swirled perfectly, then she’d put it under the broiler until the tips were light brown. She would make gorgeous apple pie. She could do about any kind of pie.
My father loved pie. And he was always battling his weight. We’d sit around the table after dinner at night, and there’d be pie, and we’d each have a piece. And we’d play this game. We’d keep passing the pie plate down, so eventually it would be in front of my father. He’d be talking and he’d eat it. Somebody would take it and then it would be in front of him again. He always finished all of our desserts. We were bad kids. But the pie was fabulous!
When we were more grown up – probably after we left home – my mother ended up hating cooking. She started to wreck stuff. She took those beautiful brownies and she started putting dried cranberries or dried prunes in them. It was such a joke with the next generation – how gross Nana’s brownies were. Such a shame because she used to do them really well. She just didn’t like to cook anymore. She’d done it for so long. She didn’t have a love of cooking per se. My mother didn’t like vegetables. She loved salad. She would much rather have salad with her dinner.
Her father died when she was, I think, four. Her sister was two. Her mother was a dental hygienist. They ended up living in Albany with her relatives. My mother got shipped there. I think she always felt like a poor relative. Then my grandmother remarried and I don’t think my mother ever accepted her stepfather. They didn’t really get along. I remember him being a very nice guy. But I think something in my mother – I don’t know if it was the penny pinching or feeling poor or . . . I think she said they did go hungry sometimes. She was very selfish about food. She always took the best bits for herself. My mother was incredibly generous and incredibly selfish about little things. Her personality responded to the Depression. My father was careful but he was generous. My mother was not. I think she was always worried that she wasn’t going to have enough of something. Even with her kids, which is a little strange. I noticed that in food, in particular. In other things too, but I do remember it in food.
Ice cream was a very big deal
Oh, there was Stittig’s! It was a Jewish ice cream parlor. It was right next to the movie theater. My mother would take us there. We used to get ice cream floats, like an egg cream but there’s ice cream in it. This was before chocolate chip mint ice cream was invented. It was chocolate sauce, cream, and then seltzer and a big scoop of ice cream. We’d get ice cream that was mint in the seltzer. It was like having mint chocolate chip ice cream. They were so good. We did it a lot.
There was another ice cream place. When I first went to Girls’ Academy, it was in downtown Albany in an old building. I was at that school for nursery school, kindergarten, and first grade. About four blocks away there was a really great ice cream store that my mother used to take us to after school sometimes. We used to get raspberry ice cream. Then when they finally invented raspberry chocolate chip, I was hooked. Couldn’t have anything better than that.
One day when I was six years old I was with my friend Janet. I asked my mother if we could go to the store and get an ice cream. She said sure. Back then kids just went anywhere. She assumed I was going to go down the street, take a left and there’s an ice cream store – five, six blocks away. But we didn’t go there. We walked downtown. Got totally lost looking for this great ice cream place. I’m surprised that we ever got found. We didn’t know where we were, but I recognized a house of a kid that was in the class. Her parents happened to live really near the ice cream store. We went and knocked on the door. Isn’t that funny? I forgot that. But I was on the hunt for ice cream because it was so good, so clearly ice cream was a very big deal in our house. It’s always been a favorite dessert for me since then. Cookies and ice cream.
Another ice cream place that I loved was called Stewart’s. This is a great story. We didn’t go to a religious school because we didn’t want to. My parents didn’t care. But our friends were all going to Saturday school when we were in junior high school. We started going because they went. But we all hated it. So we used to sneak out of Saturday school and walk from the temple – it was next to the Girl’s Academy where I went to school – and walk down Academy Road and take a left and Stewart’s was around the corner. We used to, like at 11:00 o’clock in the morning, eat ice cream sundaes. Make your own sundaes! You put all this glop on it – there was caramel sauce, and chocolate sauce, and cherry sauce, and pineapple. I don’t know if they do it anymore. But you get good ice cream and just cover it will all kinds of sweet junk and eat it. It was great, it was just great.
