When it came to clearing out my childhood home after the death of my father a couple of years ago, there was only one thing I desperately wanted. Forget the candlesticks, never mind the jewellery, nothing and no one was going to stop me from inheriting my late mother’s copy of Evelyn Rose’s The Complete International Jewish Cookbook. This bespattered, grease-stained, yellowed paperback annotated in my mother’s careful handwriting is more precious to me than rubies.
Because Florence Greenberg might be the Bubbe of Jewish cookery and Claudia Roden is more celebrated but in our house Evelyn Rose was both oracle and honorary aunt. In fact, we were on first name terms with her. “Let’s ask Evelyn!” was a constant refrain when my mother couldn’t remember the ratio of butter to sugar in her one-bowl frosting, or wondered if we might need an emergency shopping trip for ground almonds before we started on the Pesach biscuits.
Asking Evelyn notwithstanding, my mother, God rest her soul, did not enjoy the daily grind of coming home from work then having to put dinner on the table. My father, God rest his soul too, had very little sense of taste and would laugh in the face of use-by dates, while I was a picky eater who wouldn’t willingly eat a vegetable until I was in my thirties. Faced with this tough crowd, my mother simply stopped caring. Food was cooked until it was “well done” and “well done” meant the edible side of charcoal. To eat one of her meat pies — dry, overcooked beef encased in dry overcooked pastry — was to have all the moisture leeched out of your body and her spaghetti Bolognese had four ingredients: spaghetti, minced beef, a tube of tomato puree and a hefty whack of salt, all cooked in the same pot until gloop-like.
But when she was cooking for an appreciative audience, my mother became a yiddishe Mary Berry. Whenever she catered for a family do, be it stone-setting or birthday party, our dining table, both flaps pulled out, was piled high with potato salad and fish balls, a poached salmon decorated with cucumber scales and more cakes and biscuits than Grodzinski’s on a Friday morning. “Gina knows how to put on a spread,” her guests would say in awestruck whispers.
She certainly didn’t need Evelyn Rose’s help to make kneidlach as light as gossamer wings or chicken soup which could have brought about world peace if it had ever been served at the United Nations. Her lokshen pudding (we had the savoury version made with eggs and schmaltz) would still be my Death Row dish.
When Rosh Hashanah grew near, our neighbours would put in orders for her wonderfully moist ginger cake, with its secret ingredient of cold tea. It was such a huge endeavour that my father would have to venture into the kitchen to manhandle unwieldy receptacles full of industrial-sized quantities of cake batter.
As a child, and even as a very sulky teenager, I’d be in the kitchen with my mother. I couldn’t even say when watching became helping became co-piloting, but I do remember when I completely took over the cooking. For the last few years of her life, my mother was in and out of hospital and when she was at home her world had shrunk down to a specially adapted chair in the front room and a slow painful walk to the dining room. I’d long left home by then but I’d come home to cook Friday night dinner only for my mother to immediately heap salt on whatever I put in front of her.
“You haven’t even tasted it!” I’d snap.
“Well, you never use enough salt,” she’d snap back.
With hindsight, I realise that relinquishing control of Friday night dinner, that most symbolic of all meals, was one of the cruellest indignities ill health had inflicted on her. But back then I’d launch into an impassioned speech about how I’d been literally slaving over a hot stove and the food would turn to ashes because nothing tastes good with a side order of resentment.
My mother passed in 2002 and for so long my memory of her has been focused on those last unhappy years — until I reclaimed her treasured edition of The Complete International Jewish Cookbook. Of course, I already had my own more pristine edition but my copy didn’t have the musty, powdery whiff of old paper or base-notes of sugar and ground almonds and that heavenly scent of chicken fat rendering down in a pan full of onions. Tucked into the middle of the stained cookbook was a recipe for mandelen written on the back of a Pink Panther birthday card and a smeared, faded sheet of paper on which she’d typed out the recipe for the most amazing apple cake you could ever hope to eat.
The memories suddenly came rushing to greet me. My mother and I in the kitchen of our old house on Boxing Day each year, salt beef (which had sat in a huge pot of pickling spices in the garage for three days) simmering, and joking that we could put B&K (the legendary salt beef bar in Edgware) out of business as we drained and drained and drained the grated potato for the latkes. The day before erev Yom Kippur, frying the fish, fishballs and egg latkes we’d break the fast with, the kitchen door wide open to get rid of the smell because we did it old school with four shallow frying pans going at the same time. My mother sidling up with a wicked glint in her eye as I was pouring in the Cointreau when we made our variation on Evelyn Rose’s chocolate and walnut truffles. “Oops!” she’d say as she accidentally on purpose knocked my elbow. “I’m so clumsy!”
Flicking through Evelyn Rose’s masterwork is like going for a ride in a time machine. My grandmother has been dead for 40 years but Evelyn’s recipe for stuffed chicken neck (yuk!) takes me straight back to those Friday afternoons when I’d get home from school to find my grandma in the kitchen sewing up the hiezel with thick black thread while my mother turned a boiling fowl over a burner on the hob to singe off what was left of its feathers.
But more than anything, the 496 pages of recipes take me to my happy place. A place where there are no fights, no bickering, just my mother and I stood side by side in ancient oilcloth aprons, prodding at things with spatulas, immune to the splashes of spattering hot fat, as we catch up on each other’s news.
Evelyn Rose, my honorary aunt, hasn’t just given me back the fish balls and kichel biscuits that I thought were lost with my mother. In those bittersweet moments, when I have The Complete International Jewish Cookbook propped open on the worktop, staining its puffy, discoloured pages even further with whatever I’m cooking, I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “Sarra, you have to really love someone to be able to share a kitchen with them.”
So, thank you, Evelyn, for giving me back my mum.
Sarra Manning’s new novel, The House Of Secrets, is published this week by Sphere.