Janet Fitch on her mother’s domain — the kitchen
It’s become a tradition at the L.A. Times Food section: Every year, we run a holiday essay by a noted Southern California writer reflecting the unique nature of the way we celebrate the season. This year’s is by Janet Fitch, whose novels include the best-selling “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black.”
We won’t be coming home for the holidays this year. My mother no longer lives in our rambling old Wilshire Park home. She moved out in July. She and my father bought the place in 1961, an old house even then, an old-fashioned place with a dining room and a library and closets you could walk into, a million hiding places, even a tiny door for my imaginary friends. Now it’s 90, and my mother isn’t much younger. She decided it was getting to be too much for her to handle alone. So this summer she moved into a senior residence near the Beverly Center, and it became my job to help her fold up her tent, clearing and packing and giving away the remains of her long residence.
Nowhere in the house was my mother more in evidence than in the kitchen. Part of that bittersweet summer was clearing its Mondrian-inspired linoleum counters and cabinets, finding good homes for an astounding collection of pots and pans, knives and woks, and gizmos for pitting cherries and serving escargot, zesting lemons and injecting strawberries with Cointreau.
My mother never met a gadget she didn’t like. There were tube pans for baking the angel food cakes my father could have after his first heart attack, and bundt pans and loaf pans and baking pans and grilling pans. There were individual casseroles for baking macaroni and cheese, and bread warmers and a real ‘60s Chemex coffee maker. A writer friend got the massive orange Le Creuset casserole. The broad yellow Dansk baking pan in which my mother made her famous candied yams — a feature of every holiday dinner — went off to Santa Cruz with a cousin, a slow-food maven every bit as food obsessed as my mother. A young friend got the stand-up mixer that brings to mind memories of my daughter making sugar cookies with my mother at 4 and 5 — that mixer always a feature of those grandmotherly afternoons.
I’ve given away most of the cookbooks from her vast library — from the hilarious mid-'50s “food stylings” you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy to Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and the beautiful leather-and-gilt-bound issues of Gourmet
I kept only a few treasures, such as the Jewish cookbook from the mid-'50s called “Love and Knishes,” which I savor equally for its recipes and its tasty Yinglish. To open the pages is to hear my grandmother again. For instance, here’s the note on potato latkes: “This recipe should serve 4 to 6 people, but when some people see potato latkes they act like they haven’t eaten for a week. They will want to make from latkes alone a meal. When you have people who enjoy so much, so you won’t mind grating potatoes all day long.”
My mother had been a solitary chef. It was her recreation and her escape. A figure in Los Angeles politics for five decades, my mother nevertheless had had her fill of talking to people by the time she came home at night. She would assemble a martini for herself and my father, then retreat into the kitchen, where she’d watch the news and make dinner, and God help you if you disturbed her.
We rarely cooked together for obvious reasons — this was her kitchen — so the one time we attempted the chocolate soufflé from Julia Child is clear in my memory. It took three hours to prepare and two dishwasher loads to clean up, and a flat five minutes to eat. We still laugh about that soufflé, usually when ordering it from a restaurant menu.
Our holiday fare was traditional and unvaried. Candied yams in the yellow pan. Glazed carrots. Green beans with almonds. Curried fruit that stained the La Creuset pan’s white lining a brilliant yellow. Everything resting, warm in the second oven, while a massive russet turkey roasted in the first. Oh, for those stainless-steel Frigidaire double ovens! They were the latest thing in 1961, and still, amazingly, operational. Add Parker House dinner rolls and Darigold whipped sweet butter. Finish with brandied fruit dipped out of a big glass jar that always sat on the color-blocked linoleum counter, a holiday gift one year from my aunt, who gave a jar to everyone in the family — served over ice cream. You added more fruit and sugar each time you used it, and the fermentation re-created the original gift. We kept it going for years and gave it to countless guests to start their own vat.
Now there is nothing on those counters. The kitchen looks so modern and bare — visually attractive but without the sensual abundance of the dozen varieties of flavored oils and vinegars (orange-flavored olive oil, out of this world), and the double row of spices that used to supplement the contents of three jam-packed drawers down below. My mother was an enthusiastic chef but wildly disorganized, and often preferred purchasing yet another jar of mace or chili powder rather than having to hunt down its last incarnation.
It was with much laughter and sighing that my daughter and I worked through that collection, keeping the jars that were still lively, tossing the hopelessly dead ones and stopping to marvel at the really rare finds — like the boxes of Ben Hur brand turmeric and cloves and thyme that must have dated from the year we first moved in. I’m holding them for a photographer friend who collects old tins of spices and aspirin and tooth powder.
At some point, my mother’s spice drawers had become a museum, as had her pantry. We found Swans Down cake mixes and maraschino cherries you could probably use as biological weapons. Anchovies that opened with a key, almond paste in a tube and a box of Junket from my own childhood. I had completely forgotten the creamy, Scandinavian-style raspberry pudding. I vow to introduce it to my daughter and my younger friends, as nobody in recent memory seems ever to have heard if it.
These holidays, it’ll now be my turn to candy the yams and glaze the carrots, curry the fruit. Mine will be the rice pilaf with mushrooms and the green beans, the homemade cranberry sauce. I will even wedge a turkey into my pitifully undersized oven. Perhaps I’ll start a jar of brandied fruit, or shoot up some strawberries with Cointreau. On the other hand, if I make Junket, nobody will know it’s a mix, except me and Mom.
I might even decorate a centerpiece with the red and gold Ben Hur tins, to make my daughter laugh.
And as we’re all sitting down at my dining room table for our holiday meal — my mother, my daughter, my boyfriend and friends and family, many of whom have taken a piece of my mother’s kitchen into their own homes — I hope there will be a new family celebrating in that old Wilshire Park house, the rooms fragrant with their own future memories.