Advice to those who go seeking their roots: Plan on transplanting.
Every year I spend the week before Passover in a one-room cabin in a remote corner of the Ozarks. It is always spring break, and we retire to this place to read, hike, play, sleep and generally recover from the pace of school and work. As I write, I doubt there is another Jew for a hundred miles around.
That fact lends a certain pleasure to any Jewish-related activity we pursue. Last year I sewed the tablecloths for our Seder. This year I planned to evaluate possible recipes for a starchy side dish to go with my ceremonial Passover pot roast. For this reason I made sure to pack my yellowing, near spineless paperback copy of "The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook," originally published in 1955. Years ago I had slipped this relic from my mother's bookcase into my possession as a piece of kitsch, a sample of the kind of thing my mother brought with her into her doomed marriage.
This book, which cost 95 cents at the time of its sixth printing in 1967, features on its cover a color photograph of a Sabbath meal spread on a blue cloth: silver candlesticks, gefilte fish topped with carrot pennies, grapes, challah, a roasted chicken and a kiddush cup full of wine. All of this, given our family, struck a note of pure irony because my mother is and always was tall, glamorous, beautiful and not inclined to slave sweatily over hot stoves for the sake of something to eat. She was not raised to be a behayma, churning through ingredients -- flour, salt, egg, meat, cream -- like they were elements of her body. Her body was Jean Nati and hair dye, razors and eyebrow tweezers. Our kitchen did not reek of the yeasty, buttery, beefy fumes of daily cookery. It smelled clean. As a matter of fact, my divorcie mother worked all day, and a live-in housekeeper prepared dinner according to instructions my mother taped to the side of the refrigerator. We ate frozen string beans and fried steaks, hot dog casserole and lamb chops with mint jelly from a jar.
So what am I trying to pull off here with Molly Goldberg? How and why did my approach to Molly slide from ironic to earnest? It began when I needed to produce and direct various Jewish moments in the life of my own family, the one I started with my husband (who, incidentally, is not Jewish). It began small in scale: I needed to make hammentaschen for Purim. That was the first time I pulled the book out as a resource, not as a gimmick. A few years later I needed a few other recipes, and this year I decided to experiment with several in a matter of days. I relied on Molly Goldberg to communicate to me the way to cook like the genuine article. But strange things happen when you search for the real thing in the pages of a book.
Right from the start of Molly's introduction, I found a voice I knew well from literature, from TV, from "Fiddler on the Roof":
"This is My Cookbook," she writes. "So how did I come to write a cookbook? I had to protect myself, that's how ... When I cook for my family I don't have trouble. But when someone, Mrs. Herman, for an instance, asks me, 'How do you make this or how do you make that?' do I know? Of course I know but can I tell her? Of course I can, but it's easier to show her. So I have to say to her, 'Come into my kitchen and I'll make you up.'"
Molly Goldberg is the Ur-Jewish mother, the one we all recognize; her
voice launches many of the book's recipes with a brief anecdote. Here's what she says about potato latkes:
"Progress is a wonderful thing, and if you think that progress can't
come to potato latkes you're very much mistaken. In the old days when
Jake and I were first married, to make potato latkes was a long chore,
but what don't you do for someone you love?"
Molly goes on to explain that now she uses an electric mixer and that
"before you know it a couple of hours of work is done in a minute. Progress!"
I also liked that Molly is honest about what often motivates a cook --
a love of eating matched by an equal love of praise and flattery. She
introduces her nut cake with these words:
"In the first place, when it cooks the aroma is more than delicious. In
the second place, when you eat it it's a treat of the first order, and
in the third place the compliments are worth more than anything put
together. And oh, yes, to get a good flavor you should also buy nuts in
the shell and crack yourself." (So much for time-saving progress.)
Reading these, I came to believe in Molly as a real person. She
had a husband named Jake, a daughter Rosie and some interesting
relations who sometimes concocted recipes on their own. Sometimes her
kids would not eat vegetables, at which times she'd cook them carrots in
honey. She cried when slicing onions.
