“Ach, you’ll know”

By Michelle Herman 
Continuation from our winter 2014 "Last Seed"

Chef Boyardee canned ravioli, Swanson TV dinners, instant mashed potatoes mixed with Seabrook Farms creamed spinach—that’s what I ate, growing up. Canned string beans and peas and corn and carrots, iceberg lettuce with “homemade Russian dressing” (ketchup mixed with mayo). If we had spaghetti, we had it with ketchup. For dessert there were always Hostess cupcakes, the ones with the white squiggle on top.

There were a couple of dinners my mother kept in rotation that were throwbacks to her own childhood: real food, but only the kind of meals that required no cooking (“pot” cheese with radishes and scallions mixed in) or else very little (buttered noodles in bowls of hot salted milk). My grandmother cooked, but she hadn’t taught my mother how. She had shooed her out of the kitchen to do her homework or practice the piano—way ahead of her time, I suppose, wanting her to do “more important things,” she said—and it never occurred to my mother to teach herself how to do it, not even after she had children. There wasn’t a single cookbook in our Brooklyn apartment. I had to borrow one—the Betty Crocker Cookbook—from a friend of my mother’s when I was fifteen and wanted to make chocolate chip cookies for a boy I liked, who had mentioned homemade cookies in a way that made me think I might win his heart with them. I had no idea where to begin and neither did my mother.

I never returned that cookbook. To me, it was like a book of magic spells. 

Not that I cooked anything from it other than chocolate chip cookies (I did, however, make multiple batches of those cookies, perfecting my technique over the next two years). But I read it, cover to cover—I read about cakes and pot roast and molded jello salads and omelets and stews—and I found it all exotic and wonderful and mysterious. I wasn’t tempted to try any of the recipes (this was book food, not real life food, as I saw it), no more than I was tempted to try out the adventures undertaken by the fictional characters in the novels I was so enamored of. Still, I treasured it. And so I never spoke of it again to my mother’s friend, hoping she’d forget she’d ever let me borrow it. And since she never mentioned it either, I still have it today.

Over at my grandmother’s, nothing came out of cans or boxes or packages. Grandma roasted chickens and made brisket and tzimmes (sweet potatoes, prunes, carrots) and borscht and chicken soup with kneidlach (matzo balls, of course) and lokshen kugel (noodle pudding) and stuffed cabbage and helzel (the stuffed skin of a chicken neck); she baked challah and sponge cakes and honey cakes and soft, fat, chewy cookies that were nothing like the cookies Betty Crocker had taught me how to make. Grandma even made her own mustard, her own pickles. She didn’t use a cookbook and I didn’t wonder how she knew what to do (I thought she was born knowing what to do). So it wasn’t as if I didn’t know about cooking or never tasted homemade food. I knew that cookbooks existed and I knew that natural cooks existed—I had proof of both. But neither of them seemed me a part of ordinary life—or, anyway, of my life. Regular life was Salisbury steak with the little plastic pocket of hot brownie.

Except for those chocolate chip cookies—which I quit making once the boy was out of the picture—I never cooked anything (I never even made a salad) until I moved out of my parents’ apartment and into one of my own, in Greenwich Village. Once I was on my own, walking to the supermarket on Sheridan Square where I did my own grocery shopping for the first time in my life, I had to start thinking about what I wanted to eat. And how I was going to make that happen.

Michelle Herman beside a tableful of food she cooked on Christmas in 1980.

I could not imagine. And as strange as it seems to me now, I didn’t think of opening up that Betty Crocker cookbook, which was on a shelf along with other books I’d read and loved in high school—or for that matter, on one of my practically daily trips to the Jefferson Market branch of the public library, checking out any other cookbooks. I didn’t want to buy frozen dinners, though: they made me feel like a child. I bought canned soup—the “fancy” kind, not Campbell’s where you had to add a canful of water—and I bought cans of beans. I bought jars of dried spices and I bought Minute Rice (I knew rice and beans was what people without much money ate—I’d read about it). I bought boxes of pasta and jars of sauce. I experimented, tentatively, with fresh vegetables (I remember a friend watching me cut up broccoli to put in a pot with a little water—my plan was to cook it exactly as I would have cooked the frozen variety, as I had no other ideas about how to do it—and asking why I was putting the broccoli leaves in the pot. “You’re supposed to throw those out,” she said. “You don’t eat them.” And I said, “Yes you do. The leaves are included when you buy it frozen.” She looked puzzled. “Just because the company that makes frozen broccoli leaves the leaves in doesn’t mean you have to.”

This doesn’t sound like something that’s worth reporting, does it? But it was the first piece of information I can remember ever getting about making food for myself. It made a big impression on me.

As did a visit to a high school friend in his own apartment in Brooklyn soon after. I watched, fascinated, as he made dinner for the two of us. He wasn’t even concentrating—he was acting exactly the way my grandmother had acted, rolling out the dough for kreplach, pinching it closed around a spoonful of meat and onions. My friend Marty cut up an eggplant (I’d never seen one whole before; I had to ask him what it was), chopped onions and celery, broke bunches of florets off a stalk of broccoli (discarding the leaves, I noted), and tossed them all into a pan in which olive oil and garlic were sizzling. He added a can of whole tomatoes, which he roughly broke into pieces with a wooden spoon—talking to me all the while—as if he did this every night (he must have done something like this every night). When he pronounced the mixture done (I wanted to ask him how he knew; I didn’t dare), he spooned it into two plates, tucked a bright green can of ground Parmesan under his arm, and we went to the table, where we ate the meal that I would make myself, in strict imitation, almost every time I made a meal at all for the next year.