Dining out was always a special occasion
Other places we went out to eat that were important . . . Joe’s, the place with the wonderful bread — it was just this wonderful deli but they also did dinners. Once again, it was German Jewish food really well done.
But for very, very special occasions there was a place in downtown Albany near the capitol, Keeler’s. It was a white tablecloth place where my father would take us. He took the girls out; there were three of us. One time he rented a private dining room and took the three of us. We thought it was very fancy. You could have prime rib; that was the big deal.
At Joe’s we used to get lobster for our birthday but at Keeler’s place downtown we’d have prime rib because that’s fancier. Of course you got the bib, the whole deal. I was seven or eight. My parents always liked the seashore – and lobster was cheap back then. But we would love lobster, that was the big thing. I don’t care so much about it, but as a kid . . . It’s also fun to eat. You smashed it, you got all messy. We never had crab but we did have lobster. Those were my early, early memories of food and things that I liked and things that made an impression on me.
Dining out was always a special occasion. There were different levels of dining out special occasion. But they took us places! Even though there were a whole passel of us, they took us places.
I loved Howard Johnson’s. My mother used to take us there. It was the fried clams that were great. Pierre Franey was the chef. This is why it was so good, because Pierre Franey was taking this fast food idea at that particular time and making incredible recipes with it. And great ice cream. We used to get clam rolls, deep-fried clams. They were real clams. And really good tartar sauce. We would have clam rolls and then we would have sundaes.
In summertime we went out to Ross’s. It was out in Slingerlands. It was a white little building and it had the big windows in the front where you went up and ordered. They had really great hamburgers and French fries. They had picnic tables. We used to go there for a treat, and when we were done eating there was this cliff behind there that you could climb up on and play on. I remember it being very steep and my parents not being the least bit concerned that we would fall off and kill ourselves. Maybe they wished that we would, I’m not sure. But I remember the hamburgers and French fries being really good. And hot dogs! I discovered early on that I liked hot dogs better than hamburgers. I’m not sure why, but I always preferred them and I always liked them burnt. I loved it when my father would get a charcoal grill going and he put the hotdogs on. I liked them black on the outside, so they’re really crispy, and soft on the inside. They were always pork hotdogs and to this day I prefer the pork hotdogs. I think they have more flavor. The other thing that Ross’s had that was really fabulous was homemade ice cream. Oh god, it was fabulous. After you had your hamburger and French fries you got an ice cream cone.
You ate seafood
We started going to Nantucket when I was nine. Before that I remember going to Montauk with my parents a couple times. And there of course you had seafood and you had lobster. But then we started going to Nantucket, and of course that changed the diet. When you went there you ate seafood. You got all things New England. Even then Nantucket . . . it had been a whaling town, but it wasn’t a big fishing town. There weren’t a lot of fish stores because it wasn’t like an industrial port.
One terrible, terrible food memory. My father surf cast and he loved to catch bluefish. And he would bring them home. My mother couldn’t cook them. She used to make bluefish stew. It was kind of like a chowder with bluefish in it. It was disgusting! It was horrible. And then she’d freeze it and she’d take it home, because this was her Depression-era training. You don’t throw anything out. And try to feed it to us in Albany. She didn’t know how to freeze anything. Oh it was awful! To this day, I hate bluefish.
I remember going surf casting with my father one day. We were out at Great Point in the evening and the blues were running. I was standing with him on the shore and he was showing me the bobbers that he used to catch the fish. I’m looking at this thing, long and with a thick hook at the bottom, big hook on the side. I remember saying to him, Hey Dad, you can catch two fish with this thing. I remember him looking at me like I was the stupidest idiot he’d ever met. “I suppose it’s possible, Jane,” was exactly what he said. I must have been eleven. Pshoo, throws the thing out, starts to reel it in and he’s got a really big catch. Guess what? Two fish, two fish! I danced, he laughed. He insisted on taking it home. We got home with sixteen of these things! What do you do with sixteen fish?
