On Sameness and Wildness

Jun 262012
 

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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  90 Responses to “On Sameness and Wildness”

  1. Dianne,
    So very sorry for your loss. What a lovely tribute to your Mom in law.
    And she was right of course, best to keep testing those recipes to make them work exactly the way they should be that to try any funny business.
    Thinking of you and your husband and will light a little candle tomorrow for Janice.
    Hugs from Ireland.

    • Thanks Mona. She made all those dinners without recipes, of course. I can do that day-to-day, but with entertaining it’s a bit harder for me to go with my gut.

  2. Thank you for sharing this moving tribute, Dianne. My heart goes out to you and your family. …Susan

  3. What a lovely tribute to your mother-in-law. I will bet she was as crazy about you as you feel about her.

  4. My condolences on your loss Diane. She seems like she was an amazing woman.

    • I suppose she was, Aly. She was very devoted to family and her friends. At her funeral there were friends who had known her in elementary school and since age 3. I moved away at age 22, so this is a new idea to me, that people could stick around in the same place for so long.

  5. This is such a beautiful post! Thank you so sharing this story with us at what must be a really tender time for you.

    I love that photo with the chocolate soda. There really is nothing more beautiful and life-affirming than a person enjoying a favorite food.

  6. My condolences to you and your husband:( It seems she lived the way she enjoyed until the very end. She was fortunate to have you stay close.
    My thoughts are with you:)
    Hugs!
    P.S. Trail of Crumbs is definitely on my wish list now! I just finished reading Day of Honey by Anna Ciezadlo in one breath:)

    • Thank you Lana. She did enjoy herself until the last month or so.

      I read Day of Honey and enjoyed it. With family from Iraq, I was excited to find mention of some foods I recognized.

  7. Dianne, this is lovely. Having just finished packing up my mother-in-law’s house not too long ago after her husband died, I can imagine how perfect that book would be for you. My thoughts go out to you and yours.

  8. Dear Dianne, so sorry for your loss, my heart and thoughts are with you and your husband. It is so lovely that you were there for her especially at the end and you have written such a beautiful tribute to her here. So soft.

    • Wendy! Somehow your comment got lost in the spam filter. Sorry about that. Thank you so much for the kind thoughts. We were, indeed, lucky to be with her at the end. I wasn’t so fortunate with my side of the family.

  9. Sorry for your loss, Dianne, but what a touching post. I wish you and your family peace during this hard time.

    And on other matters, I’d love to read more about your “own wildness” as you mentioned…the twists and turns your life has taken. Would love to read all about it if you’re ever inspired to share it!

    • I will take that as a compliment that you’d like to read more, Averie. Maybe over a glass of wine. Thanks for the kind thoughts.

  10. Beautiful tribute. I love experimenting, but some things are definitely worth repeating again and again.

  11. My condolences for your loss, Dianne.

    I remember visiting my Grandmother in Malaysia when I was much younger and wanting to repay her wonderful hospitality by cooking her Spaghetti Carbonara. I’m sure she was completely mystified by my dish (which was, at best, an average version) but she nodded approvingly. Now that’s real love.

    • That must have been a wild dish for your grandmother. I bet she loved eating something totally different than Malay food.

  12. I hate that that generation is now dying…..an amazing generation defying the rules of their own upbringing, standing up for equality and going out into the work force….somehow our own lives, even though we may travel more, get more things done, seem much blander, more generic and less individual. On a very selfish note, I was signed up to go to blogher in Seattle as I had been working there for a few months, but in the end flew home instead, now that I know that you weren’t able to attend, I feel like I didn’t miss quite so much!

    • Indeed, Angela, that is true. My mother-in-law always seemed to know who she was and what she liked. I am still a work in progress, even in my 50s.

      I’m sure BlogHer was worthwhile. There’s always next year, in Austin — a fabulous food-centric city.

  13. Dianne, I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like your mother-in-law was an incredible woman who welcomed you into her family with open arms. What a beautiful tribute. My thoughts are with you and I look forward to checking out that book.

    • Thank you Katherine. It was wonderful to be a part of her family, since mine is far away.

      Trail of Crumbs has some mixed reviews on Amazon, but I enjoyed the sensuous writing and globe hopping.

