My grandmother is perched on a stepladder to stir the pot of soup on the stove, teetering when she leans in too far. They call her Sophie here in the cramped catering kitchen for wedding parties in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she cooks dinner for a hundred and twenty people. But to me she is always Mom Mom, the one who peers into the broth that churns, breathing in the scent, and sometimes scooping her long handled spoon for a taste. As a sixteen year-old girl, I watch Mom Mom and wonder how she could be so focused on something that isn’t a boy or the Beetles or a driving lesson. But there she is, removing her rimless glasses when they steam up so she can pinch them in her apron, her bright cornflower blue eyes suddenly seeming smaller. She drops a handful of sage and thyme and oregano tied together with string or hoists the cutting board high to scrape off the scallions, parsnips, and other vegetables whose names I can’t begin to remember.
Yet Mom Mom knows exactly what to do. Heady with the musk of roots and brine, I brace her ankles on the ladder as she strains out ham hocks and dredges for waterlogged celeriac in the massive pot. The flames of the six burner stove nip at us. I can’t fathom how so much stuff could be gurgling inside that pot, but then she adds some more carrots and watches it return to a boil. By then, every surface — the streaked linoleum floor, the stainless steel backsplash, the saccharine peach walls and us, are covered in mist. We wipe our sweat with hand towels from the rung of a butcher block and keep going. What to me is a mystery – cooking – is to Mom Mom a ritual performed since childhood among her four German siblings from recipes she recites like a poem, or a song, or your prayers before bed. Now, standing beneath her on the ladder in the caterer’s kitchen feels like a privilege.
The music outside in the wedding reception stops and that is our cue to serve the bowls that cause people to fan their face, then let out moans of enjoyment. Stuffed with ham, onions, garlic and herbs, each savory mouthful of gefülte noodle swirls in its own vaporizing lake. I too, want to make people happy this way. Sometimes the bride even asks Mom Mom to come out of the kitchen for a short bow, along with the other chefs. Mom Mom is a star. But more importantly, she communicates the love she’s been passed down through that delicate stock and the complex pastry squares that float there like memories.
Now that Mom Mom is eighty years old, we have to sneak off to work in the catering kitchen, where we satisfy an often un-named desire; to be on our own. Maybe I never will really solve the mystery of her patience and willingness to do this over and over, but the routine gives me comfort. And she understands the mystery of my aloneness. Mom Mom tells my mother, “Leave her alone, that’s what she needs,” meaning me.
“Yeah, Mom,” I add, “Let Mom Mom go to work, it’s what she needs,” And off we go together.
After the toasts, when the wedding guests are sated, their silverware clanking on their plates, Mom Mom and I sit huddled under the wall lamp in the kitchen, our bowls of gefülte noodle soup in our laps. We lock eyes and sip the soup wordlessly, sometimes humming as if being transported back to the old country where this dish was conceived. Mom Mom cocks her head in the direction of the crowded hall. We listen to the voices, but the words come up empty, like they are not meant. So, we fill our spoons and resume eating, dabbing a napkin here or there, and sometimes to our eyes.