Professional food writers may know more than other people about searing duck breasts à point or detecting hints of locally sourced turpentine in some chef’s spruce-needle sorbet. But do we really understand cooking — the intrinsic humanity of the act — any better than anybody else? Not on your life. I’ve never seen a book that drove home the point more devastatingly than Alex Witchel’s “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments.”
For the benefit of the very young: Witchel is a longstanding New York Times fixture who at different times dished on the theater scene and became known for celebrity profiles that often reduced the subjects to chunks of shish kebab quivering over the fire. Subsequently the paper turned her loose on the dining beat in a monthly column titled “Feed Me.”
In a startling change of course, her new book relates the dreadful fallout from several unsuspected mini-strokes that her mother suffered in late middle age but that remained undiagnosed until crucial brain functions began disappearing. Over about a decade, the family would watch memory, reason and finally all but a bare shred of identity depart from the woman who used to hold up the sky. A blow-by-blow chronicle of Barbara Witchel’s advancing illness, and its effect on Alex, is one of the two main intertwined narrative threads of the book. The other, a stormy saga tracing aspects of Witchel family dynamics and Alex’s adult life, spans close to 50 years and includes a strong emphasis on food.
“All Gone” can be read as a quasi-sequel to “Girls Only,” Alex Witchel’s 1996 valentine to the loving but prickly mutual irritation society formed by her mother, herself and her much younger sister Phoebe. But it stands on its own as a far fiercer postcard from some unthinkable edge. A relatively mild sample is this theater-of-the-absurd exchange partway through the wrecking process, when Alex tries to bounce the terrible maternal plea “I want you to kill me” back into Barbara’s court:
“She was monumentally offended. ‘Committing suicide is against the Jewish religion!’ she declared.
“I was dumbfounded. ‘So is committing murder!’ ”
Family recipes in ‘All Gone’ not what you might expect
Though food becomes a unifying leitmotiv of the two interwoven stories, it’s emphatically not the kind of food you might expect from anyone with Witchel’s reputation as mistress of the lethally sophisticated putdown. It comes from a different quadrant of her universe, a space where she can hold a sort of mental conversation with a beloved parent no longer able to converse.
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By Alex Witchel
Riverhead, 2012, 224 pages
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And what a parent! Barbara Witchel diligently raised four children and kept a kosher kitchen for a demanding husband while (successively) teaching school, earning two graduate degrees and becoming a college professor. Nobody else’s mother was doing such things in 1960s and ’70s Passaic, N.J., or Scarsdale, N.Y. The woman had a tight ship to run, and her gallantry in running it made her the eternal heroine of Alex (the oldest child, and her deputized lieutenant).
Alex can still taste in memory the standbys and special treats of her mother’s (or occasionally her Witchel grandmother’s) culinary repertoire. She’s able to make the rest of us sense how meatloaf anchored the universe, how Chicken Polynesian hinted at voyages to its very margin. Thirteen selected recipes — the “refreshments” of the sardonic subtitle — appended to the book’s eight chapters document some of the dishes in question, and most will be quite a surprise to anybody expecting chic, sleek “foodie” food.
Alex has presented these pieces of the Witchel culinary heritage pretty much as she remembers them — the rough and ready, shortcut-bolstered labors of a resourceful Jewish wife, mother and career woman who, according to her daughter, treated cooking as a far from welcome duty but understood how to make dinner “the center of the day, its organizing principle.” The recipes are all meant to fit into kosher “meat meals” (ones from which dairy products are excluded). They’re also meant to deliver the fastest possible results with the least possible trouble. Hence the meatloaf bound with canned tomato soup (not cream of tomato) and cornflakes, the nondairy creamer in spinach kugel, the canned tomato combo in Frankfurter Goulash, the mixture of garlic powder and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt used to season a roasting chicken. No clever airbrushing of family snapshots here.
Two recipes stand as telling bookends for everything else, while also pointing to a kind of relay station between past and present generations. The first is the talismanic meatloaf, the Barbara Witchel perennial that Alex instinctively begins re-creating in her own kitchen while watching her mother’s memory and intellect disappear. It’s an attempt to salvage something permanent from chaos, the edible equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The other formula, which concludes the book, is not Barbara’s recipe but one that came to serve the same purpose for Alex, her husband and her cherished stepsons: a mammoth dish of skillet-braised chicken breasts with 80 (yup, you read right) cloves of garlic and enough rosemary to fumigate a hospital ward; three cups of olive oil first go into the cooking and then do duty as a serving sauce.
Anyone who doubts that those two dishes, in unvarnished form, were and are the food of love needs remedial tutoring in family values.
My mother, like Alex’s, cooked the day’s meals not for pleasure or adventure but as an unromantic responsibility that maintained stable, loving order in our small bit of the cosmos. I read “All Gone” marveling that I could ever have looked down on, rather than up to, such an achievement. It’s an honor to meet Barbara Witchel as she was before her mind was ravaged, and celebrate the kind of cooking she stands for.
Top photo composite: “All Gone” book cover. Alex Witchel. Credit: Fred R. Conrad