  14. I am so sorry to read about your loss, Dianne. This was such a lovely tribute to your grandmother, and my thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family. It sounds like you two complemented each other beautifully. The photo with the ice cream reminds me of my grandfather. He too lived in the same area his entire life, and he loved to get a scoop of black walnut at his local shop at least once a week well into his 90s. Although he was definitely a creature of habit from a culinary standpoint, he was still a loyal fan of reading my more “experimental” blog (although my mom had to print out the posts for him — he barely used the computer!)

    Looking forward to reading Trail of Crumbs — I’m so glad that it found its way into your hands when it did.

    • That is so sweet, Julie — both that your mother printed out your blog posts for your grandfather and that he was a loyal fan.

      I have fond memories of black walnut ice cream too. My uncle treated my sister and me to ice cream when we were small, and that was his favorite flavor. I still order it from time to time to remember him.

  15. Such a touching tribute. My mother was much the same way, tolerating (even encouraging) all my experiments (and mistakes) while she stuck with sturdy and traditional favorites. And I certainly learned a lot about cooking — and serving food to people — from her.
    You have my sincerest sympathies, and thank you for the book recommendation. I love food memoirs.

    • Thanks Rosemary. It sounds like she was around during your formative years of cooking — part cheerleader, part instructor. I love that combination.

  16. Dianne, I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost my own mom a couple of years ago. She was also 87. The experience of cleaning out her house/my childhood home with my siblings was both sad and rewarding as it refreshed a lot of memories otherwise long gone. I kept many keepsakes but those I value most are her recipe boxes.There are several, crammed full of cards and clippings and oh, the stories they tell.

    • Exactly, LoAnn. My husband and sister-in-law enjoyed finding things they remembered from their childhoods. She kept the bookcase my husband made, old records, even their report cards from grade school. I saw two recipe boxes but didn’t have time to go through them. I’ll have to ask my sister-in-law if I can see them.

  17. I make nearly the same menu every passover too, though very different from your mother-in-law’s. We should all be as fortunate to have the love and respect that she did. May her memory be a blessing.

    Cyndi

    • What do you make, Cyndi? Her menu was standard Ashkenazi, as far as I can tell. My mother didn’t serve those dishes either. We ate Jewish-Indian and Jewish-Iraqi dishes.

      Thanks for the kind condolences.

      • Hi Dianne,

        I make a wide variety of foods but I never get bored with my holiday dishes because they all have meaning for me. I remember all the people I’ve shared them with and how much they (well most of them) love them.

        My Passover menu does vary depending on our mood, who’s coming, and availability of ingredients. We’ve made a lot of changes based on food allergies too. Mine, my daughter’s, and those of various guests. Plus I don’t eat meat and refuse to cook it.

        Our standard menu is:
        (everything is vegan, except the fish, and everything is gluten-free; absolutely everything, even the matzoh, is homemade…okay, not the grape wine or juice)

        For the seder plate: Parsley, broiled beet, horseradish slice, roasted egg (our one egg as my daughter is super allergic to them; we make sure none of her food touches this plate), and an orange. Also homemade oat flour matzoh, charoset (one with apples, honey, walnuts, and wine; one with apples, honey, and grape juice), and horseradish with beet.

        Dinner: Gelfelte fish (homemade since it’s impossible to find egg-free), nut loaf (used to make a baked fish but one guest went into anaphylaxis from the fish fumes during cooking and now we only have cold fish), mushroom olive compote, borscht (served cold with lemon), and roasted chard or kale or a similar dish, usually with leek or spring onion.

        Drinks: Wine (red and white, not sweet), grape juice, seltzer, and blackberry wine from our own blackberries.

        Dessert: Macadamia nut tart (a raw “cheesecake”) topped with fruit, usually mango. Sometimes we make sorbet or serve something else.

        One year a friend brought two amazing charosets with her. A teeth tingling dried fruit one and a chestnut one that was to die for. But somehow we keep going back to the same old same old.

        • Thank you for this long response, Cyndi. What an unusual Passover table you set. And what an experience with your one guest who went into shock from fish fumes. I have never heard of that. You have enough on your plate with everything being vegan and gluten free.

          I failed to mention my family’s haroseth, called halek. It’s date molasses mixed with ground walnuts. Janice loved it, as did the whole family (unfortunately, including my diabetic brother-in-law) and she put it on the table right next to her own.

