May 22, 1997
We’re Talking Chopped Liver
"It's too late, Mom," I say. "I'll just have some fruit."
A huge bowl of cut-up pineapple, strawberries and melon was already on the table, set for four, but that would not suffice. In our family, there is a ritual: No visit officially begins unless we sit down together to eat a full meal.
My daughter, Samantha, and her grandmother had planned the dinner menu last week: chicken soup with matzo balls, followed by chopped liver. They agreed that this was the perfect snack.
"You want the chicken soup?" my mother asks me. Samantha is already happily eating. My stomach is ready for bed. Then I spot the chopped liver, heaped into its crystal bowl. The pale-brown color gave it away.
"You cooked!" I exclaim. My mother beams in delight. "You said you didn't cook anymore."
My mother had valve-replacement surgery last year, and recuperation has been slow. She gracefully accepted her limitations, substituting good takeout for the recipes she had spent a lifetime perfecting. But, obviously, lethargy irked her. As soon as she felt better, she flew back to the kitchen as others make a beeline to the gym or to the golf course.
As I look at the liver, my heart makes a little leap. Hers really is the best in the world -- sweet and pungent, with more flavor and grit than pâté -- but that is not the point. Concern about my mother has worn a groove in my shoulders. Every phone call, every heavy silence, weighs me down. Even when I am not with her, I feel myself looking straight into her eyes; the burden grows.
But, now, health has returned. Here, in a cut-glass tureen on the dining-room table, is the proof. From out of the depths of my traveler's exhaustion, hunger arises, not only in anticipation of what I might eat but by the load that is lifting -- my heart taking flight.
I have not eaten chopped liver in years. My friend Karen serves it at big gatherings of friends. I'll take a polite nibble and then go on to carrot sticks and Perrier. In a world of the politically incorrect diet, chicken liver is ne plus ultra of forbidden fare. A cardiologist's full employment act, chopped liver is high in cholesterol, from both the meat and the eggs. But when my mother feels well enough to make chopped liver...the surgeon general be damned.
Some foods are not truly about eating. They are about higher forms of "nourishment" -- history, tradition, family, love. Junior's deli in Westwood sells 30 pounds of chopped liver (theirs is beef) a day. There are a lot of "malnourished" people out there.
When I was a child, my mother and I made chopped liver together whenever my parents entertained. It was part of my apprenticeship, an act of transformation (through cooking, a girl became a woman) that took the entire day. So, more than appetite, it is memory that she is serving -- both hers and mine -- when she prepares chopped liver today.
To make chopped liver for a small crowd, my mother sautés two sliced onions virtually all morning long so that the sweet smell of vegetable sweat permeates the house. She hard-boils four eggs, then places them in a glass bowl of cold water to cool. She adds half a pound of chicken livers to the onion and cooks them until the pink is gone and they've turned a lifeless gray. (When I was in high school biology, I thought nothing of dissecting a frog. After all, I had already cooked raw chicken liver -- hideous, slimy and untouchable in its blood. Nothing could phase me.)
Now we are ready to grind. Before the days of the food processor (use the "pulse" function; it gets the same result), my mother had one of those heavy cast-iron grinders that clamped onto the side of the table. It demanded enormous upper-body strength.
If I hated touching the liver, I was fascinated by the grinding, a sensual experience worthy of Freudian analysis. First, the onions and the eggs are pushed together down the feed tube, followed by the cooked liver; my fingers break, probe and squish the whites and the yolks; the skins of the caramelized onion wrap around my wrist; the innards of the liver heave up over my hands. I feel the exaltation of hard work. Leaning my body into the grinder, I lift and pull and crank the handle, round and round. The mix is impelled down the long screw shaft. Out it comes -- strands of yellow, gold and reddish-brown coils of egg, onion and meat, which, when mixed with salt and pepper and spread on rye bread, "makes drudgery divine," as the poet George Herbert.
When I told my mother I would be writing about her chopped liver this week, she first reddened at the compliment, then blanched. What would people think of her still making food that's as dangerous and suspect as carrying a concealed weapon?
"They won't want it," she said.
Surely, there is a way to capture the legacy that comes with making chopped liver -- the grind and grandeur -- without invoking its 90-megaton cholesterol wallop. Back in Los Angeles, I began a frantic search for an answer. Four recipes later, I presented my mother with my friend Rona's "mock chopped liver" (courtesy of Aunt Rose of Delray Beach, Fla.), which, when refrigerated, comes darn close to the real thing. I thought that it was what we'd both been waiting for.
Caramelize 3 onions in one tablespoon oil; add one 15- oz. can LeSueur petite peas; 1 cup walnuts, finely chopped; eight egg whites (hard-boiled) and two yolks (hard-boiled). Place the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse (about 10 times for each addition). Mix in a bowl. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate before serving.
Mom, however, knew Aunt Rose's recipe all along. "It's not for me," she declared. "I like the real thing."
To each, her own.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal.
Her e- mail address is email@example.com.
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