Bubie-from-Queens came from New York on the Greyhound bus with one plaid suitcase she called “my valise.” She wore flowered housecoats with stockings rolled to her fleshy knees. She wrote shorthand, listened to Pavarotti and memorized soliloquies from “Hamlet.” She could recite all of “Hiawatha” by heart.
Bubie-from-Queens called me “shaynelah punum,” pinching my punum so hard my eyes stung. She cooked lamb chops, which I squirreled away under the chair cushions, and macaroni and cheese, which I received like manna, forking every last smidge of home-stirred white sauce from my plate.
Once she said I couldn’t help her make cookies because I was left-handed. “Bubie, I know how! I help Mom all the time,” which was an exaggeration, because my mother didn’t actually cook “all the time.” Like a lot of American families in the 1960s, we ate canned LeSueur peas and Swanson dinners with the turkey in its own triangular compartment and creamed spinach that was boiled in a bag, with an occasional shrimp casserole for company.
It would be several years before my father, after one too many servings of my other Bubie’s rubbery meatballs, took up a concerted study of “The New York Times Cookbook,” and our dinner table began to feature dishes like sole Veronique, veal scallopini and cold cucumber soup.
At ten, I would have been happy on a diet of Pop-Tarts and Spaghetti-Os, but I did want to help Bubie-from-Queens make those cookies—crumbly golden coins showered with cinnamon and nubs of walnut. What did being left-handed have to do with anything?
She was adamant. Finally I appealed to my father, who was upstairs knocking out a sports column on his old Olivetti. He grumped down to the kitchen to lecture his mother about foolish Old Country superstitions. After that, Bubie-from-Queens let me stir the cookie dough and grease the tray with a saved butter wrapper. But she watched me through narrowed, wary eyes.
Bubie-from-Queens hoarded plastic bags and wire twist-ties and lengths of string. She boasted of turning out three dozen cookies with just one egg. Her cooking was not a creative outlet; it was driven by necessity, thrift and a tough brand of love.
Years later, I learned the reason my father could not eat chicken: every Friday night of his childhood, Bubie-from-Queens served boiled chicken, and every Friday night, my too-skinny father pushed the pieces around on his plate. In lieu of Sabbath peace, a wordless impasse. As dusk fell on Brooklyn, my father was exiled from their cramped table to sit tearfully in the corridor, next to the empty milk bottles.
No wonder that, a generation later, he permitted my finicky palate free rein; if I didn’t like what was for dinner, I padded into the kitchen and made myself some cinnamon toast. No wonder that when my dad began to cook in earnest, he chose dishes with French and Italian accents, cumin and cayenne and thyme. Food with origins far from home.
My father’s kitchen was emphatically modern, with its electric juicer and Cuisinart. He followed recipe books, not instinct or his mother’s example. He shunned smoked whitefish, creamed herring and tongue. He was not afraid that a left-handed imp would spoil the soup.
My kitchen hovers somewhere between those poles, an ambivalent New World nostalgic for the Old. I draw my morning decaf from a countertop espresso machine, but I refuse to own a microwave. I use Bubie-from-Queens’ potato masher, which looks like a disc of narrow-gauge hurricane fencing lashed to a wooden handle, but I dress those smashed Yukon Golds with olive oil and roasted garlic. I save twist-ties and plastic bags and rubber bands bunched like bracelets around the back door’s knob, because … well, you never know.
The pendulum swoops: here, there, and back toward center. My partner and I hassle our daughter to eat something green (cucumbers? avocado?) alongside her mac & cheese, but we occasionally give our blessing to blueberry pie for breakfast or chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. We make our own challah each week, kneading the honeyed dough by hand; we dial up Indian take-out for a treat.
Are my habits more pragmatic than my Bubie’s? Hard to say. A bias against lefties in the kitchen strikes me as absurd—still, I break each egg in a separate bowl to check for blood spots, and when I spill salt, I reflexively toss a bit over my left shoulder. If a fork slips from my hand and clangs to the tile floor, I involuntarily murmur, “Company’s coming,” the words uncoiling from somewhere deep in my DNA. From her watchful perch in the beyond, Bubie-from-Queens must be nodding her approval.
Four or five days into each semi-annual visit, Bubie-from-Queens would get restless and say she had to get back to Rochdale Village. The women in the library club needed her, or she had to write a book report for the apartment newsletter.
Before she left, though, she always made blintzes. She’d stand at our electric stove for hours, turning out stacks of crepes (though she didn’t call them that), pale yellow and parchment-thin. Then she stuffed and rolled, each blintz plumped with just the right amount of sweetened, lemon-flecked farmer cheese. She nestled them in threes, swaddled them in plastic wrap and stacked them in our freezer.
We ate them, my mother and I, on nights when my father worked late. We’d warm the blintzes in the toaster oven or, for a special treat, brown them in a little margarine. We gobbled them with sour cream and fresh blueberries, sitting at the kitchen table, scraping the last bits of crisped dough from our plates. The blintzes were little valises, packed only with what was necessary: Sustenance laced with a bit of sweet. Nothing lavish. Nothing extra.
Bubie-from-Queens lived until she was 93. She came from New York on the Greyhound bus, full of Shakespeare and superstition. She left a wooden rolling pin, her potato masher, and this: a sportswriter son who wows his dinner guests with salmon in a soy/kaffir lime glaze; a great-granddaughter who learned to bake sugar cookies from a YouTube video; a family that reads a poem each Friday night, a Sabbath ritual before we bless the challah.
The table is big enough. The milk bottles are long-gone. And no one is weeping beside them.