          Like Janice, the same-old same-old has meaning to you. And that’s what counts.

          • Sorry for the length…I just looked up my 2012 notes. Yeah, I knew my friend was ana to fish but she’d always been okay as long as it wasn’t on her plate. This one year she had been exposed to other things she reacted to before arriving and we were running late and were still cooking the fish when she walked into the kitchen. Fortunately she was okay after taking some meds. We don’t take chances anymore with her.

            I actually love cooking to people’s dietary restrictions. It’s kind of my thing . My goals are don’t kill anyone (or make them ill) and everyone has a balanced plate. I never try to make it so everyone can eat everything because then we’d have water and nothing else.

            Your Indian and Iraqi seders sound amazing and I’d love to hear more about them, though I guess you don’t blog about food, you blog about blogging (etc) about food :-) Never heard of halek but it sounds really good. The only requirements I know of are charoset has to be sweet and it has to resemble mortar. Some people think it must be apples and honey but that’s only tradition, not a rule (and just a tradition in part of the world too).

            I might enjoy making the same dishes every year but I’m not big on making stuff I don’t like or can’t eat because it “has to” be there. And I wish I weren’t the only one in my family (and my husband in his) to celebrate the holidays. What an amazing relationship you had with your MIL and learning her traditions, sitting at her table. The actual food matters less than what got passed down.

  18. Oh. Dianne, I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother-in-law. I adore the photo of her. When I read how once she finds a food she likes she sticks with it, it reminded me of my husband. He is that same way despite my insistence on trying something new almost every night.
    I did happen to be at blogHerFood and Kim Sunee’s closing interview was one of the highlights for me. I’m halfway through her book and thoroughly enjoying it.

  19. Oh Dianne, my deepest sympathies & condolences to you and your family. I felt so sad reading this post. You brought back my own memories of my late mother-in-law, family dinners with the same special dishes and new ones I brought to the table. Thanks for sharing this lovely piece with us. All the best to you.

    • Thank you Elizabeth. I love it when my writing reminds people of similar experiences with their own families. It sounds like we have much in common.

  20. Dianne,

    What a lovely, tender story about Janice and you. Women of her generation cooked stable, consistent, satisfying meals, over and over again, (I think of my mom, born the same year.) We “wildcard” women certainly could learn a few things about tradition and sameness.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. My prayers and positive thoughts are coming your way.

    Now, I’ll headed to help you with that flat-screen. :)

    Maureen

    • Hah! You are the first person to comment on my silly disclosure. Thank you.

      Yes, we wilder women could use some settling down. I had no dishes in my repertoire that I made over and over when I first met Janice. Now I do, but they are mostly just to eat at home. You’d think I would learn from her and get a list of reliable recipes together for company, but I still tend to experiment. I guess I’m still easily bored — or looking for that one amazing dish.

  21. I’m so sorry about your mother-in-law’s death. How good to have these rich memories. Thanks for the courage to share your personal thoughts here.

    Julia

    • Thank you Julia. I try not to do so very often, since this is a professional blog, but it’s always satisfying when I do work up the courage.

  22. I’m so very sorry for your loss, Dianne. Reading your tribute made me realize what a lucky person you are to have had a mother-in-law who embraced you and let you into her heart and family without question. Not everyone is as lucky, so you truly have been blessed.

    • Thank you for recognizing that, Roberta. I was not so lucky in my own family, so it made me appreciate her twice as much. She was also very private and never gossiped or asked nosy questions. That’s very different from my family as well.

  23. Such a lovely tribute, Dianne. So sorry for your loss. And that wonderful photo captures Janice’s spirit as your words do.

    • Thank you Lynn. She didn’t like having her picture taken, so I don’t really know why she was so open to this one. Maybe because she was anticipating devouring her favorite chocolate float.

  24. Dianne,
    I’m sorry for the loss of your mother-in-law, but somehow this post made me also smile, a fond smile for women like your mother in law, or my grandma.
    She is right in the middle of the sameness and wildness.
    She makes her favourite recipes hundreds of times, making sure she follows the exact procedure she learnt as a young woman. She could never admit another version of her pappa al pomodoro or her sponge cake, neither the one I learnt from my pastry class.
    On the other hand, she likes to experiment, especially when baking, and often she tries recipes from books and magazines, adding side notes with her romantic handwriting.
    Thank you for reminding me once again how much I love her!

