November 17, 2018

Meme’s in the kitchen, making memories

I remember the moment well. I had just picked up my 74-year-old mother at LAX, and as we entered my new house in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, I proudly showed her the new kitchen.

Compared to her kitchen in Montreal, this one was the size of the Roman Coliseum. It took her about an hour to fully inspect it. I think she opened every drawer and cabinet. She was so impressed, she muttered a few words in Arabic I had never heard before. She got a kick out of those little transparent decal stickers on the cabinets — which I got at Shmulie’s Books & Gifts on Pico Boulevard — that delineate milk and meat dishes.

But what I think really moved her — what got those 20/20 eyes of hers to open just a little wider — was the potential. The potential for some very serious cooking.

I’ve never seen Bob Dylan in a recording studio. But I can just imagine. He probably knows just what he wants. He can speak the engineer’s language, tell the bass player how to improve a rhythm, make changes on the fly, fix a lyric, add some harmonica when he feels like it. He’s in creative heaven. Within a few hours, a “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Dirt Road Blues” is born.

That’s sort of my mother in the kitchen. The difference is she weighs more, she doesn’t sing, she doesn’t wear sunglasses, she has no angst, she doesn’t smoke or drink, she has no help and, once she’s done creating her art, it immediately gets consumed.

What remains from her creations is not a lifetime of playing and listening, but a lifetime of memories.

But oh, what memories.

It didn’t take long for my mother (her grandchildren call her by the French “Meme,” which sounds like “meh meh”) to create memories on her first trip to the hood.

Within a week, her anisette-flavored galettes — flat, crunchy cakes, which she served my father every morning for 49 years along with his Turkish coffee — were politely interfering with Rabbi Abner Weiss’s Torah salon. I distinctly recall Rabbi Weiss taking a break from his class as he saw a tray of Meme’s galettes approaching — the man wanted one. No one seemed to mind.

She used a special pastry roller for those galettes. I’m sure you could find one like it at Pottery Barn. Hers came from her grandmother, who used it to make the same galettes in a Jewish neighborhood of Casablanca. The roller has that worn-out look, but you can see the kind of sturdy construction that suggests it could probably crank out galettes for two more generations.

As the weeks of her visit here went by, and her rule over my kitchen became complete, the household began to revolve not just around her food, but around her.

Grouchy kids getting ready for school in the morning? Nothing like the aroma of a few hot moufletas (Moroccan crepes), with Meme in her bathrobe spreading some melted butter and honey, to lighten the stress of an upcoming algebra test.

Playdates coming over after school? How about an elaborate fruit platter and marzipan cookies to tide you over until Meme’s juicy Keftas (spiced up burgers) for dinner?

For several months, in addition to the weekday surprises she would prepare every night for the kids, a parade of Shabbat guests feasted on Meme’s delights like spicy Moroccan fish, truffle and meatball tagine, an array of delicate Mediterranean salads and, for Shabbat lunch, her signature, unmistakable Dafina, the Moroccan cholent.

Put it this way: By her second month here, she was on a first name basis with at least one meat-cutter at Pico Glatt, and she was beginning to pick up Spanish.

All this, however, seemed to be a build-up to the meal that will go down in family lore. If you should ever come across any of the 20 or so guests who came to Meme’s second Passover seder — created during an intense 10-hour burst of activity in her new kitchen — ask them about that meal.

For about four hours, a group of sophisticated and happy grown-ups were engaged in lively conversation — and kept getting interrupted. As soon as Bob Ore, a French playwright, would go off on one of his wild, comedic riffs, something would come to interrupt. When the editor of Moment magazine tried to explain a new piece she was planning on Norman Mailer to a movie producer sitting next to her, something would interrupt. When the creator of tried to tell us about the different kinds of Sephardics around the world who had taken to his site, or when Louie Kemp tried to enlighten us with a story on the Lubavitcher rebbe, something again would interrupt.

All night long, something would come to interrupt.

These glorious interruptions were Meme’s creations, one sensuous platter at a time. If a Hollywood cinematographer could have filmed the evening, it would have rivaled the food scenes in “Like Water for Chocolate.” To this day, when I meet someone who was there, the conversation invariably comes back to that night of a thousand delights. By the time the meal was over, we had all surrendered. The conversation had clearly shifted to the food. Meme had won, hands down.

After four months creating this culinary heaven, Meme had to return home. The relatives there were clearly getting impatient with our monopolizing of the family treasure. We had no choice. We gave Meme back her passport. But not before she made moufletas, with a big smile on her face, for about 200 guests at the traditional mimouna party celebrating the end of Passover.

Which brings me to a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail from The Jewish Journal, asking me if I would write about my mother’s cooking for the Rosh Hashanah food issue, accompanied by color photos, recipes, the works. Now I’m thinking: the editors there probably don’t know that Meme’s been back in Montreal for awhile. That big kitchen she took over during those memorable months, well, it hasn’t been the same without her. How can I do a Meme food story without Meme?

As luck would have it, my kids and I were about to go to Montreal for a big family wedding. Would Meme be up to preparing a full Rosh Hashanah feast in the middle of all the festivities, in her tiny kitchen?