Illustration by Denis Shifrin
"My childhood kitchen was the focus of our home…where you would dip your finger into the bowl of whipped cream Nelly was preparing for the trifle…”
The kitchen of my childhood was more to me than a place where food was produced. The back door, which led out to a covered stoep (verandah), Nelly's room, the wash lines, the garage and the back gate leading into Brompton Avenue, was used more than the front door of our house for comings and goings. I guess it was easier to use than the front door which was usually locked, whereas the kitchen door was almost always open. In fact, that back door was my entrance to the world that lay beyond 'Berwick', our house. It led me to school, to meet with friends, to Regent Road, to the Odeon or the Adelphi, to the tennis courts, to the nearby pine trees to gather a handful of pine nuts to be cracked open on the pavement after locating the right-sized stone, or to the Marks family next door, whose back gate was but a step or two away from ours.
But back to the kitchen: In it was Nelly of course, her presence an inextricable part of that kitchen and of my childhood. That was where she cooked at the mustard-colored stove which stood in one corner on its elegant, curved legs. She would often mutter to herself, 'This is brown enough now, I'll switch the heat off.' Or, 'I hope I've made enough gefilte fish today, we didn't order enough kabeljou this week.' This was where she stirred, tasted, fried and boiled her dishes, later transferring them to the plain wooden table which stood nearby. When the food had cooled it was stored in the fridge or in the shelf-lined pantry which adjoined the kitchen. On one wall of the pantry there were shelves enclosed with wire mesh to keep the flies away. For some strange reason we all called it 'the wire thing', as in 'Where's the sugar bowl?' 'In it’s usual place, in the wire thing, of course.' I suppose that was because it was felt that being enclosed with wire, it did not deserve to be called a cupboard.
Nelly was an accomplished cook as well as a dispenser of wise advice. She specialized in traditional Jewish dishes and even knew how to prepare the Seder plate without checking in the Hagaddah – which we always did – to ensure that everything was included. Although ours was a secular home, the Passover meal was observed in our own way. The Hagaddah was read and I sang the Four Questions, having had private Hebrew lessons at home with Mr Rosen to lead me up to this stirring climax. After that the Hagaddoth were closed and put away till the next year, and the meal was served.
Nelly also ironed at that kitchen table, first covering it with an old, thick gray blanket over which she placed a white cloth. After the iron was plugged in and before she got started, she'd pick it up, hold it close to her face, and spit smartly down. I'd hear a sizzle and see small drops of liquid dance around the iron's shiny surface and then disappear. I could never work out how she measured the iron's heat that way. But I'd give it a try myself and she'd smile approvingly at me. I loved watching Nelly work and would beg her to let me have a turn, but she would only allow me to iron hankies which I did with great panache. It made me feel very grownup to be carefully folding the handkerchief into a neat square and to watch the pile grow as I placed one on top of the other.
The electric kettle stood on that wooden table and played an important part in our lives, as my mother's tea was prepared there. Mom loved her tea and drank lots of it. The little brown teapot was placed next to the kettle as well as her cup and saucer and the milk bottle. That way everything was at hand so she could have her tea boiling hot, which was how she drank it.
We left the house for school every day through the kitchen door and returned home the same way. Near the fridge there was a convenient corner into which I would slide my school bag with a bowling motion when I got home from school, and only later would I retrieve it and take it to my bedroom.
Nelly played such a major role in our lives that her kitchen provides many of my clearest childhood memories. When I came home from school, and after I'd slid my school bag into its corner, my first question would be, 'What's for lunch?' Nelly knew all our favorites so I was seldom disappointed. And in any case the aroma I sensed as soon as I stepped onto the stoep would usually give me an indication of what to expect. Ah, the aromas that arose in our kitchen are with me to this day: The fried onions which would be added to the liver before chopping it, the meatballs which simmered on the stove and would be served with Nelly's mashed potatoes flavored with grated nutmeg, the sweet wine which was used to soften the boudoir biscuits in a trifle, the unmistakable redolence that arose when my favorite fritters – were they banana or pumpkin? – were being fried.
My mother was not a cook at all, and I suppose that my interest in the kitchen was aroused by Nelly and her activities. She did not know how to bake, and always complained that the oven was defective. Whether that was true or if she simply did not like baking, I'll never know. When I got tired of eating bought biscuits – Ginger Nuts or Eet-Sum-Mor shortbread – or store-bought sticky buns, I'd try my hand at baking as I was so envious of the home-baked biscuits I wolfed down in the homes of friends.
On Nelly's days off, Thursdays and Sundays, she'd leave the house in the early afternoon, having prepared food to carry us over till the next day. But in the evening
I'd often prepare scrambled eggs or French toast for our supper, and I took
great pride in my achievement and often added fried tomatoes and sausages to complete the meal.
I suppose one could say that kitchens come and go, and that they're only places where food is made and dished up. My childhood kitchen was more to me then, and now. It was the focus of our home, a place where you could make yourself a cup of instant coffee and moisten your biscuit in it. Or where you could dip your finger into the bowl of whipped cream Nelly was preparing for the trifle, and lick that marvelous glob and savor it before swallowing it. Once, though, I tried that when she'd disappeared into the pantry to fetch something, and discovered that she was beating egg whites. It was where I saw Nelly slicing, dicing, beating, mixing and cutting, her forehead lined with concentration and muttering to herself as she wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and moved on to the next task. That wooden table was where the platters and dishes were readied before the meal and when you saw them you were happy that there'd be guests at the table and all would be well because the food was so good.