Monday, June 17, 2013
It was my Aunt Patti who made the potato salad; it was my Mom who made the coleslaw.
My Aunt Patti’s potato salad was legendary. A kind of Westport, Connecticut slight of hand. Classy all the way, proud in its starch. My Mom’s coleslaw betrayed her Appalachian roots, and my father’s way of counting.
It was a thing, you see, in our house, to count mayonnaise jars. They were collected and used for pins, nails, tin soldiers, dice, pencils, pens, book ends, bowling pins (that didn’t go over well), homes for convalescing goldfish, light prisms for housecats, piggy banks, thumb tacks, paint brushes, or even as a thing from which one might drink. But mostly it was a sign of wealth. That’s what my father would say. “Sign of wealth”. He had a way of making pronouncements, my father.
He had worked in a Hellman’s Mayonaisse Factory when he was a kid, summers before college, before the draft. He was no good at factory work. He was intimidated by the rough men he worked with who could crack half a dozen eggs at a time, two hands at a time. My father, left handed, would fumble the crack, his eyes lost in the color of the yolk, the color Van Gogh had been able to explain to him. The factory workers teased him, but took him to see Duke Ellington in a club on the South Side, where left handed Jewish painters didn’t go. He owed it all to the job he resented, in the place that smelled like eggs, where the fat hung in the air, stayed in the weave of his clothes.
An extravagance, is mayonnaise, counseled my father’s mother, who lived in a kind of luxury that only those who fear poverty are able to attain. She had married badly, but divorced exquisitely. Still, she could not shake her immigrant habits of hording, mixed w/ the shame of possession. She would wear furs and disallow mayonnaise in her pantry as a kind of pretentious extravagance. It is the one step of assimilation that tiny, Russian/Puruvian little girl couldn’t make.
My mother’s family, being from that part of the Cumberland Gap that is more Dell than Holler, grew up on farm mayonnaise that was always a little too rushed, yet absurdly kept for too long. The fat of the yolk, heavy w/ Virginian sloth, would overtake everything. My mother’s family was skimpy when it came to oil. It, like many things in my Mother’s childhood, was a kind of unfulfilled promise.
When they were young, and first together, my mother and father, it was hard for them. But, they were young and it was New York, and that is how things should be. They saved and lived on the cheap. They were a kind of frugal that is inherited. And yet they bought mayonnaise. Sign of wealth.
The slaw that my mom made was slap-dash and last minute. It was the effect of a mad grope across the transom of the refrigerator. There was always a cabbage. Forever and ever and as long as I can remember there was always cabbage in our house. She would sort of toss the head of cabbage over her shoulder onto the countertop. The head would roll around as she continued rooting. The carrots would come out followed by the red onion. She would set us to work in her kitchen, prepping her produce, as she went about making the dressing.
One brother would chop the cabbage into thin, neat strips. Each whisper of cabbage light as breath. He moved purposefully, intentionally, and forward to the end of the chore. He never would stop to see his work, to see how the cabbage would exhale and become light. The other went into the work of dicing the onion. It was he, of course, who would never cry. He was impervious to onions, dulled to everything else. He moved fast w/ the knife in a way you wouldn’t think a ten year old could. He was maddeningly precise. Each piece of red onion cut and planed like a diamond, glistening.
I would step on the stool in front of the sink and get to the task of peeling the carrots. I had a proper peeler, and not a paring knife. I wished I had the paring knife; I was terrified of the wobbly blade that spun in the metal grip. I was terrified of slipping, convinced I would miss the carrot entirely and peel my fingers instead.
“Hello Mr. Carrot!”
“Well Hello, Mrs. Carrot”
“Philip, stop playing with them and peel them!”
I would put the carrots down and begin peeling, looking out the large window my mom had fought for when the house was being built.
“Now you want a window?” he demanded. “Three apartments and a house in Staten Island. No Window. Now you want a window?”
“Yes”. It was hard for her to say.
“We don’t have the money.”
“We’ll cut back. On mayonnaise.”
When I would peel the skins from the carrots I would do it in short and timid strokes. I would turn them in my hands, the carrots turning my young fat palms a light orange, and I would think about how many friends I could make with rabbits if they might come by. I would look out the window, sadly disappointed that there were no rabbits. I stopped peeling and stared out the window at car in the drive way, and past the neighbor’s yard, and wondered what it would be like to be a rabbit.
“Philip! Don’t EAT them. PEEL them.”
My brothers would rush me to finish, critiquing my peeling.
“This isn’t how you would carve a canoe, is it?”
“Jesus! Leave some carrot”.
My mom would then have me taste her dressing. She said it was because I had the gift.
The truth is that my Mom didn’t like the taste of her own cooking. She turned her nose up at the fat, and worried about her figure that had already been wrecked by the three boys crowding more than her kitchen. She could not taste the dressing, much less bring herself to eat the coleslaw. She wouldn’t have my brothers taste it as they would always find some way to make some face, find some fault, claim victory where there is no battle. It is their way. But when I would taste something I would find myself in the strange and insular place of being. Rather, I would find myself surrounded by the sensation of self separate from anything, or anyone. It, in itself, was kind of mind blowing.
When you add what happens when sugar and mustard seed go toe to toe my lips begin to pucker. Vinegar is powerful kind of magic. The lush love of buttermilk is holy. The small firecrackers of ground black pepper are boisterous and full of life. And of course there is mayonnaise – so sublime in it’s ability to hold you like a tango partner. So gentle in its romance, yet so lingering in its absence.
She would mix it all together with little pomp, and secure it in that 1970s Tupperware that will survive a nuclear holocaust. We would pack into the car in the driveway and go to Aunt Patti and Uncle Guy’s house. We would eat dinner together, the way families and friends would.
My mother and Aunt Patti would share martinis. We ate this kind of pot luck often in my youth. And while my mother could not stand her own cooking, she loved Patti’s potato salad.