In my growing-up family, the hired cook ruled the kitchen. From her I learned to make radish roses and carrot curls but not to cook. When it came to dinner or even to a special meal like the Seder, delicious food mysteriously appeared on the table. I had no part in its creation.
My children were luckier, I think. In their world, Mom, who had taught herself with the help of The Joy of Cooking and trial and error, was cook. At my side, my kids absorbed kitchen basics. From an early age, they helped prepare for Passover. My daughters chopped nuts and apples, added cinnamon, and helped me splash in wine for charoset. My son came home from his Jewish day school with dittoed recipes, including one for a seven-layer matzah cake. Together, we creamed the butter, sugar, and eggs, added the melted chocolate, and frosted the seven sheets of matzah. Now, though the purple instructions have faded to illegibility, I keep that splattered page with my Passover recipes. Each Spring when I come across it, I hold it a minute as if hugging memories of kitchen time with my young children.
A few years ago, I went to Los Angeles to help my daughter Miriam, expecting her fourth child, prepare for the week-long holiday. When I started to make my Pesach apple cake, my granddaughters were beside me. Leah, then eight, helped peel, quarter, and slice apples. Aviva, three and impatient to do her share, placed her hand on my wrist as I measured matzah meal and potato starch. I transferred the measuring cup into the hand of four-year-old Kinneret, who dumped it—well, most of it—into the mixing bowl. Then Leah used the hand-held electric beater to make the batter. Aviva and Kinneret, not to be left out, held the bowl. Never have so much love, good intentions, and time gone into one 8”x 8” apple cake.
On visits to their homes, or their visits to mine, my grandchildren and I often cook together, sometimes for Shabbat and holidays, sometimes just for fun. As we pare the protective peels from fruits and vegetables, I discover my grandchildren’s core. I have heard about best friends and family squabbles, mean teachers and favorite books. I have discovered which grandchild has a short attention span, who gets frustrated easily, who will finish any task, who is meticulous and who carefree.
“Do we have to add nuts?” asks my son’s then seven-year-old daughter, Ruthie, as we transform overripe bananas into cake.
“When you’re the cook, you decide. Shall we add chocolate chips instead?”
“Let’s put them on top so whoever doesn’t like them can cut them off.” Ruthie’s innate consideration stands out like chocolate against yellow batter.
Cooking is a natural activity for these youngsters. I hope that memories of cooking with Grandma will be tucked away like stained, faded recipes that they can pull out when they need the recollection of a listening ear, the remembered joy of shared holidays, or a reminder of unconditional love.