Let’s eat

Let’s eat

Let’s go back in time to the days when I was a kid, way back to the 1940s, when our kitchen was firmly under the control and supervision of my mother.

Maybe you think cooking for a crowd was harder then. There was no dishwasher, maybe even no refrigerator, depending upon how far back you go, or if the iceman cameth, and certainly no giant freezer for you to stock up, no self-cleaning oven or garbage disposal. Prewashed salad ingredients and frozen vegetables didn’t exist. And don’t even talk to me about kashering meat. Do you even know how to do that? Do you have that omnipresent slanted wooden board on your kitchen counter, partnering with the big box of kosher salt?

Shopping for food was an almost daily chore. Takeout, on the other hand, was distinctly nonexistent. Yeah, I know that your neighborhood equivalent of Jerry’s Grocery Store would send home your heavy stuff, but the kid on the bike didn’t bring a large variety, since JGS never had more than the basics. So moms shopped daily, except on Shabbat, at the grocer and the butcher, and had milk delivered by a milkman, and the daily bread and sweets by the beloved Dugan man. For Shabbat you — yes, you, if you were a kid and Mom had lots to do — were sent to one of the numerous neighborhood kosher bakeries for challot and something special like a babka or an apple cake. Just to be clear, all the vendors were always men but often the bakery clerks, and only the bakery clerks, were women. Why? I don’t know.

But scouring a menu and having an actual meal delivered was many years off to the future. Like now!

So why am I suggesting that it was easier then? Sure, today, you’ve got every modern invention, from an air-fryer to a bread machine to a microwave to a pizza cooker to a freezer fully loaded with ingredients your mother or grandmother never heard of. Your meat comes nicely wrapped and already kashered, lots of it ready to sous vide by merely submerging it in a magical pot of water, and your chickens are flicked, without liver and all the other internal organs that need surgical excision. They come minus feet, heads, and eggs, seeming like victims of a diabolical killer. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t recognize them as chickens at all. In the butcher store they’re often called parts, like wings or legs, or naturally, nuggets. Maybe not so naturally!

Of course, undoubtedly my chicken soup lacks the intense flavor of my mother’s, probably because of these omissions. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I tossed a pupik into a pot of soup. A pupik, by the way, is also known as a belly button and is still available in Israel, but, for unfathomable reasons, not in New Jersey or perhaps in all of America. I have no idea whether pupiks actually improve the flavor of the soup, but something sure did. The soup is not nearly as good as it was in the olden days. Unless, of course, it’s the cook. My mother versus me. No contest at all! She wins, pupiks up, hands down. If only she were still at the stove making the soup….

So, bring me back to today, where again I ask why is it harder these days than it was in those days, most especially when you are preparing for a crowd?

Diversion: Let me make this abundantly clear. I love my family, from the eldest, my husband, to the youngest. They are all amazing and beautiful people, and being with them is always the best activity I can conjure up. Take this coming Sunday, for example. Not everyone is coming, but 13 are, and that number could grow, and probably will. The two of us make it 15. My mother would have quickly whipped up a wonderful casual lunch (she would have called it a luncheon) of homemade soup and sandwiches, topped off by fresh fruit and her delicious mandel bread. This would have been a dairy meal, a Sunday early lunch or brunch, so the soup would be something rich and flavorful like split pea or cream of mushroom, a chalavi creation by Mom, the world’s most superior soup-er, paired with tuna salad or egg salad sandwiches. Or maybe those remarkable and freshest bagels from Watson’s, served with cream cheese and nova lox, topped with a slice of sweet onion and maybe a beefy, insanely sweet, brilliantly red New Jersey tomato. Or maybe those blintzes that she always said were so easy to make. (Not for me!). Parenthetically, what there would not be is any type of herring, which my mother hated passionately and taught me to do the same.

Also missing would be special menus for each family member, like there will be in our house on Sunday. It was assumed that everyone would eat whatever was served. There were no pescatarians, vegetarians, lactose-intolerants, or gluten-frees. No one was on a special diet that didn’t include salt, sugar, or fat. And, at least with family, I more or less know who eats what. The even bigger issue is when someone is invited for a meal and announces as we are sitting down that he/she doesn’t eat anything fried, tomatoes, potatoes, or a long string of other items. Grrr!

Take Mom’s menu, for example. The gluten-free could not eat the bread or bagel, only the special GF bagel, which costs at least twice as much for way less than half the taste. The dieter would not eat anything with mayo or cream cheese. There’s a no-tomato member of our family, and an anti-mushroomer. There’s a pasta lover without sauce and another with sauce. Same with cheese. And we even have a pizza maven, as long as the pizza doesn’t have sauce or cheese.

And we haven’t even come to the pescatarians, who eat no meat but do eat fish, or the strict vegetarians, who eat only plant-based food. But lest I forget, there are abundant carnivores who thrive on meat, which luckily is not part of this particular meal but will be sorely missed by the chef, who would like nothing more than a grill with hamburgers sizzling away and all the trimmings awaiting quietly nearby.

Somewhere, somehow, tofu became part of our family menus. May I swear to you that back in Bialystock, my grandmothers, Peshka and Rifka, would not have known what to do with a slithering white piece of tofu. Would they have recognized it as a food?

I kid you not. Our pretty typical family has seemingly unlimited food restrictions, usually self-imposed, designed to make a simple little meal into a personal challenge for the cook/coordinator. Sometimes it’s simply not arbitrary. Gluten-free is not really, as you may think, the fad of the moment. It’s a medical requirement to restrict gluten intake. But somehow others have climbed on the bandwagon and assume that since it’s more expensive, very much more expensive, it must be worth it, so why not? There are several bona-fide gluten-free needers in our family. But most of the other cravers and ravers are simply arbitrary. If they were starving on some desert island they’d figure out that they could eat tomatoes, mushrooms, meat or fish, bagels or mayonnaise. But they don’t want to. Therefore, it’s the chef’s job, that’s me, to prepare accordingly which can easily mean a different main dish for each diner.

Hence, when I think about a Sunday brunch, I really have to think about it. A lot!

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of seven. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was! She welcomes email at rosanne.skopp@gmail.com

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