My mother’s chopped liver, the pièce de résistance of our proper Jewish household, had been the center of our food universe. I loved to help her make it, and Andrew devoured bowlfuls as if it were chocolate pudding. Even our father had no complaints.
But carnivorous Dad left home for a neighbor’s wife. It was the early seventies. My brother was pre-med at Stony Brook and I was trapped in yeshiva high school. The emotional bruises were visible on all of us. Sorting out life after Dad, my mother soon had another tragedy on her hands, perhaps even a bigger one. Not only was she the first divorcée in the neighborhood, her kids were the first weirdoes. We became vegetarian.
In those barely post-Woodstock years, steak was still king, and kale unheard of. The word vegetarian conjured bony wheatgrass fanatics. We had our reasons for decamping from meals of flesh and blood, and the decision held firm.
Mom was forty-six at the time, her ego pretty battered. She still had many good chopped-liver years in front of her, but no longer had any takers. If Andrew and I had no more use for it, my mother feared, we had no use for her.
With unhappiness wholesale in the house, I escaped by blowing pot smoke out the bathroom window and reading obsessively; flipping from the likes of The Sot-Weed Factor to The Vegetarian Epicure. Meanwhile, Mom’s world was shrouded in heartbreak, weight loss, and survival. Newly svelte, she threw away her dresses and bought jeans. She borrowed the first job that she could get—in my great uncle’s jewelry business on the Bowery—and started her urban commute from Long Island to the “shop,” in New York City. In shedding her divorce’s cocoon she progressed from 1950s housewife to liberated-against- her-will single mother.
When my brother came home for his spring break, Mom started to hatch an idea: vegetarian chopped liver. It wasn’t so foreign. We often had eaten it on the Sunday nights of my youth in the kosher dairy restaurants of New York City, from Farm Food and Famous Dairy to Rapoport’s and Ratner’s. Rather than slathering on the guilt by bemoaning, “How could you two do this to me?” she said, “It’s got to be easy. All you do is use more onions and leave out the liver. Right?” Trying to conceptually work out the kinks, she divulged the secret of the past success. It was perhaps the most profound cooking lesson she ever taught me. “It’s always in the onion.” Then there was the punch line, “You caramelize them in Manischewitz.”
Who could have guessed that I (who, much later, became a wine writer focused on the likes of Chinon and Vosne-Romanée) had been weaned on that Jewish “port,” or that Manischewitz actually had some sort of noble purpose?
Then she began to improvise. Out came the grinder. Vegetables were steamed. Eggs boiled hard. Perfume of the intensely rich, Manischewitz-spiked onions filled Mom’s butterfly-decorated kitchen. Like an old team, the three of us scraped out the pan, licked the sticky onion jam off the spoon. The dish was liver-free and looked a little anemic, but was even more addictive than ever. It took her many more years to find herself again, but this was how the healing began.