About the Feature
Cartwheels on the Moon
She might as well have said she had a photograph of my mother turning cartwheels on the moon. Instead, and no less implausibly, Joan said she had a recipe my mother contributed to a cookbook in the late 1950s.
Joan had been my brother’s fiancée forty-seven years ago and knew my mother never cooked. She may not have known my mother used the oven as an extra cabinet for stashing pots, pans, platters, and dishes, all wrapped in plastic, but she knew how unlikely it was for her ever to have prepared a dish called Veal Italienne “Sklootini.”
My mother did, on occasion, make toast. She would open a can of fruit or container of cottage cheese or jar of jam, cut herself a chunk of Cracker Barrel cheddar to eat with crackers, pour milk into a bowl of cereal, prepare a cup of instant coffee sprinkled with Sweet’N Low. But the oven and stove as appliances for food production? That was not her world.
She loved to eat, though. She ate slowly, accompanied by dramatic commentary and gesticulations: Oh! This is divine! She liked rich, creamy, saucy, elaborate presentations in restaurants, or as a guest at someone else’s table, and she wanted everything—from her brandy Alexander through her standing rib roast to her chocolate sundae—amply portioned. Except on weekends, and provided she didn’t have to do the cooking, she didn’t seem to mind eating at home, and her preferences remained intact until her death at ninety-five.
One of the last memories I have of my mother comes from a moment a month before she died. My wife, Beverly, and I were with her as lunch was being served in the solarium of the nursing home’s memory impairment unit. Bathed in early spring light, her memory so shattered that she no longer knew who I was or who she herself was, limited to a diet of soft, bland food she barely touched, my mother waited for her mushy meal to appear. Though she barely spoke anymore, and never seemed to know where she was, she leaned close to me and said, “The chefs at this restaurant are very, very good.”
Lo and Behold
Joan also knew, firsthand, about my mother’s dedication to disastrous matchmaking, her zeal for bringing ill-suited partners together. This had resulted in my brother’s marrying someone else, someone my mother had found for him during his engagement to Joan. Before long, Joan married my basketball coach, without my mother’s help, and is still married to him.
We’d lost touch, but a few years ago had begun an e-mail correspondence. Now, she wrote, she’d been “digging deep to find a certain recipe and lo and behold I found a VERY OLD recipe book from the East End Temple Young Married Set and there was a recipe from your mother.” I think she understood the startling nature of her discovery, which is why she prefaced it with “lo and behold,” as in, You’re about to witness the unimaginable! She concluded by saying the recipe was “very typical of her flamboyant personality” and offered to send me a copy.
The book, mimeographed and plastic-comb bound, was called 130 Famous Long Beach Recipes. Joan had photocopied the cover and my mother’s recipe, which arrived sharing a page with Frieda Schwartz’s Day After Tongue and Rita Mintz’s Stuffed Cabbage. I didn’t recognize Veal Italienne “Sklootini” as something ever served in my home. Or tasted elsewhere. I wondered where she’d found it and why she’d chosen it over such equally fantastical dishes as, say, Shashlik Sklootovich or Chicken Papriskloot, which we also never encountered.
The recipe itself was like the script for a deadpan Bob Newhart sketch. You do WHAT to veal scallops? For HOW long? Look, Mrs. Skloot, is this some kind of joke? It looked and sounded like a recipe, it involved individually credible ingredients, but it read like a spoof.
The very idea of my mother mincing four cloves of garlic, pounding and slicing raw meat, removing the lumps from two cans worth of Italian tomatoes, or enduring the possibility of tomato stains on the stove, struck me as absurd. Then there was the math: two and a half pounds of veal, flattened and cut into two- or three-inch pieces, to be cooked for one hour and fifty minutes. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to thin strips of veal cooked that long. And what about the bay leaf listed among the ingredients but never discussed in the cooking directions? Those directions concluded with a serving recommendation: “I suggest that you make spaghetti, to serve an elegant Italian meal, as you will have enough extra sauce.”
My mother’s recipe had seemed flamboyant to Joan, probably because of its faux French/Italian/Russian name alongside those traditional Jewish recipes for tongue and stuffed cabbage, its assertion of elegance, and the very outlandishness of its existence. But it was my mother’s audacity in offering a recipe, when she herself never cooked, that struck me as the wildest, showiest, most characteristic aspect of this magical news.
