What do they know about hunger? The schmaltz, like pools of satin on the golden soup, essence of this fat land—this abundance—my daughter-in law pushes away with her spoon, or scoops it up and drops it without thought from her spoon onto the saucer. She’s minding her waistline. So, what is a corset for? A corset minds a waistline. A woman eats. And this is what a saucer is for? I thought it was so the hot soup shouldn’t spill on the table, ruin the finish. Also, in my ignorance, I use to think it was so the soup shouldn’t go to waste. You drop some soup on the saucer you can raise it to your mouth and not miss a drop. This, I know now, is not good manners. But a saucer is a way to waste my good cooking? The soup is not good enough for her? When did she have such food at her own Mama’s Shabbas table?
Still, about my daughter in-law, I shouldn’t complain. She’s a good woman, a good wife to my oldest, an educated woman, who teaches sixth grade. Also she teaches us table manners. She learned about saucers, folding napkins, and where to put a fork and spoon from the Henry Street Settlement House before she was a teacher. She learned refinement. From her Mama and Papa she didn’t learn it, believe me. Tenement poor they were, and the Mama died so young, poor woman. But my daughter in-law was a young girl who strived to educate herself, and she did. This came from the mother, this striving, and that I appreciate. I, too, like to improve myself as much as the next one, learn about new things. A person who wants to teach me something--with respect--is okay with me.
I try to be an open-minded woman. I learned how to eat alligator pear from that Puerto Rican vegetable peddler from when we lived on 113th street by Central Park. None of the other Jewish housewives heard of such a thing. It had an ugly skin, but when I cut it open, the flesh was beautiful, green as a meadow, and I thought it would be sweet. Was I disappointed! It had no taste and no smell and it felt like soap in the mouth. But I don’t just sigh from disappointment. I have an inquiring mind. It doesn’t hurt to ask. You don’t ask, you don’t learn. I asked the Puerto Rican man how should I make this, and he said I should let it ripen more and mash it with a little lemon juice, salt, pepper, some other things, I forgot already what because I only made it once. My man, he eats anything, doesn’t complain--about food, at least. The children too, but I want for them it should be delicious and they didn’t think it was. Still that great big pit, the man told me how to plant in a pot with dirt. And you know what? It made a beautiful plant, big shiny leaves soon big enough almost to fill the window and block that ugly side yard. I kept that plant healthy and beautiful for how many years I don’t know. It died of old age. Like we all should. Like my little son should have, may he rest in peace. My second baby, only eighteen months old. Ah, God! I couldn’t keep him healthy like that plant. Like a rainbow he was. You try to hold it with your arms, with your heart, and it fades before your eyes. Don’t think of him now. Not now. Think about the young ones who are right here, thank God. Two darling granddaughters not lost. Never lost.
My older granddaughter turns up her nose at gefulte fish. This fish--the most wonderful thing in the world to a Jew--the Shabbas food, the finest of the week. My own mother I watched how she made it, and even more I learned from my own grandmother. That was my grandmother on my father’s side.
“How do you know you won’t like it? Try it,” I say to the child. “You’re older now, maybe you’ll like it.“
My daughter-in-law says, “Don’t worry about it, Mom, this child doesn’t eat anything these days.”
I should listen to such nonsense? This child who will only drink milk if it has chocolate in it.
The younger one, only four, is under the table already. She ate a piece of challah and a little chicken soup and she’s finished—full. She’s bored. I can understand this. It’s hard for a young child to sit still so long at the table. It makes me smile inside for a moment to imagine my father—Gedalyeh the Hassid, he was called—what he would do if a child was bored and restless at the Friday night table. But I can understand. There’s no room to run around with the dining table open to its fullest on shabbas, so she’s playing under the table. She’ll stay there until dessert, which she’ll eat if it isn’t compote or something with honey or poppy seeds.
Poppy seeds--lifesavers! In the old country they used to bake them into cakes, thick and dry, hard as a rock so they would keep through the long journey to America. What to eat if not such cakes? They don’t spoil and the trip was so long. The ship company had to supply food for all the passengers, even in steerage, but it was always pork and other things forbidden. A Jew couldn’t—wouldn’t--eat such unclean things. So we practically lived on those cakes. Not me, though. I was so seasick that I gave them away. I never wanted to look at food again. And after the sickness passed I went hungry. Hunger. I thank God that I never before or after felt anything like it.
Yet I got here. I was always a fine strong girl as I am a woman, taller than my husband. Some of the others couldn’t get off Ellis Island. Those others, pity made it hard to look at them, to listen to the pleas. A babble of tongues, but all crying the same thing--What will I do? Hunger did that to them.
“I’m starving!” I hear this ten times a day, maybe, from the kids running in and out of their houses after school. All the children say this without thought. They are starving for a peanut butter sandwich or an ice cream cone. Half the sandwich they leave on the plate if a friend calls them to come outside and play. I’m starving! How terrible—how wonderful--that in this fat land a child can say this without pain, without thought!
It’s time for them to leave now, go home to their own beds. I know how it will be. "Delicious, Mom, but don’t pack up so much for us. Too much. We can’t take all this home with us. There’s no room in the fridge. Why do you make so much food?"
Because it is my gift to you. Are you fools? You've forgotten already? So, that’s the way it is, the truths you cannot pass from generation to generation. The old yearn for milk and honey, the young for chocolate milk.
Still, some day soon, I will tell the youngest about the poppy seeds cakes.