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Tales of My Mother #6

talesofmymother02

My mother was a pretty good cook with a limited repertoire. My father didn't like new foods. In every restaurant we went to repeatedly, he'd find one thing he liked on their menu and he would just order that one thing each time he went there. I inherited that trait from him and in my case, it's kind of a necessity. I have so many food allergies and intolerances that trying new things can be dangerous. So we both urged my mother to just make the same things over and over. I liked her Meat and Rice dish and her Tuna Noodle Casserole and her Split Pea Soup and her Beef Stew…but I really liked a dish called Lamb Hot Pot.

It was one of those labor-intensive dishes so she didn't make it very often — and just for us, never for company. The recipe yielded about enough for three people and the size of her oven and her casserole dish didn't permit her to scale things up to serve four or more. So it was just for the three of us. Here's how she made it…

3 shoulder lamb chops
¼ cup flour
1 tsp salt – dash of pepper
¾ can chicken broth, undiluted (Swanson)
1½ tsp A-1 sauce
2 onions peeled and sliced
3 carrots and 3 potatoes – pared and sliced

  1. Trim fat from chops – heat fat in large heavy skillet.
  2. On a plate combine flour, salt and pepper. Dip chops in flour coating lightly. Reserve remaining flour.
  3. Brown chops in hot fat on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  4. Drain off excess fat leaving 2 tablespoons drippings. Stir in rest of flour.
  5. Beat until smooth. Gradually add broth and A-1. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat – simmer 1 minute.
  6. In large casserole dish, layer half of onions and carrots. Cover with chops, add half of the potatoes and remaining onions. Overlap remaining potatoes and carrot slices over top.
  7. Pour broth mixture over all. Bake covered at 350 degrees for two hours or until meat and potatoes are tender.

I don't know where she got that recipe but I know where I got a copy. About twenty years back, before my mother's eyesight really began to desert her, there was a December when she asked me her usual pre-Christmas favor. She asked me to tell her something she could buy me for Christmas. I'm darn-near impossible to buy for since I have modest wishes and a tendency to immediately fill them for myself. Each year, my mother would say, "The only gift I want you to give me this year is to tell me something I can buy for you." One year, I asked her to write down all her recipes for me and she was delighted with the project. She had them all on little slips of paper and cards stuffed in a kitchen drawer…and she'd altered many of them but never written down her alterations.

She bought a decorative notebook, filled it with handwritten cooking instructions and presented it to me on December 25. The star of the book was her Lamb Hot Pot. Also in this one-of-a-kind binder were some of her Jewish recipes like how she made latkes and how she made brisket. These, I already had.

As I mentioned here a month or so ago, my mother was not of Jewish heritage but my father was. When they wed, she had to learn to cook at least a few semitic dishes and this was achieved with the aid of a book she bought: The Art of Jewish Cooking by Jennie Grossinger. Ms. Grossinger was of the family that owned Grossinger's, the famed Catskills resort which served a Jew or two in its day. My mother had the small paperback edition seen above right. She made us a number of dinners as per that book and they were all delicious.

Years later, I found out why. Her copy had been ruined — I think she spilled boiling oil on it or something — and had gone unreplaced since by then she'd learned all her recurring preparations by heart. About twenty years ago on a whim, I decided to locate a copy just to have and found it was out-of-print. No problem. eBay had since been invented and it didn't take long to find, bid for and win an exemplar of the same pressing. (The book is no longer out-of-print — you can order one here — and it's even available on Kindle. If you get it that way, try not to spill boiling oil on your tablet computer.)

When I received my copy, I opened it and instantly realized why everything my mother made from that book was so good. Almost every recipe in it called for a pound of chicken fat. You could sweep up the confetti left after Rip Taylor performed, bake it in a pound of chicken fat and it would be very tasty. Not good for you but tasty.

The only recipe my mother ever made from that book that didn't require a pound of chicken fat was the one for latkes. That just called for pan-frying in boiling corn oil. You could sweep up the confetti left after Rip Taylor performed, pan-fry it in corn oil and it would be very tasty. Not good for you but tasty…and not as bad for you as if you'd baked it in a pound of chicken fat.

Latkes were a big production. Potatoes had to be peeled, then grated. When I was living at home, I usually assisted with peeling/grating duty and we did it all by hand. The last few batches she ever made, the spuds were shredded with a food processor I bought her. The resultant latkes were not quite as perfect that way owing to a change in texture…but they were still wonderful and it seemed like a fair trade-off for avoiding so much of the manual labor. Here's how Ms. Grossinger said to make them…

2 eggs
3 cups grated, drained potatoes
4 tbs grated onion
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
2 tbs cracker or matzoh meal
½ cup oil

  1. Beat the eggs and add the potatoes, onion, salt, pepper, and matzoh meal.
  2. Heat half the oil in a frying pan and drop the potato mixture into it by the tablespoon. Fry until browned on both sides.
  3. Keep pancakes hot until all are fried, adding more oil as required. Serves eight.

My mother only made latkes as an adjunct to brisket, pot roast or a concoction she made that could have passed for either…and she only made them for holiday-type family dinners. That meant that she stopped making them once we stopped having family dinners owing to loss of family. We had one or two after my Aunt Dot died but it felt too obvious that someone was missing that it cast a light gray cloud over the dining. Also, Aunt Dot used to always come over early and help grate potatoes so the latkes became more work. After my father died, I think my mother made latkes one more time — for her, me and my Uncle Nathan. Then Nathan died.

I found this photo on the web. That's how my mother's latkes looked and how the ones you get in restaurants don't.

I missed those pancakes. For a time, I tried ordering latkes in our nation's top delicatessens and finally gave up. None of what I got in delis in any way resembled the wondrous ones my mother had made…and since they didn't, what was the point? Hers were crisper and tasted fresher and always contained just the perfect amount of shredded onion, which was more than was decreed by Jennie Grossinger. (She used 6-8 tablespoons.) I believe I abandoned my quest for latkes as good as my mother's when the Carnegie Delicatessen in New York failed the test.  Theirs resembled hers about as much as The New Munsters resemble The Old Munsters.

The waiter at the Carnegie noticed mine had gone largely undevoured and asked if something was wrong with them. I said, "Yes, they're not the way my mother made them." He said that was a common complaint of diners there though he rarely heard it about anything besides the latkes and/or the matzo ball soup.

He said, not loud enough for the manager to hear, "My mother made them better, too. She put in more onion and her latkes were incredible…and she wasn't even Jewish." I guess that's the secret. Or maybe it's all the caring and love that our respective mothers added to the recipe. Oh — and the extra onion, too.