So here we were in Wayne, NJ, the immigrant kids (as we thought of ourselves even though we were born in the U.S.) dumped among the white-bread White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, German, Irish and Italian kids whose families had arrived a couple of generations earlier. And the Dutch kids whose ancestors colonized north Jersey, and whose language was spoken here widely before the English took it over.
When we were children, there were no Asians, no blacks, virtually no Jews and pretty much nobody else too unusual in our community. We were less than 20 miles from New York City, and Wayne was as white as Wonder Bread. And equally lacking in flavor.
My mom, like any good Estonian mother, forbade us to eat Wonder Bread or anything like it. She called it soft white mush. Our sandwiches, when we toted them to school, were made on heavy dark rye or pumpernickel, breads with substance. And they were made with butter.
None of this foreign stuff like mayonnaise was acceptable to my mom; Estonians used butter.
And not salted butter either. Salting butter, she claimed, was done solely to conceal the fact that it was spoiled. Even now, just a few months shy of turning 60, I regard salted butter as an exotic delicacy.
Our determined mom even spread butter under the peanut butter.
Pumpernickel – butter – Skippy -strawberry jam – pumpernickel. That was the recipe for one of our lunch sandwiches, and it definitely did not look like the sandwiches of our classmates. Another day’s sandwich might be rye – butter – salami – rye. Or pumpernickel – butter – ham – pumpernickel. Rye-butter-tuna salad-rye.
And then came sixth grade, and the school cafeteria. Hot lunch, cold lunch, submarine sandwiches: American cuisine as interpreted by the lunch ladies. Among my discoveries was pizza. At school it was presented as a flat disc about six inches in diameter, topped with a bland tomato sauce and bland melted cheese. How amazing! How different from our Estonian diet of meat and potatoes and sauerkraut. I raved about pizza at home.
One day at the supermarket, I spotted small pizzas in the frozen food section, and urged my mother to buy some. To my surprise and delight, she did.
However, she did not put them in the oven to bake. Mama added a special twist of her own: she fried them in butter. She even flipped them over and fried the side with the sauce and cheese, which made quite a mess. But we all loved them. The fried pizzas were juicier and tastier than the ones at the cafeteria, and we devoured them in happy ignorance.
So the very first time I begged a quarter from my father and went with a friend to Tony’s Pizza in Pompton Lakes, I experienced Pizza Nirvana.
That huge hot pizza slice , speckled with unfamiliar oregano and dripping with melted mozzarella, was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. After conducting more research, I went and informed my mother that Americans-do-not-fry-pizzas-in-butter-they-bake-them-in-ovens. I must have been about 12.
Mama, ever the cosmopolite, decided to branch out into the mysteries of pasta, only we didn’t call it pasta back then; it was either spaghetti or macaroni. She clipped a recipe out of Family Circle and proceeded to make tomato sauce and meatballs, with boiled spaghetti.
When it came to the table, the dish looked peculiar, to say the least. It was pink. My brother and I knew that regardless of how the lunch ladies might decide to interpret spaghetti sauce in the cafeteria, it was always red. We didn’t discover pasta Alfredo and pasta Aglio e Olio and pesto sauce until considerably later in life.
Not only was the sauce pink, but the spaghetti underneath it was littered with bits of potato.
Mom explained that the sauce, as made from the recipe, looked thin to her, so she added some heft in the form of sour cream. My brother and I groaned.
And the potato pieces? Evidently our father insisted on potatoes at dinner, and refused to eat this peculiar foreign spaghetti stuff. Not wanting to wash two pots, she simply boiled the spaghetti with the potatoes. At least the meatballs seemed normal to our uneducated palates. I don’t believe my mother ever purchased garlic in her life.
We didn’t have the money to go to restaurants, so our experiences with cooking other than our mother’s was limited to meals at the homes of family friends who were Estonian, snacks at the homes of our American playmates, and the culinary delights of the cafeteria at Schuyler-Colfax Junior High School.
