The New York Times
November 25, 1998

Mom's Recipes: The Ingredient Beyond Measure


NEW YORK -- When I asked my mother to give me all her recipes, she was offended.

"Why?" she snapped. "I'm not dead yet."

"I realize that," I replied, "but if I do this now, you'll be here to answer my questions, right?"

She growled something in assent. The only time she likes logic is when she thinks of it first. So I made a list of 35 dishes and she took a year (a year!) to write them down. She presented them to me with a lovely note that contained the sentence, "Try them, adjust seasoning to taste, call me if these don't work."

I should have known.

I started with the roast turkey, an old family recipe handed down from our Brazilian hairdresser five years ago. I looked at Mom's instructions. All I needed to do was get a turkey and marinate it for 24 hours in red wine and a long list of seasonings, none of which came with measurements.

Fine. I could figure that out. But a day later when I was ready to cook, I looked at what else she had written. Wait a minute. I called her.

"Don't you usually put something inside the turkey?" I asked.

"Well, yes," she said. "You can put onions in there, or apples and prunes, or oranges."

"Mom, you have never once put anything in this turkey but onions," I said. She started to laugh. "Well, yes, but you (italics)could(end italics) put in the other things."

"OK, I get it," I said, annoyed. "This is your passive-aggressive protest to my presuming to take your mommy power away, right?"

She laughed even harder. "Oh, and by the way," she said, gasping for air, "slice an onion or two and put it in the bottom of the pan with some water, for when you baste it."

I looked at the recipe. The word onion never appeared once, much less twice.

"Fine," I said coldly. I could have strangled her.

Her tone turned conciliatory. "Listen, sweetheart," she said. "I used to get upset with my mother, too, whenever I would ask for her recipes, because she never measured anything. She would tell me what I always told you: 'Watch me.' You do it so many times you don't pay attention to how much you use, whatever it is. You see how it smells, how it looks. It's not always the same."

"But I want it to be the same," I said. "I want my house to smell the way yours does on holidays where everything's delicious and everyone feels warm and protected and lucky to be there."

"It'll be fine," she said, losing interest as her own guests rang her bell. "If you have trouble call me." She hung up.

I followed her instructions and put the turkey in to roast. In the meantime, I made mashed potatoes. I've always felt deprived when it came to mashed potatoes. Growing up as I did in a kosher home, the only time you could make them for real was to eat with fish, since butter, cream or milk cannot be mixed with meat.

In our house, mashed potatoes meant salt and margarine. So, over the years, I have studied different recipes and finally come up with a version I like. In any case, I focused on the turkey, which cooked faster than Mom said it would.

I called my husband and 14-year-old stepson, Simon, to the table. Simon was impressed. "You made a turkey for no reason?" he asked.

"Yeah, I wanted to practice," I said.

"Cool," he answered while his father carved.

It tasted exactly like my mother's. I couldn't believe it! Maybe all those times I watched her really did pay off. I filled our plates, and the three of us talked and ate and Simon told a story and we laughed, and then he told jokes and we laughed some more and then we all had seconds. The light seemed golden somehow, and if there was no wind or rain pounding the windows, there could have been, we were so cozy inside.

Simon turned to me, his face aglow. I glowed back. I had done it, replicated the turkey, made it home.

"These are the (italics)best(end italics) mashed potatoes I've ever had," he rhapsodized. Oh. I was taken aback. "I'm glad," I said. He kept his eyes on me. "How do you make them?" he asked.

I went blank, but his gaze never wavered. "Butter," I started. "Cream." He nodded. Our plates were emptied, the magic moment had passed. He went to watch television.

I walked back into the kitchen, the turkey forgotten. The last thing I had ever suspected was having mystical powers of my own.

I glanced at the remnants of butter and cream. How much had I used? I couldn't remember. I thought of Simon's face, looking at me, eyes wide. And I realized why writing these recipes had been so hard for my mother. And for her mother. Because it's not about butter or cream or onions. The ingredient you can't write down is how much you love your family -- how you relish feeding them, caring for them, watching a child's face transform in an instant, looking up at you with a mouthful of food and safety and wonder.

"How was the turkey?" Mom asked when she called the next day.

"Great," I said. "A big success."

She was pleased. "What did you make with it?" she asked.

I hesitated. "Mashed potatoes," I answered.

"Oh," she replied. "Do you have a good recipe?"

I smiled. "Actually," I said, "I do."