But I had to wonder if I was remembering right. Did my mother really not cook, as I believed, or was memory deceiving me?
So Much as a Toothpick
I come from a large family of small families. My father was the third of six siblings who averaged two children each, so we were a dozen cousins, all of us close, visiting on weekends, dining together, celebrating holidays together, going to sleep-away summer camps together.
After learning about Veal “Sklootini,” I contacted my surviving cousins and asked if they remembered seeing my mother cook. One wrote to say, “We never were at your house for dinner, so that would make me a distant observer on the matter.” Another said nearly the same thing: “I don’t think I ever ate in your home.” What’s more, she added, “I truthfully do not remember ever going there.” A third wrote that he smiled when he saw the name of the dish, but “I could never imagine her cooking it because I never saw her in the kitchen.” He might not be the best person to ask, he said, because—as my other cousins had also said—he didn’t “remember spending too much time in your house/home/apartment.” A fourth, my oldest cousin, said she didn’t even remember our apartment. And a fifth wrote, “I never heard of Lillian lifting so much as a toothpick.”
All of us recalled being together and eating together at every other Skloot home. But none recalled eating at ours. Apparently it was accepted that we’d always be dinner guests and never hosts. I don’t know how my father and his family reached this level of acceptance or accommodation. Based on what I remember, and what my cousins remember of gatherings at my grandmother’s home, or at my aunts’ and uncles’ homes, for Skloots the kitchen was at the center of life. As I look back across more than half a century, it’s difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion: our home had no such center, no place from which the sort of nurturing or comforting or sustaining energy associated with cooking emanated, a locus where everyone gathered and connected and to which everyone was drawn. To check whether it was just a problem my mother had with my father’s family, I contacted other potential witnesses. I called my brother’s widow, Elaine, the loving woman he’d found for himself and lived with through three decades after divorcing the wife my mother had selected for him. Even muffled by the phone, Elaine’s laughter when I asked if she’d seen my mother cook startled my cat and made him jump off my lap. “I never saw her do that,” she said, eventually. “When we ate with her, which wasn’t often, we either went out or she ordered in.” Elaine remembers a dinner for six people at my mother’s apartment, when all the guests had been told she would be cooking it herself. But my mother had secretly brought the dinner home from a restaurant, a fact revealed when her overcoat, hung hurriedly in the entry closet, was seen to be stained by fresh tomato sauce.
My childhood friend Billy Babiskin remembered the occasional presentation of milk and cookies at my home. “But cooking, NO.” He also remembered a parody song his mother and mine created in honor of their culinary preferences. It was sung to the tune of Vincent Youmans’s 1929 classic “Without a Song,” and their revised lyrics transformed it into a celebration of canned foods:
Without a can my day would be incomplete
Without a can my family would never eat
Things can’t go wrong as long
As you are not without a can!
While this may imply they at least heated a can’s contents on the stovetop, Billy reiterated that he did not remember seeing such an act take place in our home. Another childhood friend, Johnny Frank, told me a few years before he died that he never ate in my home. “Eat? I never touched anything in your home.” He said he thought of me as “the guy who lived in a museum.”
Alice Sachs, wife of the doctor who delivered me in 1947 and who was my godfather, said, “I never saw her cook.” Though her husband was among my parents’ oldest friends, Alice said, “We were in your apartment maybe twice.” Theoretically, she thought, there could have been dinner served, but it wouldn’t have been cooked by my mother. “The Princess feeds,” Alice said. “Doesn’t cook, but feeds.”
My stepbrother, Morty, whose father Julius married my mother in 1966, was part of my mother’s life for forty years. When I asked if he remembered seeing my mother cook, he said “Nooooo” in a way that combined “of course not” with “is this a trick question?” He also said that “any meals were take-out or eaten in restaurants,” and added, “I don’t remember her using the oven at all, except for storage.” The next day, Morty sent an e-mail elaborating on one particular memory that his wife, Bernice, had mentioned. She remembered eating a chicken that came out of my mother’s oven, “but neither of us could remember seeing it go into the oven so it may have been a take-out item. Try as hard as we could, neither of us could remember any other time that we ate anything that had been cooked in that kitchen.”
