I can still see her today. Tall, blond, and statuesque, a platinum-haired goddess with perfect teeth and a year-round tan. She was standing in the middle of the dance floor at my parents’ annual Christmas party – except it wasn’t really a dance floor. It was the dining room of our house, but with all the furniture pushed back. Her husband, who was our dentist, was sitting at the piano, jamming with the jazz trio who my parents had hired for the occasion, while all the men, including my father, hovered around her, hoping for the chance to ask her to dance.
I hadn’t thought about her for years until a friend of mine, who was cleaning out her bookshelves, gave me a fragile, spiral-bound, grease-splattered cookbook that was published in the 1960s by the Junior Auxiliary of the local hospital, where her husband served as a trustee and president of the medical staff. Their oldest child, the first of four, went to school with me and was in my Girl Scout troop.
Normally, I would have enjoyed it because I have a weakness for retro food of the fifties, the kind of recipes that call for a can of cream of mushroom or chicken or celery soup. Or all three. For a salad section where, of the sixteen offerings, eleven are for Jell-O molds and only one – the Quickie Caesar – sees fit to include any lettuce. But it wasn’t as comforting as it could have been. I happened to be looking through it in the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, and all of a sudden, the past didn’t seem as past anymore.
I saw the names of other women whose children I went to school with, whose daughters were in my Scout troop, whose husbands and brothers owned shops on Main Street, where my father, and his father before him, ran a furniture store for many years. Many identified themselves by the title Mrs. and their husbands’ first and last names.
Joy, the platinum-haired goddess of the dance floor, contributed nine recipes across all the major categories – appetizers, main courses, and desserts. She lived with her family in a new subdivision down the street from us. Their house was typical of the ones going up on the outskirts of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s: low-slung, all the rooms on one level, each home with its own driveway and an attached garage. It was so unlike ours, a plain white box of deep closets and steep staircases, with mice scurrying around the coal furnace in the dank basement and fireplaces in all the major rooms.
Inside their house, everything was modern and electric. All the labor-saving appliances – can opener, coffeemaker, blender, mixer – were arrayed along the kitchen counter ready to be deployed when she put together the dishes that were part of her repertoire. For appetizers, cold ham rolls and clam cocktail dunk. For mains, veal cutlets paprikash and cheese fondue; for dessert, a variation of ambrosia called Heavenly Hash, a miracle salad for a miracle age, made out of marshmallows, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, cream cheese, salad dressing, and whipped cream.
Her husband’s dental practice was space age too, with all the latest equipment in a suite of rooms that managed to be both cheerful and antiseptic. I loved to go because he used chocolate-flavored toothpaste and I never had any cavities. He used to joke, “If all my patients were like you, I’d go out of business.” What I remember most, though, were his dark hairy arms and hands as he poked around in my mouth or played the piano at my parents’ parties.
He was part of a large Italian family. I don’t know where Joy’s ancestors came from but she was what Philip Roth would have called a shikseh goddess, a Marilyn Monroe to his Arthur Miller, if Miller had been a small-town Italian American dentist. When he died a few years ago, at age 89, they’d been married for 65 years. In pictures of her from that era, you can see a steely intelligence, a woman who seems to know who she is and what she wants. But did she?
The obituary said they met when she was working in the kitchen of a local bar and got to know his brother, who played in the band. I wondered if she’d ever gone to college or trained for a career. If she had ever aspired to be a doctor or was content to be a doctor’s wife. Maybe as a girl she had wanted nothing more than to be the perfect homemaker and mother, with all the arduous labor that that would entail.
Some of the women who contributed to the cookbook, which was called Favorite Recipes, did work outside the home. Like Gert, whose husband, then brother, ran a furniture store right across the street from ours. She was the office manager although I have no idea if she got paid. I tended to doubt it since I knew from my own circumstances that unpaid labor was the key to success in a family business.
I lingered over Gert’s recipes, especially the one for Hungarian cookies, a basic sugar cookie with almond flavoring and chocolate icing. It reminded me of my own Eastern European immigrant ancestors. She – we – were part of the small Jewish community in Mount Pleasant, which at the time was mostly white and very Catholic. There were a handful of Greeks and Syrians, as well as a small number of Black families, but not a single Asian person that I can recall until the mid-1960s, when a Filipino doctor moved to town to practice at the hospital. As a result, there was no authentic Asian food in Mount Pleasant or in the cookbook, just a recipe for baked chop suey, consisting of ground meat, chopped onions and celery, cans of cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soup, soy sauce, and rice. I guess the Asian part was the soy sauce. Or maybe the rice.
I looked at Gert’s other recipes too – all for sweets. The Hungarian cookies were by far the most ethnic. The other ones, for chocolate cream pie and semisweet nut loaf, were neutral. In my mind sort of goyish. Not like rugelach. Or kichel. Or, God forbid, hamantaschen.
