I invited the kids to dinner and almost canceled. It had nothing to do with the fact that the three girlfriends of the carnivores I raised are vegetarians of differing levels. One doesn't eat any meat but eats fish, a second eats neither meat nor fish, and the third, the strictest of the lot, will not eat any animal products at all and will even spurn vegetables if they are cooked dangerously close to the latter. All three, by the way, are quite nice. None of them makes life difficult for others by making unreasonable demands. On the contrary: If I feel a certain unease around them, it derives from my guilt feelings for not being vegetarian like them. If I lived in a country like China or Thailand, it's possible that I would discover that there is no reason to be upset at those who might eat - according to the same moral justification that allows me to eat chicken, cow or lamb - my dog Shoshana. (Actually, since she got a hairdo in the cool barber shop for dogs in Masaryk Square, she has become so sweet that you could really just eat her up. )
It's not only my children's loved ones - we in the nuclear family are also beset by other food-related problems. One of my children can't stand eggs, while his brother loathes spare ribs, another abhors whipped cream, and as for me, on my last diet I developed a distaste for shrimp, and my relations with oysters aren't what they used to be, either. Irrespective of all this, my kids informed me that the family doctor has, for medical reasons of course, forbidden their father from drinking cheap wine. That's us; truly versatile when it comes to food.
But this versatility is not what has lately made me hesitate about whether I should cook for my children again - though doing so generally fills my heart with happiness, not to mention delight, rapture and contentment. Because for me, there is no more pleasant sight than those little saplings flowering into tall trees next to my dining table, groaning under the surfeit of food and dishing out heaps of compliments to me.
Every Jewish mother knows there is nothing kids like more than food, and it's not by chance that mountains of praise have been piled on moms who deprived themselves of a slice of bread in order to give it to their tender goslings (as my mother, who weighed more than 100 kilos at her death, said she did ). Even standing for hours on legs swollen from varicose veins in the cramped, hot kitchen (there was no air-conditioning then ) after a hard day's work never lessened the determination of those mothers to produce nourishing, healthful food for their offspring. Even if all they could afford was a few greens for soup.
Even Bialik's mother could give him no more than the tail of a herring and a dry crust, and maybe also a little soup watered with her tears, and yet he wrote poems in her memory. "My mother of blessed memory," he wrote, "was a totally righteous woman!" The real thing.
This is the place to ask: Righteous or not, how was she at plating - i.e., placing food on dishes in the most attractive way, if possible with nonchalant sophistication? And Tchernikovsky's Gittel, after she finished panning the pancakes, which were really only kreplach: Did she just heap them up on the plate like macaroons in a Paris pastry shop? Or did she perhaps stick them on the ends of skewers garnished with pomelo leaves? Or did she stuff them into a pineapple, as is done by everyone who understands the ABCs of the art of plating? Did she give thought to the proper composition, the play of colors, the contrasting shapes, and to that je ne sais quoi that transforms them from individual items on a plate into something synergetic - something different?
My conjecture is that, like Proust's mother, the only thing that interested all those great moms and cooks of yore was taste. For in those days, a good cook was measured by the flavor of what she prepared, not by its shape or form. After all, many generations passed before anyone first wrote in a Hebrew cookbook (namely Ruth Sirkis, of course ) that the eye also consumes what's on the plate. And more generations went by before I realized that I too haven't got a clue about plating; that happened to me during the last two "Master Chef" episodes.
This was compounded by another big problem: I haven't opened the refrigerator for two weeks. There would be no point to it anyway, because it's completely empty. And that's because I no longer dare to buy vegetables - not only because they are expensive, but mainly because I recently learned that only vegetables that are bought with love (according, of course, to "Master Chef" ) can produce flavorful food. However, "buying something with love" is a necessary but far from sufficient condition: After you do this, you also have to cook what you buy with love in pots that were purchased with love. Indeed, a cook must give expression to his or her inner self and "connect" with the products, otherwise they are liable not to work well together. And afterward I have to peel the vegetables, but not with a peeler, because in such a case they might not acquire their inner shape but my shape - something I would not want to wish even on my worst enemies. And all this is even before the dreaded plating!
Who would believe that I started my career as a someone who invented recipes and then as a restaurant reviewer? And all that time I didn't have the slightest idea that in my home the army was marching on a stomach empty of food worthy of human consumption? And all because I never bought the vegetables with love, but always hastily. Plus it's definitely possible that the love with which I served the food did not atone for the non-love with which I peeled the potatoes or chopped the onions.
But my plating errors were committed out of ignorance, not malice. Never again, ladies and gentlemen! Down with spaghetti Bolognese and plating anarchy. From now on my table will host only sun-reddened, green-seeded tomatoes that are sliced in the right direction and sprinkled with a dollop of smoked Atlantic salt.
Are you hungry, kids? So go to a restaurant.
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