And my daughter, whose memories are freshest, said, “Nope, never saw Grandma cook, not once.” She added, “Closest thing I ever saw her do to cooking was once she spread cream cheese on a bagel, which was memorable only because it was the only time I ever saw her do it. That was Julius’s job.”
The consistency of these responses—even down to the wording—astounded me. I thought I’d find my memory was skewed, or I was exaggerating, and while my mother didn’t cook regularly, she’d been seen cooking by someone. But no, and it was as though we’d lived in hiding, too.
By the time Beverly and I married in 1993, my twice-widowed mother lived in an apartment in Long Beach and no longer even made a pretense of cooking for herself. Dinners were delivered. Food supplies were limited to breakfast and lunch foods whose preparation required nothing more involved than toasting. But when she heard we were coming to Pennsylvania and New York, and bringing Beverly’s parents with us, she issued an invitation for Sunday brunch. It would be catered by the Lido Kosher Deli, whose original owners—the Schmaren brothers—had taught me as a teenager to eat hot dogs slathered in slaw instead of sauerkraut. It would also be the first and, it turned out, only meeting between my mother and Beverly’s parents. She’d ordered a lavish spread of traditional New York Jewish selections: fresh bagels, cream cheese, two kinds of lox, smoked sable and white fish, herring in sour cream and chopped herring, all surrounded on their platter by an array of lettuce, sliced onion, tomato. My mother was charmed by my tall, handsome father-in-law, and he responded to the banquet with delight, saying it was the best he’d ever had. At meal’s end, my mother asked if anyone wanted coffee. I knew the correct answer, but unfortunately my in-laws didn’t. My mother went into the kitchen and, as the rest of us chatted, I began to worry. After twenty-five minutes passed, I found her slumped at her small round table in the kitchen, muttering about the stupid coffee machine, a thirty-cup percolator for parties whose operation had been part of Julius’s kitchen duties for meetings of the Lions Club. She didn’t know how to use the thing, was unwilling to serve my in-laws instant, and, I imagine, was counting on them to forget their desire for coffee. When I asked if she’d like me to make some, she looked away and nodded. There was a can of Maxwell House deep in the cupboard, encased in two large baggies, untouched since Julius’s death.
Cook: to prepare food for eating by applying heat
After fourteen hours at his chicken market, my butcher father wanted a home-cooked dinner. And technically, that’s what he’d get: his dinner had been cooked at home. It hadn’t been prepared by his wife, nor at a time even close to when he ate it, but it had been heated and then re-heated in the kitchen in our home.
My father would arrive in the apartment just after 7:00, put his hat in the hall closet and his cigar in the living room’s chrome standing ashtray, then spend the next five minutes in the bathroom scrubbing his hands. I could hear him blow his nose and hack to clear his throat, getting rid, I believed, of the day’s load of feathers and blood. That “Nocturne for Faucet and Facial Orifices” was the soundtrack to which my mother started and completed her day’s food preparation duties: removing whatever was in the oven or on the stovetop, and setting it on the table.
Until 1957, when I was ten, we lived in a small, fourth-floor, East Flatbush apartment. Its rent, coupled with the rent on his market, was an ongoing source of worry for my father. I got the rents, I got the Mafia I’m paying, now I got these supermarkets taking my customers. Where’s the money supposed to come from? We were going broke, he said. But we had a maid. Just tell me one thing, all right? What is it you do all day that you need a maid?
I remember her vividly. Lassie Lee Price had a warm, gap-toothed smile and vast brown eyes, was originally from Alabama, was now living in Brooklyn, and spent seven hours a day in our apartment, arriving around 9:00, while my mother still slept. Lassie cleaned floors and surfaces that hadn’t gotten dirty since she’d cleaned them the day before, changed the bedding, washed and ironed clothes, shopped for groceries, looked after me, and made lunch—which was also my mother’s breakfast—and dinner. Since she left our apartment around 4:00, her final act of the day was to prepare a meal that would cook slowly and then sit until the family gathered at 7:15 to eat it.