It struck me that that was the way you had to be Jewish in Mount Pleasant – not too much, not too out there, otherwise you’d invite a pogrom. You could always feel it lurking under the surface, an imminent eruption of the epithet that I would hear now and then: “Dirty Jew.” Spat out. Said with a hatred that seemed to come out of nowhere. (Like what did I do? I was only eight.) Best to be polite, unassuming, like Gert’s recipe for nut loaf. (After her husband died, Ma and Dad would invite her over for dinner because they took pity on all the Jewish widows in town.)
Gert’s daughter, Linda, also provided some recipes for the book. She volunteered in the coffee shop at the hospital. But she also worked outside the home, as a medical secretary and selling jewelry at a mall. One of her recipes, for Louisiana baked beans, reminded me of a similar dish that my mother made in the sixties, jazzing up canned baked beans with molasses, ketchup, dried mustard, brown sugar, and hot dogs or bacon, then baking it in a moderate oven for an hour.
However, there were no recipes from my mother, even though she was a fabulous cook, because she didn’t belong to the Junior Auxiliary. She worked alongside my dad in the store on Main Street almost from the moment she stopped having babies until he died and she moved to Pittsburgh. They would leave the house together at 8:30 in the morning and come home at 5, at which point she’d throw on an apron and start to make dinner, doing the retail furniture version of backwards and in heels. On Fridays and Saturdays, when the store was open late, they’d go back. Yet for nearly thirty years, she never drew a salary, which rankled her long after she retired. She told us Dad used to say, “But Sally, you know you can buy anything you want!” She knew but didn’t care. It was the principle of the thing.
I don’t know if the women of the Junior Auxiliary cookbook bristled at their helpmate roles like she did. Or if they felt limited in their choices. Or if they wished they’d had access to birth control and abortion. But I know my mom did.
She had us right away because my dad was desperate to prove his masculinity – he told us that. Maybe she did want kids. But within a year of getting married? And it would have happened even sooner if she hadn’t have had a miscarriage. And five in eight years? I remember her saying in a bitter tone of voice, “The whole time I smelled like a cheese factory.” In 1958, when my younger sister Rachel was born, she went to her ob-gyn and said imploringly, “Isn’t there something you can do?” He told her about the IUD and that was it—her childbearing years were over.
If she’d had more choices, if she’d known about birth control, if she’d had access to abortion, would her life, and therefore my life, and the lives of my siblings, be different? I’m pretty sure they would have. Were we important to her? Absolutely. Were we everything? Absolutely not. Nor did she ever express a desire for us to “give” her grandchildren. In fact, my father was downright opposed to the idea. Once he had proven his masculinity beyond any shadow of a doubt, he lost interest in the procreation game. They simply didn’t give a damn if we carried on the family line – both of them just felt there was a life out there far richer than anything Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, population 5,000, had to offer.
But what about the other women? Gert had two kids. Linda had three. Joy had four. Ma had five. Did any of them ever consider having an abortion? Such a thing existed in Mount Pleasant in the sixties, even though it was illegal. I know because my mother told me. She helped someone get one; for as long as I can remember, she was strongly in favor of a woman’s right to choose. If she were alive now, she’d be livid at the Supreme Court’s decision.
Then again, Ma was always a misfit. She never felt truly at home in Mount Pleasant, even though she lived there for forty years. She thought Dot, another mother of five whose oldest kid went to school with my older sister Janet, was the parent and housewife she could never be, marveling at the fact that she put her damp clothes waiting to be ironed in the refrigerator to make it easier for the wrinkles to come out.
Dot had a recipe in the cookbook too – for something called angel food dessert that involved alternating layers of broken cake and custard in an angel food pan. Back in 1973, what did she think of Roe v. Wade? And what would she have thought about the decision to strike it down? I had no idea. She belonged to a big Catholic family, but you just never knew.
Wherever Ma was and whatever she did, she always managed to find people who were as talented and creative and progressive as she was, people like Sue, who also lived down the street from us and put on an art camp every summer in her backyard for the neighborhood kids. She was another woman of boundless energy, submitting recipes to the Junior Auxiliary effort for chili con carne, tomato macaroni casserole, and orange delight salad, one of the eleven Jell-O-based recipes in the book. Hers called for two packages – lemon and orange – plus crushed pineapple, Dream Whip, and canned mandarin oranges.
As I leafed through the pages, thinking about Christmas cranberry punch and maple divinity and contraception and pogroms, I no longer felt the need to make a Jell-O mold salad ironically or a tuna casserole with Velveeta cheese. I realized that it had only been pleasurable for me to think about these things because I didn’t have to live in Mount Pleasant the way my mother did when, back in 1949, she decided to marry my father, who, in turn, felt compelled to take over his father’s business.
Indeed, I had lost my appetite entirely for virtually all the recipes in the book just as I had lost my appetite for all those years before Roe. And even though it was fun to think about white go-go boots and bouffant hairdos and the blue cat’s eye glasses that I wore in fifth grade, I realized the past really was the past, and I had no interest in going back.
Ann Levin is a writer and book reviewer who worked for many years at The Associated Press. Her essays and memoir have appeared or are forthcoming in Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Potato Soup Journal, Main Street Rag, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, and the Read650 anthologies. You can read her work at annlevinwriter.com and follow her on Twitter @annlevinnyc.