What I Know

By Diane Goodman, "What I Know," January/February 2013

Writer Diane Goodman shares her essay of the delicate process of learning to cook someone's beloved recipes.

I met Edith two years ago when her daughter Ruthie hired me to cater her 30th birthday dinner. It was to be at her mother’s house and Ruthie had said, “Don’t be offended if my mother doesn’t seem appreciative. She’s a little... gruff. And she doesn’t like people cooking in her house.” Now you tell me?

When I rang the doorbell, Edith called out, “Who’s there?” It was 3:00 and Ruthie wouldn’t arrive until 5:00, but I thought her mother would be expecting me. I said, “The caterer?” as if I didn’t know who I was.

I had imagined a big, intimidating woman, but what I saw was the reason I was there: Edith was ill. She was not old, maybe in her late fifties, but she was tiny and bent, thin and bird-boned. Her fingers on both hands were gnarled nearly into fists. She didn’t invite me in.

”I hope you brought your own pans because you’re not using mine,” she said. “And what are you making anyway?” I stood on the porch and told her the whole menu, including her own Braised Chicken; Ruthie had given me her mother’s recipe.

“That’s Ruth’s favorite dish. I invented it. You don’t know how to make that,” she snarled. I had all the ingredients it required. I knew how to braise. But I said, “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Kassenbaum. I know this is intrusive, but…”

“You don’t know anything,” she said.

I knew one thing: I was in for a long night.

Edith stepped aside and then hobbled behind me as I made my way to her kitchen. Her breath was short, but I could hear her swearing under it. She sat down at her table, glowering while I unpacked the ingredients.

Edith said. “Are those leeks? Did you take the sand out?”

I had. Of course I had. I almost said as much.

“Don’t you know anything? You have to rinse the sand out of leeks,” she said again, but this time in a quieter voice. I thought maybe her fury had exhausted her, but when I turned to answer, she was crying. She was so hunched over her face was practically on her knees. I walked toward her and when she didn’t react, I knelt down and put my hand on her back.

She tried to shake me off. Edith didn’t trust me. She didn’t know me. She didn’t even know my name. I was a stranger in her home, about to cook her recipe for her family. In her own kitchen.

“What can I do?” I asked. “How can I make this easier?”

She said, “You? You’re making everything worse. It’s my daughter’s birthday. I make the Braised Chicken for her every year. Almost 30 years. Who are you? I don’t know what you’re doing here!”

But she did. Edith’s hands were so deformed from her illness that she could no longer cook. She didn’t know what she would lose next.

“I understand,” I said.

She said, “What? You understand? What do you know?”

I knew I was petrified and didn’t want to do anything else to upset her, especially not being able to make her dish exactly the way she did.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know... how do you make your Braised Chicken? Can you walk me through it?”

And out of my fear came the fix. Edith sat up and used her twisted hand to gesture me back to the stove. Then she walked me through every step of her recipe until it was simmering and the house smelled delicious. I covered it and sat down with her at the table. She looked completely spent. But she was smiling.

“Can I get you something?” I asked. “Water? Tea?”

“Didn’t you bring any wine?”

* * *

Edith is confined to a wheelchair now and she rolls herself into her bedroom; I follow, carrying two glasses of Merlot. Tonight we are cooking her Beef Stroganoff and she’ll walk me through it, as she has for hundreds of meals in the last two years. We clink glasses, then drink.

“So go pick out my clothes,” she says.

I select a lilac dress that matches the table linen and the tulips. Ruthie and her dad will be home soon. Edith does not leave her house anymore.

She lets me undress and then dress her. She lets me comb her hair, apply some lipstick. She tells me where to find her pearl earrings and I put them in her ears while she finishes her wine.

“You look beautiful,” I tell her.

“What do you know?” she says. But she’s smiling.

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