My mother had established that certain foods were to be served on certain nights. I know steak was Monday and chicken was Friday, but can’t remember the exact schedule for meat loaf or some form of ground meat, for roast beef, for lamb chops. Fish was eaten in restaurants. We seldom had soups and we never had stews or leftovers, which my mother deemed peasant food. I remember no cookbooks or discussion of recipes. Preparation was always straightforward: Meat was roasted or baked or braised or simmered, any procedure that could take a long time; no sautés or stir-fries; no grilling or broiling; no frills; no fancy brown-then-bake maneuvers; no sauces or gravies. There were canned vegetables, baked potatoes, the occasional slice of bread. It remains inconceivable to me that Veal Italienne “Sklootini” could have emerged from our Brooklyn culinary environment. On a Monday no less.
After my father sold his market, we moved to a rented home in Long Beach, a small barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. We lived on the main floor, and the owners lived in a basement apartment during the summer. But little about the way we lived was altered by our move. My father still left home early and returned late, commuting to Manhattan, where he managed the factory floor of my uncle’s dress business. And, though Lassie was no longer with us, my mother still had a maid, hiring and losing or firing them until she found Hannah. Slender, brooding, given to vociferous whispers as she zoomed around the house, Hannah was a wizard of efficiency who got along with my mother by saying, Yez miz Sloot, and ignoring all but the most basic instructions. There was, apparently, no arguing with Hannah’s results, only her process, and my mother kept Hannah with her until my father died four years later.
Maybe Hannah was responsible for the famous recipe. I can’t be certain, but the cookbook was assembled right around the time she entered our lives. I can imagine my forty-seven-year-old mother coming home from a meeting at the synagogue and sitting in the kitchen to drink a cup of Maxwell House prepared by Hannah, complaining about the ridiculous idea of putting together a cookbook. She wouldn’t want to admit she didn’t cook, in case that reflected badly on her image as a cultured, refined cosmopolitan woman, the modern woman as an effortlessly gourmet chef. At the same time, she would also not want to admit she did cook, in case that reflected badly on her image as an aristocratic and worldly figure of privilege rather than a kitchen drudge. But if she did contribute a recipe, it would have to be something that stood out from the rest, that showed her to be a culinary sophisticate.
What’s the most elegant, epicurean meat? Veal! What’s the fanciest, priciest cut of veal? Scallops! What’s the most complex, polished cuisine? French! Italian! OK, then, Veal Italienne “Sklootini!” How do you cook that? Probably just like that brisket you make, Hannah!
Yez miz Sloot.
From the moment I saw the recipe, I felt I had to cook it. As avid about cooking as my mother was about not cooking, I saw this as a chance to complete something for her. It would be a tribute to her intention, as I understood it, in submitting the recipe, in presenting herself as the kind of person who cooked such a dish. I realized it would also be a gesture symbolic of reclaiming the loving, fortifying, nourishing hearth that had never existed. But I needed some advice first, in case my assumptions about cooking veal scallops were wrong. After all, Beverly and I didn’t eat veal, seldom ate red meat of any kind, and had been following a gluten-free diet for the last year and a half.
In How to Cook Everything, award-winning food journalist Mark Bittman writes, “Back in the 1950s and 1960s, before we ‘discovered’ boneless chicken breasts, thin slices of veal cut from the leg—called cutlets, scallops, or scallopine—were the only thin, tender, boneless meat widely available.” Though veal is lean, “properly cooked, it will also be quite tender.” Recipes for veal scallopine I found in various cookbooks or online said to cook the flattened meat for one minute per side, then remove it from the pan, pour on the sauce, and serve. I didn’t find any recipes that called for browning veal scallops ten minutes per side, then adding ingredients for a sauce and cooking for an additional ninety minutes. It seemed that you might cook certain veal steaks or chops that long, but not flattened, tender scallops cut into two- or three-inch pieces.
Beverly checked online and found a recent article from a Washington, DC–area magazine, Flavor, dedicated to “cultivating the capital foodshed.” Focused on the boom in pasture-raised, rose-colored veal, cultivated to replace the inhumanely confined, milk-fed animals whose treatment had driven consumers away, the article mentioned Marcel’s Restaurant in Washington’s West End, where the chefs were experienced with veal. So I called to speak with Chef Paul about my mother’s recipe.
“I would never do that,” he said. “If it’s good, tender, pounded? No way. No more than four minutes, total.”
