Amy Cotler is a chef and a writer. Her short pieces have recently appeared in Hinterlands Magazine, Prometheus Rising, Guesthouse Literary Journal, The Rambling Epicure, Bright Flash Literary Review and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Before turning to creative writing, Cotler worked as a food writer, cooking teacher and cookbook author. She was a leader in the farm-to-table movement, food forum, host for the New York Times and creator of 1000 recipes for Joy of Cooking and other publications. She lives in Mexico, with her husband, an artist. (amycotler.com)
There was always food. My mom, who remembered the Great Depression well, stuffed our fridge with plastic-wrapped packages from which her food cried out: Eat me! No, me!
Yet I was forever hungry, almost sick with a need that couldn’t have been biological. In the sleepless nights of my childhood, I often scrambled upstairs in my flannel nightie and slipped into the kitchen for plates of leftovers — spaghetti and meatballs, curried shrimp or fat slices of ice cream cake my mom layered with Sarah Lee pound cake, coffee ice cream, chocolate syrup and fresh berries.
I was lucky. Our dinner table was jammed with bountiful platters, piled high with fragrant food, some fuel from the fridge, others sizzled or baked. It was also populated with our made-up characters, all of whom had plenty of opinions about the meal.
My dad’s two hands were tabletop twins, Tim and Tom Hand from Handville, who arrived in a miniature train that whistled before pulling up to the table. Tim was a milk drinker, Tom a martini-drinking sophisticate who critiqued each dish, though how he could taste anything after two martinis, I don’t know. “The shrimp was wonderfully lemony,” he’d say, “but it needed a tad more salt. The string beans were cooked to a turn, but the almonds demanded more crunch.” My youngest sister Ellie’s alter-ego, The Mean Waitress, often served us, plunking down platters just a bit too loudly, while snapping at us all. Apparently, we were lousy tippers.
At the meal’s end, my dad, cigar in hand, sometimes provided the entertainment by reading aloud our grim school lunch menu from its listing in the local paper, tipping it toward tempting with the overuse of adjectives. A lunch that might be hot dogs and beans, boiled potatoes and a baked apple, dad morphed into “a bunch of plump franks and savory beans laced with spiced mustard, served with a side of herbed roasted potatoes, finished with a dessert of cinnamon-spiked, warm apple crisp.” Despite his appetizing renditions, we knew better, so brought ours from home. Lunches of leftovers perfumed my locker right through their brown paper bags.
But bedtime was menacing. At times my room’s otherwise cheerful Charlie Chaplin poster, or the eyes in the ornamental peacock feathers that stood in a vase beside it, came alive in the dark. One night’s terrors drew my mom into my bedroom, where she tried to calm me. “You’re not the only one who feels this way. We’re all alone,” she told me, her message and its sadness leaving me even more anxious and unmoored.
But there were also nights when I faced my fears, running through the darkness from the bedroom to the bathroom, then along the long hallway and up the stairs to what called me from the fridge. Open, it illuminated the room with riches: leftover London broil, thinly sliced for sandwiches, and baby custard cups topped with grated nutmeg and slightly browned on top. In the freezer lay sealed bags of roasted turkey in its gravy, tubs of butter pecan ice cream and Sarah Bernhardt's: tiny meringue cookies dipped in dark chocolate.
Born of immigrants who came to New York around the turn of the last century with a million others, turning the city one-quarter Jewish by 1910, my parents were the first generation of assimilating Jews. Like many, my parents moved to the suburbs, retaining just a touch of their past, like the ritual of Potato-Parsnip Latkes with Homemade Apple Sauce on Hanukah. But my grandparents and our tribe of great aunts had a shtetl vibe of closeness rooted in the Lower East Side, the Jewish ghetto of their youth. Three out of five of “the aunts” lived in the same apartment building, where one could often hear the clicking of tiles while they played mahjong. Every Friday they sat around my grandma’s table, under her bright kitchen light, splitting a whole Russian coffee cake, laced with cinnamon and nuts. As a kid, my dad lay alone in his room, where he was supposed to be sleeping, listening to their giggling, jealous of both the cake and their closeness. As was I, just hearing about it.
I see my childhood through that lens, savouring my mom’s gift of food all through it. In hindsight, I recall her deep cleavage as she bent down to carve the roast at my parents’ dinner parties, lit with sexual innuendo. I didn’t understand what I only sensed then, though it excited and confused me. Ultimately it would tear apart our family dinners. But at the time I lived in the now, while always pushing forward to adulthood that beckoned. Mavericks, my mother told me, are happier there. And I am.
Looking ahead, I could almost taste that grown-up world. Waiting for me there would be my own kitchen, filled with the aroma of simmering chicken soup and cookies pulled warm from the oven. And in my own home, family and food would finally sate my hunger.
Little Fish and Fear
Anchovies and sardines lived in the back basement, past the basement laundry room and down the long hall. A case of each sat open on the shelves, ripe for the plucking. My sister often stood out of sight behind the boiler. I don’t know how she snuck in there, waiting. Older but more fearful, I dashed there quickly to fetch a tin of fish. And only when my parents insisted.
In the back basement, the boiler kicked on and off more often than it should have. It was loud, although evidence of my mother’s organization was mildly reassuring. This was plain in the lineup of ginger ale bottles behind the cases of little fish. I spotted them in a green blur as I ran back, fearful that something was following me. The ginger ale was mostly for guests, but little fish was a constant. Who knows what accounted for our addiction? But we rolled open cans of sardines regularly. They lined up, head to tail, on toasted white bread, topped with freshly sliced onions, followed by a squeeze of lemon.
“A few grinds of fresh pepper?” my father would always ask, grinding it over our sardines before listening for our answers.
The back basement always loomed, as it was home to little fishes, which constantly had to be replenished. My journey to fetch them began in the laundry room basement, which had a light that switched on with ease. But it never illuminated the hall beyond it. I could see its dim end, where a white string seemed to command: Pull ME for more light. But by the time I reached it, my dash through the narrow hall had set the tone. The room held a terrifying calm despite its light. Once there, I’d grab a can. Instantly the boiler would kick in. As I looked up, its loud noise propelled my waiting sister forward, smiling. And even though I was the oldest, I’d scream.
It’s easy to forget the anchovies. They were so small, less obvious as fish. Unlike sardines, which called for a squeeze of lemon to balance their richness, the anchovy’s primary feature was saltiness, or so it seemed to my sensitive palette. And it wasn’t a flavour I reached for then. Now I know better.
Salt of the sea, compressed in a can, the anchovies sat in the back basement next to their sister fish, the sardines. They may have arrived with the seltzer man, who periodically rattled his truck up to our gravel driveway. Unlike sardines, which lay in a row, anchovies were always mashed, then simmered with garlic and oil to cloaked the thin spaghetti that I watched my sisters savour at our kitchen table.
But they were also served whole with roasted red peppers at my parents’ parties. They graced their tray, chic and sophisticated. Raucous guests spread out to fill our living room, eating anchovies and drinking booze with plenty of seltzer. And provisions had to be restocked.
“Use both hands on the seltzer bottle. It could explode if you drop it,” my mother would tell us. And I always wondered, “Would it?” before running down to the back basement for a glass seltzer bottle and a can of anchovies, small enough to slip into my pocket.