On my third date with my future husband, he took me by the house to meet his parents. His mother said she hoped he would find a nice girl and settle down soon.
He did, and she made me a part of the family immediately. Janice Rubin was my mother-in-law for 25 years.
Here she is, licking the straw from a chocolate soda at Fenton’s, an Oakland, CA ice cream parlor she patronized since she was a kid. That chocolate soda, with its mocha chocolate chip ice cream, was one of only two fountain items she ordered. Once she found a food she liked, she stuck with it.
This culinary philosophy was on display when we went to her home twice a year during the Jewish holidays. The courses were the same almost every time, served in order: chopped liver, gefilte fish, boiled eggs in salt water, chicken soup with matzoh balls, brisket with potatoes, fat asparagus.
I was a new bride, however, and clueless about her traditions. I arrived at these dinners with Schezwan green beans or some vegetable covered in pesto. Mom never said a word. She just put my wild card on the table.
When mom reached her 80s, she stopped having us over for dinner. She had already figured out how to reign me in. I could bring her food, but only a favorite potato salad or walnut biscotti. I made them both, right up until Friday, June 8, 2012, when she passed away at age 87. The potato salad sat in the fridge, untouched. The biscotti lay in the silver tin on the kitchen counter. Only a few were missing.
A few days before she died, I was set to leave for BlogHer Food in Seattle. But I asked the hospice workers if I should stay, and they said yes. So I answered phone calls and texts about why I wasn’t there, and watched the Twitter feed from the conference. I also read the keynote address by Kim Sunee, author of Trail of Crumbs, and ordered her book from the library.
I couldn’t have timed it better. After the funeral, the reception, and during packing up her house, I read her memoir like a starved woman, swept away and drowned with pleasure. Sensuous and filled with longing, Sunee writes about growing up and finding love while discovering food and cooking. From New Orleans to Stockholm and on to France, she eats jambalaya, reindeer, and truffled eggs with her lover, family and friends.
Trails of Crumbs got me back in touch with my own wildness. Before settling in Oakland, I lived in Vancouver, London and Los Angeles. I too had adventures. I cooked family dishes in the hot attic of an old confectionery store in British Columbia, burned my fingers on fish and chips in the London cold, and sucked on ripe apricots from my LA yard on hot summer nights.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, stayed put in Oakland her whole life, making brisket and matzoh balls for family. And she was fine with that.
When I met mom I was a wild experimental cook, always trying something new and different. Often my results were disappointing, and I wasn’t skilled enough to fix them. I still love new recipes, but now I’ve learned the discipline of making some things repetitively until they taste just the way I like them. Through mom, I learned that doing so wasn’t boring or settling. It was how I learned to cook.
Janice Rubin, 1925-2012.
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