I asked what he would do with two and a half pounds of veal scallops. He told me to be sure the meat was flattened, and I could hear him begin to pound some hard surface by the phone as he spoke. “Flour it, sear it, maybe with some garlic, and put the meat right on your sauce. Serve it over spinach—that would be nice.”
Just before hanging up, I asked Chef Paul what would happen if I followed my mother’s recipe. “What will happen? You’ll ruin it and you’ll waste your money.”
I began to wonder if duplicating my mother’s recipe was a bad idea. My point wasn’t to show that her ideas about cooking were as misguided as her ideas about matchmaking, and I didn’t need to cook Veal Italienne “Sklootini” to demonstrate that anyway, given how Chef Paul reacted to the recipe.
I called my friend Roger Porter for advice. He teaches English at Reed College and is a food critic for the Oregonian. Roger listened to the recipe and assured me the meat would fall apart. He thought for a moment, then said, “But you should cook it, and expense be damned.” He offered to split the cost and cook the dish with me. And eat it, if possible. But our schedules didn’t match up, and I was still wavering about whether to follow the recipe, so Roger suggested I call Robert Reynolds, founder of the Chefs Studio, a culinary training school in Portland that specializes in French and Italian cooking classes for both professionals and amateurs. “He’s the most interesting chef in town.” As a final comment, Roger advised me to think of my mother’s recipe as “a deathbed command. Her last horrific gift to you.”
That didn’t actually help.
After Robert Reynolds heard my story and my mother’s recipe, he said, “You could call it ‘Rubber Sole.’” He then told me to throw the results away and take my guests out to dinner. He also thought the recipe wasn’t particularly Italian: “It has less to do with Florence than with Prague.”
Then Robert made a point that changed everything: It wouldn’t be possible for me to duplicate my mother’s recipe because I wouldn’t be using the same kind of meat. Milk-fed veal, which my mother would have bought in the late 1950s, was white meat. The veal I would buy now, imported from Canada by Whole Foods, is red meat, and completely different in taste, texture, composition, and appearance. “It’s young beef, not veal, and they don’t compare. You’re spared. You can’t re-create her dish, so you might as well make something good instead.”
He recommended even less cooking than Chef Paul had: thirty seconds on one side, twenty-five on the other. “Then slip it into your sauce to keep warm.” If I absolutely had to try my mother’s approach, he advised, I should use a cheaper white meat like pork or chicken breast. “But what would be the point?”
Condensing the Universe
Three nights before what would have been my mother’s one hundredth birthday, I served Veal Italienne “Sklootini” to Kerry and Nigel Arkell, friends for more than a quarter century, who have long demonstrated willingness to forgive me for any culinary disaster. Once they heard about the recipe’s appearance and my discussions with the experts, they volunteered to eat any version I chose to cook.
They arrived with a bottle of claret, a salad, and homemade kale chips, and gathered around the kitchen island. My first thought was that this way of visiting, and this comfort around the cooking zone, was something I treasure, and now I understood more about why that was so. It may have been something my mother, in some unexplored recess of her mind, had yearned for but could never pursue because of her class anxieties or aristocratic pretensions or fear of messes. And perhaps that was behind her impulse to submit the recipe for a dish that combined—potentially—basic, homey, one-dish comfort and a certain level of European stylishness.
I’d made the tomato sauce early in the afternoon and let it simmer for ninety minutes, borrowing the cooking time from my mother’s recipe but keeping the veal out of it. The sauce used all my mother’s ingredients except the mystery bay leaf, whose use was ignored by the recipe too, but I substituted fresh mushrooms for canned and fresh Italian parsley for dried flakes. It also included a few additions: onions as requested by Beverly, olives as desired by me, basil in honor of Nigel—who is from England and whom I called Basil the first time we met—and red wine because I couldn’t imagine tomato sauce without it.
I had water heated for the gluten-free brown rice pasta, a dish with rice flour to coat the veal, and a sauté pan ready on the stove. So there was little left to do except open the wine and drink a toast to my mother.
