It is ironic that my beautiful mother who took such good care of her own skin and the skin of others would eventually die of skin cancer; malignant melanoma. Through it all she was a trooper, and even her illness couldn’t dampen her personality: “Dahling, you could use a little moisturizer on that beautiful skin,” I heard her tell one of the nurses who administered her PET scan. Her favorite phrase was, “You’re gorgeous!” and she would use it when referencing not just your physical attributes, but anything positive about you. It was never, “You’re so smart,” or “You’re so kind,” but just, “You’re gorgeous!” The phrase encapsulated everything for her, and it was her way of telling you that you were perfect. My niece Marjorie recently spoke at the baby naming for her daughter Mia (who was named for my mom): “My grandma had so much love to give, and it still amazes me that somebody who had lived through such horror and ugliness could still find the gorgeousness in life.”
There is a jar of Revlon’s Eterna 27 in my medicine cabinet. Even though it traveled with me from California to Massachusetts I know that I will never use it–or get rid of it. It was my mom’s and the imprints of her fingertips are still visible in the once white, now eggshell-colored cream. This was her signature cream, the only thing she used on her face, and judging from the glowing comments people would make about her skin until the day she died, it did the trick.
My mom was very concerned with appearances, of all kinds. She was a cosmetician and a manicurist. Her platinum blond hair and well-manicured nails and toes (Naked Pink was her color of choice) were her calling cards. She was one of the only moms I knew who wore platform shoes back in the day, and topping out at five feet, towered over no one even when she wore them. One of my favorites was a pair of matte gold wedges that were sprinkled with bits of color that looked like confetti. Had it not been long gone, the pair of size five shoes would definitely have rivaled her face cream’s status.
Mom was always worried about her weight. At one time our small apartment was overrun with various belts and rollers and other odd-looking contraptions that came with the promise of changing her looks and her life. How she looked and how her life looked to others was very important to my mom. And if the reality of her life was not to her liking, she would have no problem with inventing the truth. We would often call her out on this, but not that often as it became clear to us that she had a very difficult time discerning fiction from fact. (Yes, she did once tell her nurses that she was Miss Hungary of 1939–and they never doubted her for a minute.)Her beauty and style belied her very less than beautiful past. She was the eldest daughter of an orthodox rabbi in Kolozsvar, Romania–the capital of Transylvania. When the Nazis invaded and she and the rest of her family were sent to Auschwitz, as she told it, the idyllic days of this very spoiled, overindulged young girl were over. Nothing about her post-war life could ever compete with her pre-war life, and she often spoke of how wonderful things would have been “if not for the war.” She was not afraid to speak of the war, but she spoke more about the generalities of the horrors she had seen and experienced rather than the specifics. By the time she and my dad and their infant daughter, my sister, landed in America after the war, only a glimmer of her former self (and life) remained.She worked hard in her new country to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and as I look back on her life now I realize just how difficult that was. Her only true happiness came through us, her children, and ironically the pressure it put upon us pushed us away. It was her way or no way because in essence we were living our lives for her as well. She could be sharp-tongued,”This is what I had to buy a new outfit for?” she asked as she sweetly kissed me goodbye at my wedding. A wedding, that had obviously not met her standards. And just as quickly as she stabbed with one turn of a phrase, she could charm the pants off of anyone else with another.She was quite the conundrum, and it would be an understatement to say that she was a narcissist. But as often as she talked about herself and her life, I’m sure there was still lots about her that we really didn’t know. “Why don’t you write a book about me?” she would ask. The thought of the padding she would apply to her stories made me steer clear of anything remotely similar to what she had in mind. There are times when I wonder whether we should have been more understanding–more empathetic. And then I realize that would have only made us more guilt-ridden, and heaven knows we had filled the glass to capacity in that category.
Through the years, myriad feelings sprang to the surface when I thought of my mother, and many of them were fractured. Lately I prefer thinking of her in that wonderful, positive way.
Hungarians are known for their cooking, and my mom was proof of that. It always amazed me how she never worked from a recipe. She had an innate sense about taste and flavors, and cold throw some random things into a pot and miraculously come up with a delicious dish. Shabbat dinner at our house was pretty simple, though. The menu varied from time to time, but the standards were chicken soup and Shake ‘N Bake chicken. Mom would line her sheet pans with foil and we kids would clamor for the crunchy clumps of crumb topping that had invariably fallen off the chicken and adhered themselves to the foil during baking. This recipe from Maury Rubin of City Bakery is reminiscent of my mom’s chicken. Rather than drizzling the mustardy vinaigrette as the recipe suggests, I use it as a dipping sauce. It is a tangy counterpoint to the mild pretzel topping. If you’re lucky, some of that topping will stick to the baking sheet, ready to be picked at once it comes out of the oven.
PRETZEL CHICKEN STRIPS WITH MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE
( adapted from City Bakery–serves 6)
½ cup canola oil
½ cup whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
½ pound hard pretzels, coarsely crushed in a zip-lock bag
6 large skinless and boneless chicken breast halves
1 head romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and cut into small pieces
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the coarsely crushed pretzels until coarsely ground. (You should have some small chunks and some fine crumbs.) Transfer to a large shallow bowl.
In a blender combine oil, both mustards, water, and vinegar, and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Cut chicken breast halves into strips and set aside. Pour half of the dressing into a large shallow bowl. Add the chicken strips and turn to coat. Dredge the strips in the pretzel crumbs and transfer to a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cooked through.
Place the cut up lettuce on a platter. Place the chicken pieces over the lettuce and drizzle a bit of the mustard vinaigrette over the lettuce.