    • You’re welcome, Juls. I am always happy when my posts remind people of someone close to them. I don’t think my mother-in-law experimented much. Your grandmother sounds more balanced. I hope you will inherit those recipes with side notes in romantic handwriting.

      (By the way, Juls just did an interview with me in advance of Food Blogger Connect in London, with gorgeous summer photos. Take a look.)

  25. What a wonderful person she must have been and what a wonderful and loving relationship you had with her. She leaves a legacy in with you of her love of food and the gift of sharing that with family and friends. Thank you for the touching post and allowing us to get to know her in a very personal way. :-)

  26. One thousand hugs to you and Owen. :(

  27. My condolences Dianne. Thank you for sharing your life.

    Rose

  28. Dianne, I am so sorry for your and Owen’s loss. May Janice’s memory be a wonderful blessing to you and your family!

  29. My Janice’s new journey be filled with love and light. Thank you for such a lovely tribute.

  30. Dianne – I am so sorry for your loss. My condolences to you and your family. Reading your post brought back happy memories with my grandmother, who passed away a month after I moved back to Turkey. How I wish I had started baking earlier in life… I’ll never know what she would have thought of my walnut biscotti.

    • Thank you Cenk. How sad that your grandmother passed away so soon.

      How do you make your walnut biscotti? I’m afraid my mother-in-law loved a very American version I made on a whim one day. They contain ground walnuts, cinnamon and brown sugar.

      • I came up with the recipe after a friend suggested how much better they’d be if the walnuts were covered in caramel. It was one of those “Why haven’t I thought of this before?” moments. I prepare a walnut praline and fold the cooled pieces in a classic, no-butter biscotti dough. When baked, the caramel coating melts and paints the dough around the walnut. And melts again right after a brief soak in a cup of hot black coffee.

        • I’m swooning. I just searched your blog to see the recipe, but couldn’t find it. I suppose it would be a time-consuming recipe. First make the praline, then make the cookie.

          My biscotti recipe is simple. It uses walnut oil, ground almonds and cinnamon. Mom couldn’t get enough of them, but always complained of a stomach ache from eating too many.

          • The recipe isn’t available on my blog. I developed it for my cookbook, but I’d be happy to translate and send it to you if you like. Making the praline takes about 15 minutes (plus another half an hour to wait for it to cool down). Walnut oil sounds great, too.

  31. Hi Dianne,

    We’ve never actually met but have crossed paths and have mutual friends. More importantly, I’ve been a great fan of yours for years.
    I’m very sorry for your loss but thank you for sharing your story.
    I’m sorry, too, to have missed you in Seattle, but I’m happy that my book brought you back to your own wildness.

    Warmest,

    Kim Sun’e9e

  32. Dear Dianne, so sorry to hear about your loss. It seems that at about the age we begin to loose our parents it is harder and harder to find that time to be wildly creative. Sometimes there is comfort in repetitive menus for the holidays when life is full of so much other stress. I covet the days when I can be free to be creative, wild, and whimsical.

  33. My condolences to you and your husband. In dealing with my own mothers illness right now (cancer sucks) I’m finding that she takes joy in old food favorites like the Nilla Banana Pudding I made the other day or a simple hamburger helper type meal we used to make. Her request today was plain Lay’s potato chips.
    This post actually made me smile, thank you.

    • That sounds perfectly logical to me, Lynn. My mother-in-law was kind of stuck in the 1960s with food just like that. In fact, her husband’s favorite dessert was banana cream pie. She made it with a pre-made graham cracker crust, instant banana pudding, bananas, and Cool Whip.

      Your mother is lucky to have such a caring daughter to take care of her. Best of luck.

  34. Such a lovely tribute to your mother-in-law as well as a beautiful story about generational food connections. My heartfelt sympathies to you and your family. May God bless.

  35. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s lovely that you have so many fond memories though. My sympathies to you and your family.

  36. Dianne, I am sorry for your loss. She sounds like a lovely woman. Your story makes me yearn to learn to cook how my own mother-in-law makes her perfected dishes.

    • Sadly, I never learned how she made her dishes, except for her potato salad. But my sister-in-law knows. Maybe we’ll have a dinner and she’ll show me how to cook those things.

