Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Secrets, Old Secrets

What are the probabilities you can approach ten complete strangers, introduce the subject of comfort foods, then find at least seven of them agreeing on the same dish?

Who's going to spend the time bracing ten complete strangers for anything but spare change, you ask?

And where, you might also ask, do you find ten incomplete strangers?

Don't you have anything better to do with your time?

Before we wander down the garden pathways of those promising distractions, let's stop to examine the term comfort food.

At one time in your life--the time when the concept of comfort food found its way into your awareness, comfort food meant a sense of being able to stave off hunger pangs with something that seemed adventurous, filling, and somehow produced a sense of communal connection and security.  Perhaps even a little ceremony or ritual thrown in.  

Because of the historical time and its attendant woes, such things as Kraft Dinner, perhaps the worst mac and cheese known to Western civilization, and Lipton's powdered Chicken Noodle Soup were likely candidates, because someone seems to have regularly given your father large boxes of these in lieu of the insurance premiums he was supposed to pay your father who, at the time, was supposed to be an agent of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, headquarters on Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois.

Kraft Dinner, perhaps the worst mac and cheese known to Western civilization, and Lipton's Chicken Noodle didn't make the cut because you and your sister could and did prepare those, leaving the signature candidate for comfort food to stand by itself.  Your sister and you attempted this signature comfort food dish, singularly and in concert, but always the results were off, even when your sister, always alert to such things, remembered the coarse-ground black pepper.  There was something missing.

The comfort food was creamed tuna on toast.  Depending on the numbers present to share the meal, the basic recipe involved Campbell's cream of mushroom soup to serve as the cream element.  The tuna had to be Chicken-of-the-Sea albacore.  There was at least one can of green peas, which in more nostalgic times morphed to Birdseye frozen petite pois peas.  Don't forget a tin of Brtandywine stems and pieces mushrooms.  The toast was always corn rye.  The coarse-ground pepper was Schilling.

The missing element was Ann Engelson Lowenkopf, your mother, whose own adventures with life in general and cooking in specific have some measured effect on every meal or snack you have eaten.  

She was the youngest and most cherished daughter of a man wealthy enough that his own wife needed to cook only at whim or in supervisory preparation for meals related to the highest of holidays.  The loss of family fortunes in the Great Depression of those years left her with the relative innocence of those who had little hand in the preparation of food, with more concerns about how it should be presented, on which china, and where the floral pieces should go.

Into the picture came Elizabeth Feldman Lowenkopf, for identification purposes your mother's mother-in-law, your widowed paternal grandmother, a tiny, purposeful woman who, as you grew to know her, became your own personal Annapurna.  

At one point, before your teens, you asked your father of her, "Were you ever afraid of her?"  To which he answered, "What are you, some kind of wise guy?  She's my mother.  How am I going to be afraid of her?"  In the same conversation, he placed a hand on each of your shoulders.  "Listen," he said, "in your entire lifetime, you will not meet someone who makes a better strudel.  I know her secret.  Not even your mother knows the secret."  You did your absolute best, short, owlish boy with thick glasses that you were, to look deserving of the secret.  "I will tell you,"  he said.  "But you have to promise that if anything ever happens to me, you will take care of your mother."

What were you to do but promise.  "Of course,"  you said.  "Raisins,"  he said.  "Not too many.  Plump yellow raisins.  They sneak up on your taste buds to surprise them.  They are like birthday gifts for your mouth, hidden away in those paper-thin layers of strudel dough."

You did not realize for many years how it was that your father knew Elizabeth Feldman Lowenkopf's secret, not until you'd had some chances to observe him with her and in context with his siblings, respectively your uncle Leo and your aunt's, Gert and Tess.  Of them all, he was her favorite.  You trust such secrets with those you favor.

One morning in 1997, on your way to a class at the university, you stopped to visit Ann Engelson Lowenkopf, stopping first for a double espresso.  She was happy to see you, although she was not happy to have you see her, not only in a wheel chair because of a broken hip, but because of the loss of short-term memory that would allow her to remember why she was in a wheel chair and why she should not think to get up and walk about as freely as she wished.  She was not happy to have, accordingly, been secured to the wheel chair.  "It isn't right, you know,"  she said.  And then she said, "I've probably already told you this, maybe two or three times, but it isn't right, you know.  I should be able to get up."

You were pleased you'd ordered the double espresso.  You told her how much she meant to you and the family, how much her presence was appreciated, how much she missed her Jack, and how, saddened as we would be if she were to leave, we would understand if she felt she had to go.

"I've probably already told you this,"  she said, "but it isn't right.  They should let me get up."

"Listen,"  you said.  "I want to tell you a secret."  Her eyes lit up.  "It's an old secret,"  you said.  "An old, old secret."

At Elizabeth Feldman Lowenkopf's direction, your mother became a splendid cook, her dishes and concoctions the envy of her friends.  Her table, whatever its circumstances, was always set with dishes that became memories beyond comfort.

You feel her influences even now when you approach the comfort foods you've found on your own, sometimes complex dishes you spend hours in preparation of or seek out at favored restaurants.  Yesterday, at a belated birthday celebration, your youngest niece presented you with a birthday cake that is of greater comfort still than creamed tuna.  You recognized the coloring on the icing, the rich, dark chocolate.  You saw back to boyhood the interior of the cake itself.  "I followed her exact recipe,"  your niece said.  

You nearly teared up as you took your father's role in the great family joke.  "What ingredient did you leave out?"

Your mother's friends always complained they could never achieve her results from her recipe and your father teasingly suggested she'd left something out.  On several occasions, he'd confide to you, "The missing ingredient was your mother."

One morning in 1997, your sister called.  "I know you went to visit her yesterday,"  she said.  "She spoke of little else.  I don't know what you told her, but it worked.  When they came to bring her breakfast this morning, she was gone."

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