I was in a period of dark despair. My marriage of six years was over. Despite my high tolerance for emotional abuse, my husband crossed the line when he pushed me against the wall for disagreeing with him. The following day I packed a few essentials and moved into a small furnished apartment in West Los Angeles.
After a few weeks in my new place, I met Mrs. Goldsmith, my neighbor across the hall. She looked as though she was in her mid-70s, a tall slightly bent over woman. She wore one of those drab looking dresses from the ‘30s. She had a warm, friendly smile that drew me to her. She explained that she was slightly deaf and I would have to speak up for her to hear me. Would I like to come over for coffee sometime? I was grieving the loss of my marriage, not wanting to talk to anyone about my raw feelings. Yet I was touched by this stranger’s willingness to befriend me and invite me to her table.
Over coffee, she told me her story. Widowed in her 20s with two children during World War II, she needed to earn money to support her family. She became a nanny to several wealthy families in Beverly Hills. Mrs. Goldsmith liked children. She also liked to cook but it wasn’t satisfying to cook for one person. Her children did not visit very often anymore. It would be nice to have some company for dinner she said and invited me to dine with her the next day. I graciously accepted. After all, I was also lonely and in need of company.
After that first dinner of the tastiest most delicious beef stew, sharing evening meals with her became our custom. When I came home from work, tired and hungry, I would find a note under my door. “Soup’s on. Come on over.” Her apartment was furnished with antique furniture with a lot of nick-nacks over the T.V. and end tables. The piece I loved the most in her apartment was a worn out Queen Ann chair that felt womb-like when I sat in it.
Each evening I sat in her kitchen and watched Mrs. Goldsmith cook. She explained to me how she learned to economize and buy certain meats that required slow-cooking, like beef tongue. Some picky eaters might turn their nose up at this dish, but she taught me the importance of cooking meat slowly with certain spices. The result was a tender, tasty, luscious tongue. I still have the recipe and here it is:
3 lbs. Tongue 6 peppercorns
2 cups water 6 cloves
l Tablespoon salt 1 onion quartered
2 bay leaves
Method: Wash tongue. Place on rack in Pressure Cooker. Add water and other ingredients. Close cover securely. Place regulator on vent pipe and cook 45 minutes with regulator rocking slowly. Let pressure drop of its own accord. Remove skin; strain liquid. Keep tongue in liquid until ready to serve.
She taught me to cook with patience. One of my other favorite dishes was her brisket of beef. She would make a marinade of bullion and spices and cook this meat in her small porcelain oven for hours. It was fork-tender when we sat down to eat. Of course she gave me a plate to take home for sandwiches the next day. Here I was from a Greek Orthodox background; she was from a Jewish Orthodox culture, and for me, it was a perfect fit.
When I came down with a bronchial flu one winter, Mrs. Goldsmith was in and out of my apartment with Matza Ball soup and hot teas. She even drove me to the doctor’s office one cold morning when my temperature spiked. Thinking of her now, many years later, I believe she loved me to health.
I told her the truth about my situation one evening over a hearty beef pot roast dinner. My marriage was over and I was getting a divorce. I felt ashamed to tell her sooner, I explained, in case I might reconcile. That was not going to happen. She understood and said some relationships were like a bad meal, not digestible.
The time came when I needed to leave my small haven and Mrs. Goldsmith. The plan was set for me to return to school and complete my college education. To save money, I would be rooming with two other students near the university. We sat together at her kitchen table, the one where we shared countless beef stews, hearty soups, casseroles and luscious chocolate desserts. I felt I was not leaving Mrs. Goldsmith. I was leaving my beloved fairy godmother.
She looked at me and her eyes were so kind and loving. “I don’t have money to give you,” she said sadly. “I wish I did, dear. But you will always have food to eat at my table. Anytime you are hungry, you just need to call and let me know. I will always have something from the stove to share with you.”
Over the months of watching her cook, I had collected many of Mrs. Goldsmith’s recipes that I was ready to make on my own. When she came to visit me once, I had an opportunity to try some of her recipes. She looked pleased as she tasted my version of her stew. Yes, she had taught me well.
I never knew my grandparents from the old country in Greece. When I was a child, they were far away. Mrs. Goldsmith became my adopted grandmother, my own special Balabusta, the one who fed and cared for me when I was lonely and hungry. She gave me more than cooking lessons, she taught me to cook patiently and cook with love.
She has been gone many years. If I sit still and think about her, I can see her in her small kitchen, stirring some sauce in a pot at the white porcelain stove as I sit at the table smelling her wonderful beef goulash. I wish she were here so I could have a plateful right now.