Getting Closer (An excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)
The scent of earthy root coming from a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove invades my nostrils. I hear my mother’s heavy footsteps thumping on the tile floor behind me. The sound chills my blood. Turning my head, I see she is only retrieving eggs from the refrigerator. I then lift the heavy pot and drain the water, and the steam burns my eyes. Although I promise myself not to anticipate the worst, I am jumpy.
Once the potatoes are in a mixing bowl, I blink away the sting of heat and add several tablespoons of melted butter, sautéed onions, and beaten eggs. I blend it all together in a mixer. Adding salt and pepper, I watch as the ingredients are pummeled into a smooth batter. The odor of melted butter wafts upward. The filling for the knishes is nearly done, and, so far, so good. No fights that draw blood have occurred – so far.
“You shouldn’t use electric appliances. The knishes have to be made totally by hand,” my mother says, making a depression in a mound of flour and breaking eggs into it.
My back stiffens. Without using the mixer I’d have to stay longer. “Your grandmother in Russia would have loved to have one of these mixers,” I tell her as I shut the machine off and jab my finger into the batter for a taste.
“What are you talking about? The woman couldn’t read and sold bread by the roadside. They had no electricity. What would she do with that machine?”
I ignore her comment and concentrate on the bowl as though I’m inventing a cure for cancer. I love knishes, those round flaky-doughed turnovers filled with seasoned pureed potato. When I asked my mother to show me how to make them, I’d hoped we’d use the opportunity to declare a truce. We’d gotten adept at shouting matches, but in the last year or two
I could hardly face her. Our relationship was on the brink of total extinction, and I saw this as the last chance to rebuild an endangered species – mother and daughter.
At first, she seemed excited by the prospect of showing off her exceptional cooking skills. Now I see her expression has dulled. She’s cut me off again. I always feel like an orphan around her.
My mother has a different personality in the kitchen. Not that she’s nicer, but her obsession with food preparation seems to give her a purpose or something that resembles an agitated tranquility. She commands every utensil within her reach and any hapless human in her way. Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are sacred rituals. I hold out little hope that getting her to initiate me into her hallowed sanctuary will reunite us, but it’s the last ditch before I turn my back forever.
A tall woman, my mother has developed petrified slabs of flesh on her body over the years, kind of like the rings of a cut tree that tells its age. She lumbers when she walks, but in the kitchen, she moves like a musical conductor, strewing flour on the board as though bringing a violin section to a crescendo.
She rolls a ball of dough flat, each push forward seems calculated. It’s as though she must duplicate that motion exactly the same distance each time. I want her to stay hunched over the marble table, concentrating on her task because then I won’t hear her disturbing, foot-slapping rhythm that fills me with dread.
I follow her motions using my ball of dough. Finally, she folds the very thin sheet of dough over her rolling pin and holds it in front of my face. It is beautiful – evenly translucent and in the shape of a near-perfect oval. My sheet of dough has ragged edges and tears in the middle.
Carefully, she cuts sections of dough four by twelve inches and then drops dollops of potato filling down the line. As she folds the overlapping sides together and brushes beaten egg to seal the edges, she hums tunelessly. There are now three long puffed up tubes. Dipping her hand in a bowl of flour, she cuts off two inch sections with the side of her hand.
“I cut it this way because the dough sticks together naturally. Cutting with a knife makes it fall apart. You didn’t know that, did you?” She cackles. “I’ll bet you don’t cook at all. Do you know how to boil water?”
“No.” I smack the rolling pin against my palm. “How the hell would I know anything? You never let me in your precious kitchen.” I want to shout that whenever she gave me a recipe she conveniently left out the most important ingredient.
My mother claps her hands together, and a cloud of flour dust rises. “That temper of yours again. That’s why you’re almost forty and not married.”
“Knock it off,” I answer in disgust.
I want to kick myself for not controlling my anger. I wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue, and it feels like the temperature has risen to one hundred degrees in the kitchen. My mother never opens the curtains or windows in the summer time. She prefers to close everything out, even changes of seasons. I look around, checking the doors for the quickest escape route.
“I honestly don’t know why you bothered me about cooking. You don’t eat my food, and you never come for dinner,” my mother shouts.