The best fish he ever brought home was on a Memorial Day weekend on Nantucket. I might have been in college by then. I was at my parents’ house and Mother was making dinner and Daddy promised he would be home by quarter to six. Of course quarter to six comes and he doesn’t show up. She starts getting steamed because he’s late. He’s often late when he’s coming back from fishing. She’s getting steamed, she’s getting steamed. Finally, it’s a half an hour when he rolls up. He gets out of the car and he’s got the biggest smile on his face you’ve ever seen. And we say, what did you catch? He goes to the back of the Jeep and he pulls out a striped bass that’s this big (three feet). He caught the biggest striper of the season. It was huge! In the whole season that was the biggest catch. He brought it in an he filleted it. Mother had a long poacher, 2 feet long at least. I remember poaching a piece of it. I had learned how to poach a fish at that point, so must have been maybe twenty. It was a magnificent thing! It was wonderful to eat. I developed a real taste for striped bass after that.
It was before they had the restrictions on what you could do on the beach. You could have beach fires, you could have corn, all that kind of stuff. You could have lots of steamers, lots of littlenecks. All that stuff I liked. I remember eating swordfish and liking it. Not as much tuna, fresh tuna, I don’t know why. Some cod, but we didn’t eat a lot of that. And a lot of shellfish. A lot of clams. We used to go crabbing. You’d take a chicken neck. There are ponds on the way to Great Point. You take a string and you tie it on the chicken neck. You throw it in the pond. The blue crabs will go after chicken neck. You pull them up with crabs on it and capture them, being careful you don’t get your toes pinched. We used to do that. They were delicious. And then we would go clamming. Basically you could get into Wauwinet Harbor in the Bay with your feet. Dig around in the sand. You could see where there’s little air bubbles. We’d go do that. My father could open them, so that was great. We did a lot of that stuff. It was really delicious.
That was really what my childhood was like in terms of food I remember. I remember being so surprised about how other people ate, because it was so different. Friends had crap food in their house.
We were all normal-size kids. None of us are fat. Never had Chinese food until I was in college. I never had pizza until I went to college. Didn’t know what it was. Oh, that’s not true. My sister took home ec and they taught her to make pizza with Bisquik and tomato paste! And some awful cheese. Oh god, I remember vividly it was so terrible. I thought that was what pizza was, so who wanted pizza? I had no idea what the delights of pizza were.
And since my father was an orthodontist there weren’t a lot of sweets in the house. Candy was really not a thing in our house, you just didn’t get it. But Halloween was something else. Back then when you went trick-or-treating, you’d get big candy bars. All we wanted were the chocolate bars. We’d go trick-or-treating like maniacs. Then we’d come home and we’d get boxes and we’d line up the candy, put it under our beds, eat it slowly for months.
I remember our mother taking us to the movies and she’d let us each have candy of some sort. I used to love Nestlé Crunch. I used to get one, and I’d sit and watch the movie and I’d take these tiniest little bites so it would last all the way through the movie. Because I knew I wouldn’t get another one! Boy, I loved it. I had a real taste for chocolate. My mother liked good chocolate, so the real treat was to go to the movies with her and she would pick out a really good bar of European chocolate and she would share it with you. Not a lot! She didn’t give me a lot but she let me have some. You got a taste for it.
We had our Thanksgiving dishes, our traditions
There’s a family tradition – did we do it this year? I think we did – that we used to have at Thanksgiving. Clara would steam a head of cauliflower and make cream sauce and breadcrumbs. It was not particularly good – it was pretty bland. It was white sauce — butter, flour, milk, and salt and pepper. But my brother loved it for some reason and every Thanksgiving we have it. We have to have cauliflower with cream sauce. I myself prefer the cauliflower Indian style with potatoes and a bunch of spices on it. There’s a name for it and I’m drawing a blank on the name of the Indian dish, because I really like it. Like every family we had our Thanksgiving dishes, our traditions. A lot of them you toss out the window but that one particularly sticks.