And so I began at last to cook—by imitation and from memory. Eventually I began to branch out just a little, sautéing vegetables in olive oil and not adding tomatoes, not using cheese, but mixing them with rice—or making exactly what Marty had made but adding cooked pasta to the mixture and feeling like a genius. I didn’t cook every night—no one in New York City does—and it still felt like an occasion (and a bit of an ordeal) when I did. But I cooked.

And one night as I chopped vegetables—having daringly added cauliflower to the mix—and stirred them into hot oil, it occurred to me that I might try to reproduce something my grandmother had made. Not the helzel or the chicken feet, but maybe chicken soup. Maybe even kneidlach.

I called my grandmother, who was suspicious. “Don’t you have things to do?” she wanted to know. “I do,” I said. “But I want to do this too.

What she offered up, once I persuaded her, were “recipes” in which the directions were “add just enough water” or  “keep the flame low until it’s done,” and when I asked how much was just enough, she’d say “about the amount of an egg,” and when I asked how I’d know it was done, she’d say, “ach, you’ll know.” 

Even so, I started trying this and that. Tentatively, carefully. I’d roast a starved-looking little chicken; I’d make a pot of soup, scooping out and discarding “the eyes” of fat that pooled on top, just as she instructed, and leaving the carrots whole until they were so soft they broke apart with a wooden spoon. I started inviting one person at a time over for dinner. I invited my own brother, who still lived with our parents, and it was over the dinners I made for him that we first became friends.

It wasn’t until I left New York, at twenty-nine, though, that I really began to cook. Maybe I had to be farther from Brooklyn than a subway ride to fully distance myself from my own ignorance about food and how to prepare it.  In graduate school in Iowa, where the eating-out options were minimal, there was a little group of us who started cooking for one another. We had landed in Iowa from Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston. If we wanted to eat well, Marly pointed out, we had no choice but to feed one another.

At first, I was very anxious. Everyone was more confident in the kitchen than I was. But there was a lot of recipe-swapping, and a lot of conversation about what we were fixing on our nights. None of us knew very much, it’s clear to me now, but it didn’t take much to be way ahead of me.

Mostly what we cooked was pasta and one kind of sauce or another, and the sauces Marly, Lynda, Joyce, and Debra made were on the order of “heat a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce and add a quarter cup of heavy cream to it, and drop two handfuls of fresh spinach leaves into the boiling pasta water a minute before the pasta is done.”  I discovered that other people read the recipes in magazines and newspapers and tore them out if they looked promising. I also discovered that people liked each other more and got to know each other faster when they sat together at a table eating a meal one of them had cooked. I learned as much about food and preparing it for others and eating it with others as I did about writing.

And then I fell in love. The man I fell in love with was delighted when I cooked for him, and he enjoyed cooking for me. 

He taught me how to make the things he knew how to cook best, Cuban dishes—the meals his mother had taught him how to make—and suddenly I had a repertoire. And when I followed him to Omaha, where he took over a household full of younger siblings, both parents gone by then, I began to take cooking seriously. I wanted to cook for his family; I wanted to cook for him.

I bought half a dozen cookbooks and I began to learn to cook in earnest. From Marcella Hazan, I learned how to make much better pasta sauces than I’d made in graduate school, and how to roast a duck so that it wasn’t greasy. I found a “Jewish” cookbook and, in long distance consultation with Grandma, adjusted recipes I found there so that I actually was able to reproduce almost precisely the meals she’d made in my childhood, which in retrospect I discovered I had loved. My boyfriend’s youngest sister, thirteen and motherless, began to spend a night or two each week at my little rented house, and I’d cook meals just for the two of us that I thought were appropriate—ideas about “family meals” I’d gleaned from novels and movies (and Betty Crocker, consulted at last in real life): meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans, lasagna, homemade (which I’d never even tasted before!) macaroni and cheese, pot roast.  For my boyfriend, on the nights he came to dinner before going home to his house full of teenagers, I made risotto—or duck. Some nights I’d go over to his house and cook for everyone—or cook with everyone. I made Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; I cooked for ten, twelve, sixteen people (the children had boyfriends and girlfriends; my own family would sometimes fly out to visit).

What I remember from the two years I spent in Omaha is cooking and eating, and sitting alone in my study at the dedicated word processor on which I wrote my first novel. Nothing else.

By the time I had a family of my own (not with the Omaha boyfriend but three boyfriends later), I was so comfortable in the kitchen and had so many recipes stored away in my mind, it was hard for me to believe that there had ever been a time when I hadn’t known how to cook. Until I sat down to write this essay, I hadn’t even thought much about it. But when my daughter, who cooked with me from the time she was two years old, calls from college to tell me that she’s made my vegetarian chili or minestrone soup for “all her friends” (“how many friends?” I ask and she says—I can hear the shrug in her voice—“who knows? They just kept coming”) and everyone had been amazed and thrilled, I pause to give silent thanks to Susan, who told me about broccoli, and Marty and Marly and Joyce and Debra and Lynda and Jose and his family, and Marcella. And Betty Crocker.

My husband—who doesn’t cook, who lived on microwaved “baked” potatoes and melted cheese before we met—likes to pause and give thanks too, after his first bite of whatever I’ve made for dinner. He likes to say—it’s a family joke he started himself, when our daughter was small—“Why, this is better than the finest French food in Topeka, Kansas” or “better than you could get at the best Italian restaurant in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.” And my mother, when I visit her in New York, likes me to make a big pot of vegetable soup for her, so that she can eat it for a good ten days after I’ve gone back to Ohio.

She marvels over my cooking, whenever we’re together. I tell her it’s nothing—no big deal. But we both know that’s not true.