The final preparations were quick, hectic, and splattery, and I could feel my mother turning away until it would end. When the pasta was finished, I made a mistake, lifting the built-in strainer from the pot while it was still on the stove and sending a cascade of starchy water all over the place. My mother was now officially out of the room, unwilling to be in the presence of such a mess. You see? This is why I didn’t cook. With the drained spaghetti on a serving platter, I poured on the sauce and turned back to the stove. The lightly floured veal got seared for longer than Robert Reynolds’s recommended fifty-five seconds but less than Chef Paul’s four minutes, and was still pink in the middle when I put it into the sauce and declared the meal ready to eat. My mother came back so we could drink a second toast to her and dig into Veal Italienne “Sklootini” 2010.
I wish I’d thought of adding an extra place setting and cup of wine to our table, as we did during Passover Seders to welcome the prophet Elijah. I could imagine my mother gazing at the heaped platter and nodding, then spreading her arms wide in one of her extravagant dinner-table gestures, declaring the food divine, and asking if we expected anything less. What I felt surprised me: a sense of harmony with my mother that would never have been possible in the life I shared with her. It was as though the act of making her dish had breached time, had allowed me to reach my mother in ways that had been unimaginable in her life or since her death. I thought of a passage from one of my favorite cooking-related memoirs, Betty Fussell’s My Kitchen Wars: “Cooking connects every hearth fire to the sun,” she wrote, “and smokes out whatever gods there be—along with the ghosts of all our kitchens past, and all the people who have fed us with love and hate and fear and comfort, and whom we in turn have fed. A kitchen condenses the universe.”
Though I’d cut the recipe nearly in half, the four of us couldn’t finish all the food. Since Nigel would be on his own for the next few days while Kerry traveled to the Oregon coast, we sent the leftovers home with him. A few days later, I called to ask how Veal Italienne “Sklootini” held up over time.
“Very, very well,” he said. “I had it two nights in a row—it was good enough for that.” This surprised me, since I was sure reheating would toughen the meat. “No, no, I could cut it with a fork.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Of course, it could just be another Brit happy not bothering to cook, but I liked it even better the next nights.”
My mother would have loved Nigel’s accent. She would have been happy to hear that such a sophisticated man appreciated her recipe, exactly the sort of fellow she had in mind to impress. She might even overcome her shock at learning that he would eat leftovers.
VEAL ITALIENNE “SKLOOTINI” 1958
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 lbs. veal, flattened & cut into 2- or 3-inch pieces
2 cans Italian plum tomatoes, pressed with fork until almost smooth
salt & pepper
1 small can mushrooms (optional)
1 regular or 4 Italian green peppers (remove seeds & cut into slices)
Heat about 5 tbsp. of olive oil & 4 large cloves of garlic (minced) in a large skillet, until garlic is a light golden brown. Add veal & heat on both sides for about 10 minutes. Add 2 large cans of Italian tomatoes (pressed to remove end lumps), salt & pepper, a tsp. of oregano & let simmer for about 90 minutes. Stir several times. 10 minutes before serving, cut in the green pepper & a sprinkling of parsley flakes. You may also add a small can of button mushrooms at the end. I suggest that you make spaghetti, to serve an elegant Italian meal, as you will have enough extra sauce.
VEAL ITALIENNE “SKLOOTINI” 2010
1/2 cup rice flour
1 1/2 lbs. veal scallops
small sweet onion sliced
4 cloves garlic
1 large and one small can crushed tomato
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 green pepper, cubed
fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup red wine
15–20 pitted Kalamata olives
12–15 fresh mushrooms, sliced
salt & pepper
1 package gluten-free spaghetti (such as brown rice spaghetti)
grated fresh parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil and add onion. As onion softens, add garlic and brown. Add green pepper. Add mushrooms and sauté till mushrooms have given up liquid. Add herbs. Add tomato and tomato paste. Then add wine, and simmer, covered, for at least 90 minutes.
Prepare spaghetti. Add to platter and top with sauce.
Shortly before serving, heat olive oil in another pan. Coat veal scallops in rice flour. When oil is hot, sear scallops for 30–60 seconds, then turn and sear for another 25–45 seconds. Remove from pan, place in sauce, and serve. Provide grated parmesan cheese on side.
About the Author
Floyd Skloot’s memoir The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life was published in 2008. Winner of three Pushcart Prizes and the PEN USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, Skloot lives in Portland, Oregon. In 2011, Tupelo Press will publish his first book of short stories.