Oh, my mother’s meatballs! I think this also came from The Settlement Cook Book. She used to make Swedish meat balls. Basically hamburger, probably chopped sirloin, like small meatballs. Browned and cooked in a sweet and sour sauce. What would happen is my mother would make them and she’d put them in a chafing dish in the living room before Thanksgiving. She had these long toothpicks that we all thought were ivory. But they were plastic. They look like little pitchforks, long pitchforks. We would just pig out on the meatballs. By the time dinner came we didn’t want to eat anything. We were stuffed. My sister-in-law still makes them. The next generation of kids grew up with Nana making them and then they wanted them.
We went through periods of trying different kinds of stuffing, my mother and I. We ended up going back to the Pepperidge Farm one, which she made when I was a kid. It’s really simple, with celery and onions. She put butter and eggs in it. She put it in the turkey, which made it much better because you got all the meat draining into it.
I liked food and I found it interesting
I remember making things with my mother. I would make brownies with her, cookies. I was just interested. I liked food and I found it interesting. I helped my mother can. I liked being in the kitchen with her. It was fun. It was a time I could be with my mom. You bond over stuff like that.
I remember when I went to college, at Cornell. There’s the freshman 15, which everybody gains. We didn’t. I remember one of the wonderful things about Cornell was their ag school. And they used to have, in the dorms, milk machines. You’d get a little half pint of milk. Their chocolate milk was like having a milk shake, an ice cream milk shake. It was amazing ice cream. We used to drink that instead of having meals sometimes. I think we used to stick our hands up the machine and steal it as well. It was just an outstanding product.
After my freshman year we all lived off campus, that’s what you did at Cornell. I had an apartment with two friends. I remember being interested in food and cooking then. We cooked. Not well, but we cooked. It was fun. And we liked to eat. I remember being really mad at them because they were such slobs and they never cleaned the kitchen. It got really dirty. Every once in a while I had to clean it up. Obviously it meant something to me that the kitchen was neater.
I think my interest in food – obviously over the years it’s gotten much more sophisticated – arose out of those early childhood experiences. When I graduated from college I had a friend who was a good cook. I think I mentioned I never had Chinese food until I was in my 20s. I found the palate and all the flavors, it was so interesting to me. It was so different from anything I had before that I not only wanted to eat it, I wanted to learn how to make it. The making part that I guess has always been a theme to this whole thing, with my mother, with my friend in undergraduate school. This was before I went to graduate school. I was living in Albany, we both worked for the New York legislature. He came over one night and taught me something about Chinese food. Very simple stuff. Things that I still do today. About ginger and garlic and different kinds of soys. I started to cook in a more grownup fashion. Expanding my palate.
That’s how it all started. So that by now in my grand stage of decrepitude, I do all kinds of things. I still love Asian food and I still make some of the things that I made with my mother, although not the same recipes necessarily. King Arthur has a Cookie Companion cookbook, and they have a recipe for brownies. They’re called On the Fence Brownies, that are very reminiscent of my memories of brownies when I was a kid. They’re not too cakey and not too chewy. I made them last year for the kids next door who just moved in. They’re quite wonderful. That’s a real legacy from when I was little, to make that kind of thing. I still make my mother’s pickles, the bread and butters. I make them every other year. My mother used to put them in tunafish salad. I still do that. It tastes a little bit like relish, but they’re better. Hot dogs, I put them on hot dogs.
I think actually my interest in cooking surprised my mother in her older age. That her daughter who married late, didn’t have kids, had this career, was that domestic and interested in food. I think it surprised her. She was stuck with it; I chose it. That’s a big difference. For me it was something I could accomplish after a day of just doing process. If I made dinner I could start it and end it and have something good at the end of it and say I did this. But I do think it came from childhood.