of all the rooms in a house, the one most inhabited with ghosts and stirrings from the past, surely, is the one with chopping block and place to wield a wooden spoon, and stove top and oven.
that’s not meant to be the start of any halloween tale (what with that a month away, it’s not yet in my scope).
but rather it is the alchemy of cooking, of heart, that happens when you come back to the kitchen, and find yourself standing side-by-side with souls no longer there, souls who spring to life with the mere flipping of a cookbook page, or simply an idea. a chunk of bread. a stick of butter. a bag of fat wide noodles.
and so it was, the other eve, when i, the irish cook, stood stirring for the jewish new year. oh, the big lamb stew, the one we’ve chopped and stirred and simmered for 20 years now (mind you, taking time to pause and eat it, not perpetually simmering for two long decades), that lamb stew was coming on the holiday itself.
this was the eve of rosh hashanah, and we were sliding from a work day into sacred time, and we hadn’t lots of hours to prepare some five-course feast.
so i was winging it. i’d started with chicken (jewish enough), added carrots (still sticking with the peasant basics), had grabbed a bag of noodles (not too far a stroll from the kugel i’d be stirring soon enough).
it’s when the noodles hit the boiling water. started up the noodle dance, as they bobbed and dove in roiling bubbling vat. that’s when mama lu, my long-gone german grandma, came strolling in the kitchen.
tapped me right on the shoulder, she did. shoved a stick of butter in my face. made me turn and grab the day-old challah, a loaf she never knew.
before i knew it, she had a knife in my hand, and i was cutting challah cubes. i grabbed the skillet, unwrapped the golden stick of butter, and let mama lu go wild. just like in the old days, in the days when i, no higher than her apron string, would stand to the side of her cincinnati stove, and watch her wield the cast iron and the wooden spoon as the butter oozed and bubbled. as she dumped in the hard-angled bread cubes. as it all spit and jumped and made a happy sizzle.
oh, mama lu’s noodles were a mound of joy to us. she let nothing get between those butter-sodden cubes and her noodles. no worries about fat grams or cholesterol (though her ice box door was ALWAYS plastered with cut-out cartoons of gals lamenting they weren’t skinny; my grandma, the original weight watcher).
and so, all these decades later, as i cooked my way toward rosh hashanah eve, my german catholic grandma joined me in the kitchen. and for the first time, her buttered crouton noodles were the crowning glory of the new year’s table.
my boys, the two still home, oohed and ahhed and ate.
i hope my grandma hung around to hear the joy uncorked. it’s a crazy gorgeous thing, the way the kitchen has no walls, no separation of the decades. the one room where we all tumble back together, over time and beyond heartache. where one lick of the finger, or one stick of butter, can bring us all to life, and join us at the heart.
who’s come calling in your kitchen lately?
i have to say one of the sweetest moments of the week was when my fellow stew stirrer, the one with whom i’ve stirred the rosh hashanah lamb-and-rice-and-chickpeas-and-apples-and-raisin-and-cinnamon-and-allspice stew for the past two decades, was poking around the cookery book, the one that opens to the splattered page, and found tucked inside, the receipts from our old city butcher shop from the year before we moved here, and sweetest of all, the sheet of prayers from the hyde park hillel where we spent rosh hashanah in 1993. when i was holding in my arms a fairly newborn boy, and rocking him in the tightly-packed pews was the holiest prayer i had ever prayed. that boy, missing from this year’s table.