A place at Emily's Table
Of all the things I’ve come to regret in life (most of which involve something I should/could/would have said, or the length of my hair before I turned 30), the most significant is not spending more time cooking with my beloved aunt, Emily Mehlman, before she passed away in 2006.
Emily was a cook’s cook; a woman who made every meal an occasion to remember and an artist of presentation would never dream of putting food on the table that didn’t look beautiful or taste delicious. Her gift for making an everyday meal extraordinary was so subtle that I usually didn’t notice how incredible her efforts were. For example, it didn’t occur to me until quite recently that most people’s aunts don’t bake cakes daily, use a ruler to insure that each brownie or lemon bar is the exact same shape, or marinate sauerbraten for 3 days. Emily did all of these things and so much more, effortlessly and with grace and style.
I am my family’s designated picky eater, a fact which Emily nicely tolerated despite the fact that I would regularly sit at her artfully arranged table and refuse delectable offerings like her crème caramel, red cabbage salad or noodle kugel. While everyone else dug in heartily, shooting me questioning looks and commenting loudly, “More for us!” Emily just made sure I had enough olives and/or pickles -- my staples for most family events throughout my childhood. She didn’t make a big deal out of my culinary naïveté, which was one of the many ways she made me and everyone else around her feel like any idiosyncrasies or peculiar quirks (like, for example, not wanting to ever, ever, EVER put that jelly-like substance from gefilte fish, let alone the fish itself, anywhere near my person) were just fine with her.
Emily knew that I was a deeply reluctant cook and that I rarely offered to bring anything homemade to any festive meal (except charoset, a food that need only to resemble mortar -- even I could handle that). Yet, she tried to set me up for success by teaching me simple things in the kitchen, like how to use the “slice” function on a Cuisinart. She spent entire too much time patiently helping me make one pile of cole slaw, even though in that same amount of time, she could have stuffed and basted a turkey, baked a few dozen meringue cookies (as long as it wasn’t raining---not good for the egg whites) or made several pots of soup.
When I page through Emily’s Table, the cookbook lovingly compiled by many of Emily’s friends and family, I feel happy, sad, hungry, and nostalgic. I also feel confident that if Emily were still with us, she’d say to me in her inimitable Bostonian-accented way, “Now, Laura, there is no reason why you cahn’t make some of these recipes. It’s nawt hahd!”
Mostly, however, what I feel is regret that I didn’t spend more time listening to and learning from Emily. And so, I crack open the cookbook, bravely take out the Cuisinart, and call my son Evan (named for her) to help me in the kitchen. I even put on an apron, smile convincingly at my feisty little boy and try to act like I do this kind of thing every day.
It’s time for me to finally, truly, wholeheartedly earn my place at Emily’s Table.
Laura Bramson Hyman is the Director of Havayah and Beit Midrash at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. Emily's Table can be purchased at Amazon.com, and locally in the Boston area at the New England Mobile Book Fair, KolBo and the Israel Book Shop.