By Harriet P. Gross
I recently led some discussion on a very interesting novel, “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” by Jessica Soffer. She’s a young writer who has mined her Iranian Jewish background for much of this story; the book’s title is translated from a saying akin to the Yiddish one I grew up with: morg’n zein besser — loosely equivalent to “tomorrow will be better.”
This was a Tycher Library book group meeting, which usually attracts a crowd. But the small number who attended for “Apricots” (including two who flat-out hated it, one of whom said she couldn’t even finish reading it!) attested to its difficulty. It’s full of harsh themes, including self-mutilation (in this case, “cutting”), non-communication and parental neglect. But the glue that holds everything together here is food!
The story is told first-person by two alternating protagonists: young Lorca, whose emotionally stunted mother is a chef; and elderly Victoria, who once, with her late husband, ran a restaurant. Lorca has almost literally grown up in the kitchen. Trying to wring some love from her cruelly cold mother, the girl is determined to find instructions for making what she’s learned is mom’s favorite of all dishes: something called masgouf.
Now, if you just Google that word, you’ll have no trouble learning it’s the name of a fish from the Tigris, often served in restaurants in and around Baghdad. And you’ll also learn exactly how to prepare it. But Lorca does not Google; she couldn’t, because if she did, the author would have no tale to tell!
Instead, Soffer sends her on a search for the recipe, a journey that begins with secretly raiding her mother’s private nooks and crannies, and ends in her meeting Victoria, an unhappy New Yorker from Iran who‘s eager to share the beloved foods of her homeland.
The final lesson for Lorca is not embodied in the fish, but in the belated knowledge that what her mother really loved wasn’t masgouf; it was the memory of the wonderful family atmosphere in the restaurant where it had once been served.
All of this made me think about the importance of my own family’s old recipes. Sometimes a food can be properly prepared only by the one who originated its preparation. I know this because my Boubby the Philosopher made sour cream kichel, and my mother made steamed chocolate pudding, and although I have both original recipes, including step-by-step instructions, I cannot bring to the table anything that even faintly resembles what those two women used to serve.
My Boubby would roll out a plain and simple dough, then cut it into large, largely irregular shapes with a sharp knife. What later emerged from her oven was pan after pan of pale, airy cookies, just perfect for dunking in oversized mugs of coffee.
When I try, I get hard, dark discs that MUST be dunked in coffee just to render them chewable.
My mother’s steamed chocolate pudding wasn’t what anyone usually thinks of as pudding; it was a tall, porous cake, made to slice and serve in bowls that can accommodate the pouring over of much cold milk. With that addition, the cake turns into its title.
But even with the very pot in which my mother used to steam this favorite dessert — an ancient, three-cornered piece of Club Aluminum — I always pull from my oven an ordinary cake, so dense that it’s unable to absorb anything.
Others in my family have also tried to replicate these foods, also repeatedly, also with similarly unsatisfactory results. So, I must conclude that there’s a missing ingredient: the special love those two women could incorporate into their own creations.
If you’d like to try making sour cream kichel or steamed chocolate pudding, I’ll happily share their recipes. And if masgouf sounds good — Google away. But remember: whatever spells love for you today may become the metaphorical apricots of your own family’s tomorrow!