My mother, a career woman with perfectly blunt-cut, jet-black hair, flawless skin and Cyd Charisse legs teetering on high heels, never quite had the look of your typical suburban American housewife. With her thickly accented English and her European chic, she was the epitome of the put-together working woman, sure of herself and totally in control.
Still, when she came home at night, she became a completely committed wife and mother. She was so good at the art of running a home that sometimes it felt as though she didn’t have an outside job at all. It was only later that I realized my parents struggled financially in my youth. Every apartment we lived in, however small or dank to begin with, became an immaculate, well-organized sanctuary full of warmth and good vibes.
In the kitchen, my mother’s preparations were straightforward but soul-stirring. Even though I’m a chef and an avid home cook, I can’t always replicate certain dishes my mother makes, no matter how many times she’s taught me.
While in my Aunt Arletta’s kitchen in Israel last month, I realized that an inordinately high proportion of the ladies in my family are the very definition of what in Yiddish is called a balabusta — a domestic goddess and ruler of all things pertaining to the home. Although the advent of modernity with all its overwhelming conveniences has removed some of the need for these power players of the soul’s haute cuisine, it’s important to note that their influence in the home, and the kitchen specifically, has created generations of well-adjusted men and women.
But sometimes, even women who profess adulation for all aspects of the divine feminine find themselves threatened by the balabusta’s mastery. The balabusta is a force of nature who at times can seem difficult if not handled with the right degree of sensitivity. Although the tense dynamic between a balabusta and her daughter-in-law — stemming from their love for the same man — is a cliché, this complex relationship often requires understanding. With rare exception, balabustas create loving men incredibly in tune with a woman’s needs.
If as a wife you are fortunate to enjoy the benefits of a balabusta’s hard work on your husband, at the very least you can pay it forward by letting her deploy nostalgia as a weapon to her heart’s content. The cost-to-benefit of putting your husband in the middle of your relationship with the balabusta is a foolish game with no winners.
For those of you not fortunate enough to have been raised in a house in which a balabusta reigned supreme, I’ve put together some rules of engagement. Ignore them at your peril.
First, don’t believe the balabusta. She may pretend to bristle at your diving with a spoon into the pot of soup on her stove. She may immediately pull out a bowl and curse your double-dipping in her mother tongue. But know that, on the inside, she is melting over your enthusiasm.
Put your hair up when you enter her kitchen. Even in an extreme case of a balabusta who cooks with a cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of her mouth, if an errant strand of your locks should contaminate her food, you would best be advised to start running and not look back. In her kitchen, privileges she allows herself are not necessarily afforded to you.
You’d better be fast. A balabusta is quick on her feet and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. If you are going to don an apron around her, you better know how to hustle.
Remember that balabustas kill the messenger. A secret panel in the balabusta’s mind makes her unable to forgive herself for kitchen failures or mistakes. So, you should fully embrace the aphorism “silence is golden.” Let someone else, anyone else — your husband, his sibling or even your child — take the fall.
Don’t waste any part of an animal, vegetable, mineral or otherwise edible object in her presence. “Waste not, want not” is the motto of every balabusta. Even if there is a jar of an unknown substance in her fridge that you remember from 10 years ago, leave it be! She is sure she will need it one day. The trespass of throwing something away, in combination with her long memory, will not earn you a Get Out of Jail Free card — ever.
Don’t buy her gadgets or tell her your kitchen hacks. Don’t bring her your fancy knives, your Danish dough hooks or your slick new peelers. She’s old school, and her way usually is better anyway. Even if it isn’t, be wise and err on the side of caution. (You might be a professional chef and have a new way to make matzo balls that will shave off hours of work, but no, no, no — hard no.)
You’d better be fast. A balabusta is quick on her feet and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. If you are going to don an apron around her, you better know how to hustle. Study up if you have to, otherwise, just get out of her way and watch from a safe distance.
Do not, under any circumstances, add salt, pepper or chili powder to her food in front of her. A balabusta makes it her business to know how each member of her family likes their food, ranked in order of allergies, medical conditions and contraindications with prescription drugs. Better to eat underseasoned soup than to rock the delicate balance of her world with the saltshaker.
If you shop for her — wait, scratch that — don’t shop for her. She knows her suppliers and gets the best quality goods for a fraction of the price anyway. She has relationships and she’s proud of them. She’s spent decades charming her butcher and cultivating her green-grocer connections. She would rather not cook than to use your ridiculously expensive, fancy dwarf peppers. You’d be well served, instead, to go with her and let her make the introductions.
If you’ve suddenly become a vegan or vegetarian, gone gluten-free or given up dairy, please don’t tell her. You will be scrutinized immediately as a candidate for future starvation. But more to the point, she has no use for change and will perceive you as unstable. You will eat what she cooks, and you will love it. Start the diet tomorrow, or at least have the good sense to position yourself near a pet and practice an Academy Award-winning chewing performance.
Don’t turn down her leftovers, no matter how impossible it may seem to finish them before Shabbat rolls around. Accept them gratefully and ask for more. A balabusta gets no greater joy than the thought of her cooking nourishing her family all week long. That said, you’d better return her Tupperware containers to her. They are a key component of her life. How else will she know you want her to fill them up again if you don’t return them?
If you mention to a balabusta that you love one of her dishes — and you should — she will want to cook it for you again and again. Don’t fear that you are burdening her. Even if she is not up to the task, the fact that you think fondly of her cooking will give her newfound energy and will cement her respect for you. Think of this as laying down crumbs of love on the path to a balabusta’s raison d’etre — her very real need to be needed.
Ask her to teach you how to make her specialties. The balabusta knows she won’t be around forever, but her cooking relies on muscle memory. She cannot give you measurements — that is not her forte. Instead, watch her make it, even if you must watch her again and again.
Most important, write down her recipes, commit them to memory and treat them as one of life’s greatest treasures in the form of a culinary history lesson. Even if you consider yourself a giver, learn how to be a conscientious taker in her company. The balabusta is a boss, a queen, a mover and a shaker, and she will spin your world on its axis with her wisdom and insight if you let her. So do yourself a favor — let her!
Maybe years from now, if you are fortunate to have a son and become a mother-in-law yourself, you can pass down this recipe to his new wife — like the true balabusta that you are.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.