Whenever I chop and sweat onions, I think of my mother.
No, she didn’t make me cry, but her meticulous handling of an everyday kitchen task left a lasting impression that influences my own cooking. Slice the onions and watch their progress in the pan so the result is a bronzed, sweet-smelling tangle. Don’t rush: keep the heat on medium, stirring frequently to ensure there aren’t bitter burns.
My mother, Annette Newman Gertner (1908-1975), was a Jewish-American housewife from Manhattan. Before I was born she was a secretary at an advertising agency, Lord & Thomas, where she had to sign letters with a fake man’s name. (They didn’t want a woman in the correspondence.) But cooking was in their DNA, and now it’s in mine.
She learned from her mother, Fanny Newman, who was born in Russia and died when my mother was 19 – and after whom I was named. But my mother’s cooking went far beyond the chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, kasha lacquer cookies, and chicken soup of her Eastern European origins, in both attention to detail and imagination.
She examined chicken livers to cut out discolored spots and singed chicken feathers over a gas flame. Her chicken soup had to be golden clear, sifted through a linen napkin, with “little eyes” of fat, as she put it, rather than globs like floating paddle boards. Before she cooked a leg or shank of lamb, she peeled off the tough silver skin.
Innovation was her style. She didn’t throw hamburgers on our backyard grill. Rather, she burned filet mignon slices for sandwiches and grilled whole beef fillets for parties. She loved dining out with my father and would sometimes incorporate what she liked into her own kitchen, like medium-rare seared lamb chops instead of the leaden 1950s well done.
While I don’t recall her consulting many written recipes, preferring to follow her own instincts, I enjoyed cooking alongside her and seeing how she enhanced the flavor with a squeeze of lemon or another pinch of salt. Now that my children and grandchildren are accomplished cooks, I regret that they never got to share the kitchen with their “Nana”. They would have learned the importance of patience and generosity.
There was nothing notable in her arsenal: her kitchen, which was not kosher, was stocked with everyday cast-iron and Farberware cookware, a worn wooden chopping bowl and mezzaluna, a glass double boiler, an enamelled oval blue-and-white cookware-spotted roasting pan, and a pressure cooker. But she insisted on having a Chambers series – top notch in the 1940s.
She loved to entertain and did so frequently, with the crockery, linens, serving utensils, Limoges fish service and crystal stemmed glasses she felt were necessary to accommodate and, yes, impress her guests. Even for family meals in the kitchen, a bottle of milk or maple syrup would be decanted into a pitcher, a habit I continue, with wine being the sole exception.
When it came to grocery shopping, she was demanding. The butcher and fishmonger at the local Gristedes market tended to her, as did an Italian greengrocer, who put aside her favorite black-seed Simpson salad. I remember expeditions from Westchester County to Macy’s Manhattan grocery stores for croissants, which my parents preferred, and wine and imported cheeses.
Diligence and inventiveness weren’t just culinary routines; they reflected how she ran her home and how she dressed. Her tastes were higher than those of her sisters and most of her friends. I still wonder what influenced her and wish I had asked her. She wore patterns by top American designers like Pauline Trigère, Claire McCardell and Arnold Scaasi, which she had received from her Madison Avenue seamstresses. She had a shoe salesman at Saks and someone who made her hats.
She valued individuality, never wanting to wear what “they wear,” or handbags with logos, and she sought out edgy accents that expressed her desire to be distinctive, like a swimsuit with a shoulder strap or a chic black velvet outfit with an unusual white pique collar. When she died, I inherited 120 pairs of gloves—silk-lined kids of various lengths and colors. So many gloves became necessary because she had rheumatoid arthritis and as her fingers were knobby she needed larger sizes.
Her love of individuality was also expressed in other ways. Unlike many women of the time, she was surprisingly skilled with car engines, and she loved fishing, traveling with my father to Florida for bonefish and Maine for landlocked salmon. I didn’t inherit the Angel gene, but growing up I welcomed being part of a household that valued good food both at the stove and in restaurants: This appreciation generated and shaped my decades-long career as a food writer, and to some extent also my own being.
So does her social life. My parents were partygoers, attended benefit dinners and regularly attended supper clubs like the Blue Angel. And they devoted themselves to the dining scene, visiting the lavish Forum of the Twelve Caesars, a French seafood bistro called L’Armorique, and the more elaborate Chateaubriand, which are now just memories. They also liked Pietro’s and Pen and Pencil for steaks and, in front of the theater, the Algonquin, all of which are still in business today. My father liked going to Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; my mother didn’t, so I was locked up. But my mother made his favorite Italian-style steak, rubbed with olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with parsley.