Despite these minor mishaps, our mother was a wonderful cook. Like her own mother, she could make tasty gravy out of almost anything. She brewed marvelous fragrant coffee. She made sweet-tart lingonberry jam from imported lingonberries, which are like tiny cranberries that grow in northern Europe.
She made pickled pumpkin, a lovely traditional sweet-and-sour addition to Estonian smorgasbord tables. Her pink beet-and-potato salad (called rosolje in Estonian), mushroom salad, herring salad and regular potato salad were better than anyone else’s.
Her cakes were out of this world. She made heavy moist sponge cakes using a dozen carefully separated eggs. You tiptoed in and out of the kitchen while it baked, lest it fall.
When the sponge cake was done and properly cooled, she would slice it into two layers, and fill the middle with crushed strawberries steeped in a little red currant wine and sugar. The top layer went back on, and she covered it with her mocha frosting, made with butter and sugar, coffee and a little cocoa powder, and I can’t recall what else. This cake was sublime.
She grew gooseberries and made gooseberry tart, which I imagine few Americans have tasted. She made delicious Estonian-style sauerkraut, which is only slightly sour and definitely sweet, laced with caraway seeds or cooked barley. I can’t really describe it, nor can I make it. My brother can.
Years after she passed away, many old family friends remembered my mother as an excellent cook.
But there was one thing she made that I avoided like the plague. Sült. Americans call it head cheese, but it’s more like an unsweetened Jello mold made with pigs feet that have been boiled to bits and the bones taken out. Real Estonians love the stuff, devouring it with vinegar or mustard. I used to get nightmares just looking at it.
Because we stuck to Estonian food at home, I never tasted a bagel with cream cheese and lox until college, when Jewish friends dragged me to a diner. Heavenly!
Another college friend introduced me to the joys of falafel in Greenwich Village. On another trip to the city, he tried to refrain from snickering when I innocently ordered the hot version of a dish at a Pakistani restaurant, choking some of it down with glass after glass of water, tears running down my face, before giving up. I never dared to tryPakistani food again, though I adore Indian cuisine and enjoyed dining at a Nepalese restaurant last summer.
Chinese food was also a novel experience after the bland chow mein at school. On one dreadful occasion, the cafeteria crew at our high school ran short of canned chow mein, and stretched it out with canned spinach and oatmeal, of all things. It was ghastly.
Not all the food at school was bad. Our high school cafeteria served a wonderful macaroni and cheese dish with stewed tomatoes. I liked it so much that when I came home from college early for Thanksgiving break, I sneaked into the high school cafeteria and bought a plate of it. In later years, I tried to re-create it from memory, and achieved a reasonable facsimile:
Wayne Hills High School Macaroni and Cheese
16 oz. dry elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons white flour
1½ cups milk or skim milk
Paprika and celery seed or celery salt to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
½ cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian seasoned.
Olive oil cooking spray
Cook a package of elbow macaroni according to directions. – do not overcook. Meanwhile spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray. Add the macaroni when it is cooked and drained.
While the macaroni cooks, slowly melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour until thoroughly blended. Then gradually stir in 1½ cups of milk, stirring with a whisk until the mixture is blended and free of lumps. Add salt and a dash or two of paprika and celery salt or celery seed. Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture thickens. Remove from heat and pour over the cooked macaroni.
Stir in 1 cup or more of grated cheddar – depending on how cheesy you like it.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and spray lightly with the cooking spray.
Bake 35-40 minutes at 350°.
Top each serving with stewed tomatoes. Serves 6.
(To reduce cholesterol, substitute olive oil for melted butter, and use low-fat cheese and skim milk.)
2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1 15-ounce can water
½ can water
Pour the tomatoes and liquid in a pot and add a can of water. If you want, cut the tomato slices into quarters. Heat slowly.
Meanwhile, stir 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch in about 1/2 can of water until dissolved. When the tomatoes begin to simmer, add the water-cornstarch mixture and cook until the liquid is thickened.