The Fish Family"The most beautiful girl at Garfield" is how more than one man who knew my mother in high school described her. A gifted violinist as well as a beauty, with wavy black hair and a figure that made men's heads turn, Fannie Horowitz became the concert-mistress in the University of Washington orchestra, but she was too nervous when performing to pursue a career as a professional musician. At the age of twenty she stowed away her violin, married my father, and devoted herself to being Mrs. Robert E. Silver, the perfect housewife and, later, mother.
My mother was a good cook and she was proud of what she made, but she didn't love cooking. Like most women of her generation, she cooked because it was, her responsibility in the family, like washing clothes or buying new saddle shoes for my two sisters and me before school started each fall. When I helped her cook for a special holiday dinner or a party, she didn't play opera, gossip, or discuss the meaning of life with me, the way I do today when I'm cooking with my daughter, Julia. My mother was all business in the kitchen, and she rarely followed a recipe. The only cookbook she owned The Settlement Cookbook collected dust on the shelf. She was a self-described shiterein cook that's Yiddish for "she just threw stuff in."
Somehow, my mother knew the correct number of onions to chop for the casseroles she threw together for weekday dinners, and the amount of sugar needed to sweeten the jam she made from the tart purple plums my sisters and I picked in our backyard. My mother called it jam, but since she didn't usepectin, it was runny, more like sauce. She liked it that way, I liked the chunks of plum I could fish out with a fork. Even though my mother's plum whatever didn't need to be frozen, she stored it in the freezer.
In our house, just about every food that didn't come in a can from Dungeness crab, legs to Milky Ways to marshmallows was stashed in the freezer. The freezer also contained ice cream in big commercial cartons and oversized oatmeal-raisin cookies that were baked by my mother's brothers, Harry and Norman, who sold them wholesale.
Other families made do with a freezer compartment at the top of their refrigerator. Ours was a twenty-cubic-foot Sears chest freezer that was neatly as big as our kitchen table and stood within arm's reach of it. The gleaming white treasure chest was a symbol of just how important a role food played in our household, a role that bordered on obsession. Perhaps it was because my mother and father grew up during the Depression, when their parents could barely put enough food on the table to feed their families. Or because my father was the vice president of a fish company and brought home canned tuna, salmon, and crab by the case. Whatever the reason, the thought and energy that other families focused on sports and hobbies, ours focused on food. Even the nickname my parents gave me had a food reference: not Sherry for Sharon, but Cherry.
When the whim hit her, my mother would cook a big pot of borscht and store it in jars in the freezer. One summer, Dorothy, our teenage live-in baby-sitter, mistook a jar of frozen borscht for frozen plum sauce and baked what turned out to be a borscht pie. When the pie was baking, cabbage stink pervaded the house. Dorothy was embarrassed. She was just a farmer's daughter, she told my mother what did she know?
Dorothy had moved to Seattle from Montana so she could experience life in the big city. A thin brunette with freckles who looked like Veronica in the Archie comics, Dorothy traded baby-sitting and, light cleaning for a room in our basement. She wore bobby, pins to hold her spit curls in place, a thin gold ankle bracelet, and straight skirts that hit midcalf and were so tight that she had difficulty walking in them. I was around eight at the time, and, I dreamed of lookIng just like her when I was a teenager.
My father helped Dorothy with her high school homework; she never would have graduated without him. He also kept her boyfriend, Vito, a James Dean wannabe with a ducktail, at bay. Vito was only allowed to come over when my parents were home, so he wasn't around the night our pet chicken was killed. It was just my two sisters, Dorothy, and me. As often happened at our house, food played a part in the story.
My father, who had studied food chemistry in college, often tested new pet foods-by-products of his company's canned fish on our pets. By pets I mean two German shepherds, a neurotic mother-and-son duo named Blickendorf and Wolfgang; a mutt named Lucky; and two cats who practical reasons we called Biggie and Littlie. Collectively, the pets were referred to as "the animals."
My father would bring home cans of pet food marked x, y, and z and plunk them down in front of the animals. The can they favored became the next Kitty Cat Food or Happy Dog Food. Since my father made good use of our animals, I figured I might as well add a chicken to the brood. Especially since it was free.
We lived on the outskirts of Seattle, so far out of town that when one car-pool mom drove kids home, she took all the others to their houses and then dropped me off at a bus stop. One benefit of living in the boonies, though, was that near our house were fields overgrown with wildflowers, stands of evergreen trees, and a smalI farm. My younger sister, Sheila, and I walked past the farm on our way home from elementary school. Let Us Eat Cake
. Copyright © by Sharon Boorstin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.