Soon after my father died, my mother became a caterer. She designed a business card with her name, “Adele,” written in bold tangerine cursive letters against a bright yellow background. At the bottom of the card were the words “Party Fair.” In truth, she did not cater very many parties. She no longer lived in the small Northern town where her food was so popular that nearly all the major fund-raising functions were held at our house. In her new Florida home few people knew her, and business was less than brisk.
Still, I have carried that card in my wallet since October 12, 1986, the day she died in Branford, Connecticut, in the house we had rented by Long Island Sound so that in her last days she could look out her window to the sea. The card is better than a photograph. It holds my mother’s favorite colors and the way I know she would love to be remembered — as a giver of food.
She was born in England to Middle Eastern Jewish parents, who moved to the island of Jamaica when she was 12, and her party food was a rich, intoxicating blend. There were Caribbean, English, and American influences, but the dominant tastes were Middle Eastern. I can remember sweet-and-sour meatballs, spice cake, a multicolored rich English trifle, but when she entertained, her tables and trays were mostly filled with kibbe (an exquisite lamb and cracked-wheat mixture, spiced, stuffed, and fried), meat patties, date cakes, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed artichokes, tiny spinach phyllo pastries, baklava, and the delicious sesame crackers we called carks, or “savory bracelets,” that were my favorite.
She had hoped to make money, of course, but more than that, I think she just wanted to dress up again. I believe she had never felt so beautiful as when she glided among her guests at home and heard them murmuring approval of her delicious renditions of favorite dishes. She found, however, that paying employers wanted her to cook, bring the food, and depart.
Whenever loneliness closed in, my mother came north to visit her brother in Connecticut, her daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and me in rural New Hampshire. To each of us she brought her nonstop stories, her sorrows, her gaiety, and her party food. For my mother, cooking was divided into two quite separate identities. My Philadelphia-born father was a meat-and-potatoes man, and she regarded the nightly nourishment of her family as a dutiful daily commute from refrigerator to stove to table. We ate steak and chicken and our weekly share of frozen chicken pot pies. TV dinners, and tuna casseroles. But when company arrived, Adele was transformed. She was not merely a hostess, she was on stage. Cooking and serving her specialties became a thrilling performance.
When Nassar expelled the Jews from Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis, cousins, aunts, and uncles I had never known descended upon our house. For days the walls reverberated with the warm babble of Arabic, French, and English. My mother’s kitchen became their link with home, and their presence brought my mother true joy.
Preparing for a party, she’d be a bundle of nervous energy. Smoke filled the house from her incessant Chesterfields. She worked at a fevered pace for several days, getting ready, fueled by as many as ten cups of coffee a day. To calm down after she drained the coffeepot, she’d brew frothy cups of thick Turkish coffee in her long-handled copper pot. I can see her dipping her finger into a cup of cold water. Prodding open the kibbe dough, poking the minced meat and pine-nut filling down the soft throat of the kibbe, like a mother bird feeding its young, the way she had learned from her mother. Rose. When she deep-fried the kibbe, the kitchen filled with their aroma. My sister, Anita, and I pushed close to the counter where the hot kibbe waited on paper towels. Anita would take spoonfuls of the kibbe filling, the way children lick frosting from a bowl.
When my mother visited me, I invited friends for dinner. My mother’s preparations for these affairs anchored her days. First we’d go in search of the paper-thin phyllo dough, pine nuts, bulgur, sesame seeds, and grape leaves that were her staples. For a day or two my kitchen, normally filled with the New Hampshire corner-store variety of foodstuffs, was transformed into the kitchen of my youth the heady aromas of deep-frying meat and spices, the phyllo dough stretched across the countertop, the constant brewing of coffee. She would cook enough to stock my freezer for weeks. My friends exclaimed over the dishes, each served beautifully on garnished platters.
She’d turn to me: “Why don ‘t you ever feature me in Yankee as a Great New England Cook?” It galled her that month after month this popular Yankee feature omitted Adele Allen.
“Mom,” I ‘d say, “you live in Florida.”
“I have ties to New England,” she ‘d point out. “You work at Yankee. And my food is much more interesting.”
She pressed me to carry a tray of her baklava to the general store down the street that said homemade chocolate-chip cookies in a case beside the cash register. She envisioned legions of local stopping by for Adele’s baklava. “It’d be pin money,” she said. The owner thought they were too exotic for his customers’ tastes.
Not long ago, more than 13 years after my mother’s death, I realized I had nearly forgotten her food. I told this to my sister. Anita had learned the food from watching my mother and grandmother, but she, too, had all but ignored our mother’s legacy. We did not give parties; our cousins have long since made their homes elsewhere. Nobody that we know speaks Arabic. My sister owns my mother’s well-worn recipe notes, the long-out-of-print cookbooks with the pages turned down. She told me to come down and we would cook.
Working beside Anita in her snug kitchen a few blocks from Harvard Square, I am clumsy and tentative. My kibbe will not hold their torpedo shape. My kibbe look like misshapen pots. My cark dough will not obey; it is thin at the end, fat in the center like a snake that has just enjoyed a meal. But thanks to my sister’s skill and patience, gradually the kitchen fills with the yeasty smell of fresh -baked cark, the stove sizzles with kibbe.
I returned home with my mother’s recipes copied in a notebook. It will take me many hours to come even remotely close to duplicating the flavors of my mother’s kitchen. I know that. And I can never duplicate the special time when family filled the house and cultures spilled together. But it is a start.
I live alone and my two sons visit for overnights. For years we have dined on spaghetti, killer burgers, and barbecued steaks. My salads come sealed in plastic bags, and my desserts come from Ben & Jerry. They have no memory of their grandmother Adele. This will be my unexpected Mother’s Day gift to her: to toil in a sunlit kitchen, and at the end of the day share kibbe and carks. No matter how they look, the flavor will be all Adele.