I had a conversation about stuffed cabbage on the phone with my mother, who is 86 years old. In the course of that dialogue I began to realize why so many women of my generation are the way we are.
Most of us Baby Boomers who were born in the 1940s lead productive lives, better lives than our mothers did, lives filled with opportunity and creativity. And yet — so many, now in their late 50s and early 60s, seem to be spiritually starved. Many of my friends have been seeing therapists or shopping for God or mood-altering chemicals for decades. I never did. After talking with my mother about cabbage, I believe I know the reason for my relative well-adjustment.
I had called her for a recipe because I’d been craving prakkas, a stuffed cabbage dish favored by many Eastern European Jews, and I knew no cookbook instruction could recreate that aroma.
As women of her generation and heritage, she led with the most important fact. “Be sure to make enough,” she said. She grew up in a climate where life for Jews was precarious and conversations could be interrupted by the need to flee. So it was important to say the most vital thing first. “Take some cabbage, put your meat in it and onions, maybe some rice, then roll it up. Steam it on the stove. Be careful of the steam. You can make it special like when your Uncle Morrie came back from the war. Your grandmother had the butcher grind up steak for the prakkas, not hamburger. I’ll never forget how she ran down the street in her apron when he came off the bus wearing his sailor uniform…”
I could still see my grandmother in her apron. And Aunt Pearl who was 15 years old then, and Aunt Laika and my mom, both plump in pregnancy, all laughing, chopping onions and crying, telling stories in the kitchen while I slept on my cot, in my pajamas with bunny slipper feet by the wood stove two winters after the end of World War II. Like my mother’s recipe itself, food was about surroundings, history, life itself. Specific ingredients and proportions are left to the discretion of the cook.
We Boomers are the first generation of women to go mobile in late adolescence. Many of my peers left home after high school, driving their own cars. Me, I hung around in our rambling brick house in New York, in the kitchen, watching my mother and her sisters and my grandmother as they cooked, being steeped in culture, language and heritage.
We got central heating eventually. I remember Aunt Pearl getting a Mixmaster – big technological advance. My grandmother had passed away by the time I left at 21. But I believe the roots of my own stability and that of my peers, those who have it, are still down there in our family kitchens, pulling up those metaphoric nutrients, anchoring us.