I didn't know what to expect when I picked up Miriam's Kitchen from the library. I found the memoir, written by Elizabeth Ehrlich, browsing through the library stacks. There's something about the spring that makes me search out food-lit. After the long, cold winter both the sun and I want to play. It warms up the earth, I warm up my kitchen.
I knew nothing of the book. I knew that it was a story of a family's history and that it was a National Jewish Book Award winner. That's all, and as far as books go that's not a lot.
What I found was a beautiful book. Like many Jewish-American stories it is one of Holocaust survival and immigration. It's about moving ahead with the promise of a new life while your heart never stops mourning the old life. And it was about how the next generation keeps that old life in their hearts and passes it on to the generations that will come after them. But mostly, it's a book about love.
I wasn't even 20 pages in when I found myself declaring on Twitter that if you hadn't read it you needed to and all but ordered everyone to add it to their library request immediately.
As Ehrlich explores Miriam's kitchen I am pushed into mine. She shares Miriam's memories of being in her mother's kitchen. Miriam's mother was the real baker, as is mine.
I remember the kitchen of the very first house I ever lived in. It was dark and not that much bigger than the one I currently own. I remember standing on a chair beside my mother as she added things to the bowl of her stand mixer. She teaches me of the order of baking.
First we cream the butter and sugar. Then we add the eggs, each carefully cracked into a separate dish before being added one at a time to the mixture. The vanilla, in a glass jar, which she always measured with the plastic cap rather than a measuring spoon-- something I used to do. When Lee threw out the glass bottle of vanilla to replace it with a new plastic one I was upset because the plastic felt wrong in my hand. The cap was the wrong size. I haven't found the right glass bottle of vanilla yet, even more than a year later.
After all the liquids are mixed together we add the dry ingredients, but they must be sifted. My mother's sifter is old and even then was scratched and dented from many years of use. We measured the dry ingredients into it and then churned them into the bowl below, the flour falling in tufts like soft snow.
We mix carefully, until just combined or until silky smooth, depending on what kind of batter we are making. The batter gets turned into the cake pan and popped into the oven. I got to lick the beaters, a special treat, and then we cleaned up and waited. And waited. And waited.
First we waited for it it cook. Then we waited for it cool. Then we waited for everyone to come home, for back then we were an eight person household. The waiting is practically a lifetime for a four-year old.
As I read Miriam's Kitchen it is Easter weekend. We're marking the long weekend by eating as much as possible it seems. An anniversary dinner. A dinner with friends that we have not seen in far too long. Easter Sunday dinner with my in-laws. These are the people in my life I cook for.
Tonight it is our dinner with friends and our contribution is dessert. I made goodies last night and I'll bring some of those, but I just finished the chapter on Miriam's cakes and a cake demands to be made.
I pull out my weathered and much beloved Pyrex bowls. The blinds are up, the windows are open. It's unseasonably warm and I squint into the sunshine as gentle jazz floats into the kitchen from the living room stereo. The yellow bowl matches both the sunshine and my mood. I turn my back on the stand mixer and cream together butter and sugar by hand with a wooden spoon, tilting the bowl just like my mother showed me. The egg is cracked in a separate dish before being added to the sugar and butter. The vanilla, measured by spoon because the cover and bottle is wrong for how my mother taught me to do it.
I pull out the flour and baking powder and think of both my mother and Miriam. I do something I never do anymore. I reach under the cupboard and pull out my mesh strainer. In goes the flour, baking powder and salt. I bump the strainer against my hand. Tap. Tap. Tap. The flour falls into the bowl in soft puffs.
I stir the batter just until all the flour is incorporated into the mix. Then goes in the sour cream, mixing again until just combined. I fold in the cup of frozen raspberries, mixing quickly so that they don't clump together. The mixture is scooped into the waiting springform pan that's been coated in butter. I scrape the spatular over the bowl with extra care, getting every last bit of batter. Miriam would approve, as would my grandmother. Neither approves of waste. Miriam due to the starvation she and her family experienced in Europe. My grandmother due to living through the depression and the many hard times that followed.
It's time for the topping. I don't like it. I find it too sweet. But Lee likes it and our friends probably will as well. I use a small bowl, blue this time, and compromise by making only half the topping the recipe suggests. I combine the brown sugar and butter with my fingers until I can crumble it over the top of the cake. I feel both my mother and Miriam behind me approving the use of my hands for this task.
I slide the cake into the oven and pile the dishes into the sink for Lee to wash. The kitchen slowly fills with the scent of sweet cake.
We will wait for the cake to bake. When it comes out of the oven, warm and the berries a bit bubbly, I'll call out to Lee. "Come see," I'll say. "Come smell."
We will wait for the cake to cool. I'll run a knife around the edge so it will come out easily later. We will wait to take it to our friend's place. We will wait through the snacks that our friend can't help but put out for us to ruin our appetites on. We'll chat about what's been happening in our lives, as it's been too long since we've gotten together like this, just us four.
We'll get the details on their Passover. They'll get the details on our anniversary dinner. The two men may make plans to go to Easter mass together. We'll talk about summer vacation plans, and the breakfast we have next week with a former co-worker and friend whom we've not seen since she was diagnosed with cancer. We will wait until after the burgers are cooked on the grill, the first burgers of the summer.
When our dinner has settled and we've moved on to coffee or cocktails the waiting will be over. We'll cut into the cake and feast, not only only on the sweet cake, but of the heritage passed down to me from my mother and grandmother. And yes, from Miriam.
Miriam stood with me as a baked this cake. No doubt she disapproved of my use of butter instead of margarine. She nodded with approval when I sifted the flour. When I looked at my hands as I stirred and mixed, I saw my mother's hands performing those tasks as she learned them from her mother. When Miriam cooks and bakes her hands perform the tasks of her mothers before her.
I am not Jewish. My kitchen is not kosher. But Miriam and I, we understand each other.
We understand that this is how we pass on our traditions. We understand that it is how we show our love those closest to us. As I make my way through the book Miriam passes on her traditions and way of showing love to her daughter-in-law. Lee and I have decided, we think, to not have children. We're not certain, we're not quite ready to declare absolutely not, but we don't think parenthood is in our future.
And I wonder to whom I will pass down these lessons, traditions, and ways of loving.