I’ve had two mothers-in-law. Neither were big fans of mine. One was the “I will not reveal my recipes to you” kind, and the other, many years ago, gave me the few recipes I still use. I think I’m kind of likeable, but maybe not if I’m married to your son? Moving on.
Cooking scares me. I’m just not that talented in the kitchen. I can dance. But I can’t follow steps. Cooking is all burners and timing and chopping and it’s something that has always overwhelmed me. So, here is what I am: a great guest. I’ll eat your food. I’ll tell you how great it tastes. I actually clap, applauding you when I’m sated.
I’m in awe of traditions that people have created. I dropped that ball. I’ve been divorced, and with blended families found it’s just not my thing. But I appreciate this quality in other people, and this Chanukah my husband and I were invited to our friends Chuck and Karen’s party.
You walked through the front door into the tantalizing aroma of potato pancakes. Like a bloodhound, I followed the scent till I was at the stove where two of my friends, now married 37 years, were hard at work. A tag team of latke makers, Richard was using a ladle to drop the round balls into burning oil. At his side, JoAnn, with a spatula, turned and removed them from the heat at just the right moment. I watched, mesmerized.
I hugged them as they told me they have been dressed in aprons performing this act at Chuck and Karen’s holiday party for over thirty years. Impressive, the closeness of these longtime friends and the traditions they have built with their families. I flashed on JoAnn telling me how they all, with kids in tow, vacation together every year at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna. I have great friends but we don’t do group vacations.
Back to the stove. I didn’t wait for the pancakes to reach the serving platter -- I was afraid of missing out and having to wait for the next batch – but quickly stole a very hot one from the griddle and found my way to the sour cream. When I came across some lox, I added a slice on top. Then I ate. Inhaled is the appropriate word. Delicious is the next. One wasn’t enough, and I snuck up next to JoAnn to snatch another. This time I spotted gravlax, and putting that on top, enjoyed it even more.
All evening, placed directly in front of Chuck’s 98-year old mother Helen, were two matching cakes on cake tiers calling to me. I overheard someone say that Chuck and Karen’s daughter Lindsey’s mother-in-law made the cakes. When a few slices were finally cut, guess who was first to in line? (Aren’t I the dinner guest you want to invite?) I immediately wrapped it in foil to savor at home later with a cold glass of milk. A poppyseed cake with frosting. Not something I normally crave - but after trying it, I must have the recipe. When I e-mailed Chuck to ask for it, he told me that Shana, the mother-in-law, cooks for days to feed hundreds at her Yom Kippur break-fast. No recipe.
Though I might not have created traditions, I remain part of a few every holiday season. Each year, I attend a candle lighting ceremony at my friend Doreen’s house. A group of really interesting women light a candle and make a wish or intention for the new year. People tend to get very deep. This year, I was just happy to be alive because on the way over there, I was involved in an awful car accident.
Wait, I do have one tradition – though my husband and I don’t agree as to what it is. I asked him to pick up caviar for Christmas Eve. “You know, like every year.” He said actually we have caviar on New Year’s Eve and accused me of making this tradition up. No, I assured him, Cathy Mogull used to have her blini and caviar Xmas Eve party until she moved to Santa Barbara. We now continue it, albeit alone and surrounded by no one. MORE caviar for me! But I did save some for New Year’s.
On Christmas day, I usually get a text from my friend Bruce asking us over for pizza. He has his own pizza oven and is brilliant at creating gourmet pizzas for his guests. He ends his text with a gentle reminder that his mother will be there – and he has me. His mother Bernice and I are great friends. Bernice, I’m certain, would give me her secret recipes. She’s a fan of mine – probably because I’m not married to her son.
And on New Year’s Day, my best friend Kimberly and her husband Jason host an annual hike to the top of the mountain at Will Rogers Park. It’s not such a big mountain -- if I can do it, anyone can.
At the summit, we all write down our resolutions that they prefer to call intentions for the coming year. Then you place it in a self-addressed envelope, hand it to Kimberly, and she mails it back to you at the end of the year. This past year, I made one of my resolutions a reality: I wrote, directed and produced a play. Proud of myself.
Keeping my New Year’s resolutions – wouldn’t that be a great new tradition?
I e-mailed Chuck again. Still no recipe. I’ll keep you posted.
Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.