Unfailingly, when searching for one small item to prepare, I'd end up
reading the book -- no, poring over the book -- like an archaeologist
poring over the Dead Sea Scrolls. It became a kind of lodestone for me:
If I cooked with enough butter, salt, sour cream and chicken fat, I
could land myself and my family in the warm, loving, safe world of Molly
Goldberg, whose children's "sweetest memory" was of her challah.
Of course I love my mother and admire the way of life she modeled
for her daughters. But when I think back to our all-female household
-- a mother and two sisters; live-in women servants from exotic islands who would boil bones for
their supper after cleaning up the leavings of ours; a neurotic and
racist she-dog -- I can call up with ease
the feeling of panic and loneliness that haunted me every night before
falling asleep. It's pretty sad when the closest thing you have to a
daily father figure is an obsequious and grinning Central Park West
doorman. But even he, a wide-smiling man named Carlos -- who'd dash from the curb
to the door just so you wouldn't have to break stride on your way home
from school -- was a cheerful anodyne to our same-sex domicile. I remember being very sad the day the elevators went automatic and
there was one less man in my girlish life.
But I digress. Or do I? Is cooking like a shtetl Jew, for me, an act of penis-conjuring? If my
family had not broken up in 1970, would I give a hoot about nockerl in
At any rate, this year I browsed through the book and decided to try my
hand at potato kugel. Now the first thing you should know is that Jewish
cooking requires work and muscle; having forearms like Rod Laver helps
when beating dozens of egg whites. The kugel was tasty, although
extremely salty, which is excusable for Passover since we have to
remember the salty tears the Hebrews cried while enslaved. But just to
cover all the bases, I also tried the Potatoes Charlotte: not as good,
and even more dishes to wash. Indeed, after an hour-long preparation, it took me a half hour to wash up. And this for
a side dish.
Based on my experience, I would estimate that traditional Jewish
cookery requires a woman to spend about three and a half hours per
meal in the kitchen. Now factor in other housekeeping chores such as
cleaning, laundry and procuring ingredients. Where did they find the
time to overwhelm their children with love and affection and nosiness?
More to my point, if I was in fact engaged in a complex penis-conjuring
act, when would I ever find the time to settle down and enjoy the fruits
of my labor?
When I decided to write about this whole experience, I returned again
to my text, and lo and behold, the scales fell from my eyes. I turned
straight to the title page and read as if with new eyes:
"The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook," by Gertrude Berg and Myra Waldo.
What did this mean? Evidently, these two frauds had done a little
conjuring of their own. Waldo I knew from the introduction. She was
the scientist who stood by Molly's side and translated her homey
measurements -- snips and dashes and nips -- into standard amounts.
Waldo had even testified in an introduction of her own to the pleasure
she had working with Molly. "Our hope is that reading this book and
cooking the recipes will bring to you some of the warmth and hospitality
of Molly's kitchen."
I glanced at the copyright page: Just above the publishing dates was
the disclaimer familiar to any novel reader: "All characters in this
book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or
dead, is purely coincidental." I was astonished, floored, flabbergasted
that it had taken me so long to realize the obvious truth. Molly
Goldberg was an invention, a literary construct, a well-worn cliché
created as an excuse to compile and unify a set of otherwise repulsive,
heart-clogging, fat-drenched recipes that no one in their right mind
ought ever to create, let alone serve to loved ones.
I had been duped by a slickly played confidence game devised by those
savvy tricksters, Myra Waldo Schwartz (whose legal surname mysteriously appears only in the copyright) and Gertrude Berg. I wonder if
they're still alive -- because if they are, I'd like to thank them publicly for getting me off
the hook. Now that I know that authenticity is in the eye of the
beholder, I doubt that I'll ever again turn to Molly Goldberg for
guidance and inspiration. And as for my starchy Passover side dish, I
plan to serve lo mein; its long noodles will remind us of the long
years of servitude Hebrew women suffered as slaves in their kitchens.