Arnold and Jeanie Levine.
In fact, I often took great pleasure in seeing just how appalled their friends could become simply hearing me address my parents by their first names. "No!" Mrs. Berman would scold on mah-jongg night, in the same Jersey Jewish mother drawl they all shared. "That's yaw mu-tha!"
Whenever I tell a story about my mother people always ask, "Is that really how she talks?"
"No," I usually reply. "That's just how I hear her."
So a few weeks ago, while I was back east for the first time in a long time, it seemed only logical to turn my Man Who Came to Dinner eye inward, so to speak, and put the folks in the culinary hot seat.
The Levines still live in the same blue suburban house (Mom's favorite color) in which I was born and raised. I ate my very first dinners there, giving me full license, like virtually every Freudian one of us, to blame my mother for absolutely all that was to follow.
That's right, Mom. I'm a dinner columnist. And who made the Hamburger Helper?
As Mom readied her meal upstairs in the kitchen, I relaxed in the family room listening to Arnie, the ex-councilman and small-town politico, dispense sage analysis on the upcoming presidential primary, NASDAQ ups and downs, and the unmatchable perfection of a Seinfeld rerun. "Shakespeare's comedies," he insisted, "are more idiotic than Three's Company or Laverne & Shirley. They make less sense and are less funny than the two comedies that I consider to be the dumbest shows ever on television. But any three episodes of Barney Miller -- or even Cheers or Seinfeld -- could run on Broadway for years."
My eyes drifted to the wall of shame, where a wonderfully unfortunate portrait of Mom's three boys, taken during her youngest son's most critically awkward stage, hangs. That's me, so, much as I'd love to have you, I'm afraid none of you will be attending a Levine family dinner anytime soon. Heading upstairs I surveyed the more presentable photos: baby picture collages of me and my brothers hanging against the pastel wallpaper -- God, I showed so much promise then -- and the bar mitzvah portraits. What a mensch.
Visiting the house of your youth is like a preview trailer for that movie due to flash in front of your eyes right before you die. The questions come. Have I missed my true calling? Am I wasting my life as a dinner columnist?
Mom's call to my father brought me straight back to grade school. "Arnie! Dinner's ready." I stood and counted to 10 -- just enough time for Arnie to put down the remote, climb the stairs to the kitchen, and call up toward my room, on cue, "Barry! Dinner's ready."
Now, eating one of my mother's dinners, or, more accurately, writing about it, opens up an extra large can of family worms. Of course, I would never dream of suggesting that our evening meals were anything short of spectacular. Spectacularly bland, that is. Now, Mom, look ... well, she's heard it all before. Suffice it to say, Mom lives in a world without flavors. Or more politely: Our tastes diverge. She's not a bad cook; maybe just a minimalist. And I've spent my entire adult life trying to claw my way back up to the land of the seasoned.
To be fair, Jeanie was one of the original working mothers -- first an elementary school teacher, then a travel agency owner -- while always trying to maintain the traditional housewife role, God bless her.
In honor of the press, Jeanie had chosen to prepare a quintessentially Jewish meal. Why, I asked? She never did before, save on the requisite holy days. "Just like a real Jewish family," I remarked sitting down to a table set with gefilte fish appetizers and large bowls of homemade matzo ball soup.
"Just what you don't want to be," Jeanie beamed, tipping her hand. After watching me reject my faith lo these many years, Mom saw this as a grand opportunity, a chance to force me to declare my Jewishness before all the world.
Matzo balls are always hit or miss. When they're right, it's like eating clouds from heaven. When they're wrong, very little is said throughout the remainder of the meal. Mom hadn't taken any chances this night, preparing the batch days in advance.
Served with blood red horseradish sauce, the gefilte fish had come from a jar. And if you've never tried it, I've found that as long as you avoid reading the list of ingredients, you're in for a pretty tasty treat.
Our main course was brisket, a dish that Mom has prepared weekly, since I was a child, in a big pressure cooker with carrots and potatoes and gravy. On the side she served a cranberry jello mold filled with pineapple and nuts, and an amazing noodle kugel, which is kind of like a sweet cheesy lasagna -- wide noodles baked with layers of cottage cheese and eggs and cream. Yummy.
"And it's good for you," said Arnie.
"Oh, no it's not," snapped Jeanie. "Jewish food is very, very fattening. I used 14 eggs."
When we were done, Arnie leaned back, as he has for almost 40 years, to deliver a heartfelt, if less than convincing, "Delicious. Absolutely scrumptious."
In all the meal actually was pretty good. The brisket, of which I was never a fan (that was David, Mom), was moister than usual, owing to an extra post-pressure dose of gravy, I suspect. It was certainly more appetizing than, well ...
OK, here's where I lose my inheritance:
You see, the barometer by which my Mom's cooking has always been judged is a curious dish that she likes to call ... meatloaf. Growing up I actually thought the reason other mothers put onion and spices and bread crumbs in theirs was out of pure and simple poverty. They were obviously just watering down the meat. Of course, Jeanie contends she only made it that way because, "That's the only way you kids would eat it." I don't really know which came first, the chicken or the egg. I just know neither of them ever made it into my Mom's meatloaf.
And so, at the risk of forfeiting my entire one-third stake in the travel agency empire, I print for you now an infamous, age-old, family-secret recipe:
Jeanie Levine's Utilitarian Meatloaf
1 large package ground beef
Remove plastic wrapping from ground beef. Invert package into large baking pan. Peel away styrofoam tray. Briefly mold meat, with hands, into vaguely loafish shape. Sprinkle lightly with paprika. Pour ketchup in one wavy line along top of loaf, covering USDA stamp, if possible. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit till overdone. Slice. Serve with moistened potato flakes. Enjoy.
For dessert Mom had baked another traditional Jewish delicacy, mandelbrot -- long, angular almond breads similar to today's ubiquitous biscotti. Before Jeanie's mother died, when I was only 3, she gave the recipe to her best friend Sidonia, who promptly went on to marry my widowed grandfather. Before Sidonia died a few years ago, she passed the recipe back to my mom.
They're very addicting, as my father noted. "Your mother wouldn't let me know where they were. She was afraid I'd eat them all."
"He could sit there like with a box of candy," she agreed.
As is customary in my family -- going all the way back to the Levite tribes of Canaan, I believe -- the entire evening meal was completed in 6.4 minutes. Actually, that was a little long for us. Our goal was generally to try to fit the necessary event inside of a standard TV commercial break.
After dinner Mom headed up to her new computer, where she now spends most nights playing bridge online. Dad went back to the TV to begin the perpetual nodding off in front of the reruns. I took the opportunity to wander around the house, paying a little more attention than usual to the original oil paintings that hang on the walls of almost every room.
The matador and the bull. The still lifes of fruit and flowers. The multicolored abstracts. All of them painted by my father, sometime before he reached the age I am now. Before he gave up being an artist to raise a family of five.
Later Mom took a break from her games to tell me how she'd like to redo the kitchen. "They make them much bigger now. With islands. But," she added, "only if I would stay longer." She's really hoping to move to Florida, she explained, sometime in the next five years.
"We've been here a long time," she said. "Thirty-three years. I was two months pregnant with you," she remembered. "So, we'll leave the kitchen to the next person.
"Hey!" she called out as she spied Arnie stealing the last of the mandelbrot. "See why I hide them?"
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