      I hope you will learn a few dishes from your mother-in-law too, Nate.

  37. I always enjoy your posts, Dianne. I’m so sorry for your loss. I have to agree with what Melissa was saying above. Images of our loved ones enjoying their favorite food are one of life’s greatest blessings. I love watching my two young nieces take their very fist bite of something I’ve made for them and say “You always make the best food, Uncle Eric.” I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything in the world. Food of love, for sure. That’s what it’s all about. This is where my passion lies. :)

    • Well said, Eric. I think that’s why we love to cook so much — for the pleasure of feeding others.

  38. I am thinking of you and Owen in particular after the loss of Janice, his mother. I remember Janice as an energetic and warm person from that brief meeting and can only imagine how hard it is for the family there. My regrets for your loss.

    I also found the food traditions of my spouse’s family riveting; perhaps it comes from wanting to join homes and hearts.

    As my mother got older, and more so since she died, I’ve found myself making a special point of cooking and baking some of her favourites: matrimonial cake, scones, cornish pasties, etc. For me, it’s part of remembering and honouring her.

    • Caroline! Wonderful to hear from you. I remember that you came with us to dinner once. Knowing mom, it was a steakhouse. That was the only kind of restaurant worth going to for an occasion.

      Now I shall have to learn from you and honor my mother-in-law by making recipes. And I’d love to get your recipe for matrimonial cake. Americans have no idea what it is, and I just got some date pieces as a birthday gift.

  39. Dianne, what a lovely tribute to your mother and what a great photo to share with us all. I think there is much comfort in observing rituals – I guess you’ll always know what to cook in her honour, won’t you?

    • Yes, but I think I will learn some new recipes from her daughter! I’m kind of done with potato salad and walnut biscotti for now.

  40. Dianne, my condolences to you and Owen. What a lovely tribute to your mother-in-law; that photo of her and your words speak worlds about the kind of woman she was. It’s funny, but it reminds me of my relationship with my own mother-in-law. She was – still is – old fashioned and set in her ways, even 25 years ago when my husband brought me home to meet her and his father. She prepared the same meal every Monday, the same every Tuesday, the same every Wednesday and so on and so forth. The same for holidays and special occasions. And in I come, American and Jewish, both oddities in her world, barely able to communicate (in French) and for our first Christmas together I brought a bowl of guacamole and another of cranberry relish. It kind of terrified them but they tasted and liked them both and during the meal my father-in-law kept yelling “I”ll have more of the green stuff” or “pass the red stuff again”! And as odd as they thought me – and always did – they embraced me, loved me and accepted me, mostly because I made their son happy. And for a Jewish mother-in-law like yours, that must’ve counted the most. The foods our loved ones loved the most will always be infused with memories, the best kind of happy memories. And maybe they – the people and the memories – have a way of taming our wildness just a little. Thank you for sharing your memories.

    • Oh Jamie, thank you for this. First I laughed about the strangeness of you appearing at the holiday table with these weird foods, and their response. Then I got all teary at the end. You are so right, of course. I hope you have written this story on your blog or maybe you will work on it for a magazine piece. The best writing stirs emotions, and you have stirred mine.

      I think she loved me for the reasons you list, and also because I am fundamentally a decent person, I hope. I was not a model daughter-in-law at first but eventually I got the hang of it. She tamed me, to stay with the theme.

      Regarding oddities, she had never met a Jew whose family was not from Eastern Europe. She could not understand why my family did not speak Yiddish. I was incensed and tempted to ask why her family did not speak Arabic, but I held my tongue, for once.

  41. I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing. The memories do help sustain us–my mother-in-law took me under her wing, as my own mother died when I was 25. Last year my mother-in-law left us–she had Alzheimer’s so wasn’t really herself anymore, so it is better just to cherish the many good times, and try to move past the bad ones.

    • That is such a sweet story, Nancy, with a bittersweet ending.

      My mother passed away of Alzheimer’s and lived far away, so I didn’t have much of a relationship with her. LIke your m-i-l, she wasn’t herself, perhaps for 10 years.

      I do have lots of good memories of Janice, though, and I am already accessing them, just as I hope you are with your mother-in-law. Thanks for your kind comment.

  42. Condolences to you and your family. What a wonderful tribute.

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