Every afternoon, after school, I would see two square, white, covered ceramic pots on the stove. One would contain a starch (usually rice or potatoes) and the other a protein (usually chicken or steak). These combinations, plus a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and Thousand Island dressing from a bottle, comprised most of my childhood dinners. (Around thirteen I joined my best friend in vegetarianism, and ate a lot of pasta.)
In cooking, as in other domains, my mother is a planner. She made dinner in the early afternoons to “get it out of the way,” and reheated everything in the microwave before my dad got home. Timing that was always tricky, because my dad is always late. To estimate his true arrival time, we’d take his given ETA and add 15–20 minutes. Either way, we’d start eating by 7:30 p.m.
My favorite dish of my mother’s actually comes from my late-teenage years, when we started eating more fish. I went pescetarian, my parents realized they should eat less red meat, and Vancouver, where they live, conveniently teems with fish.
When I describe the dish, I wince. In fact, I’m shaking my head already. If I hadn’t eaten it so many times as a younger person and loved it, I would never have thought to eat it, or trusted anyone who suggested I try it—much less make it myself. It’s from the eighties. It sounds gross and, if I’m honest, a little tacky. It’s salmon baked with mayonnaise and onion-soup mix. For my sister and me, who don’t eat much packaged food these days, salmon with soup mix is a delicious comfort—the kind of thing you crave because your mother makes it, you only eat at home, and when you have it, you love it, despite (or maybe because of) the way you normally eat.
Just trust me. Caramelize your own onions, if you want; make your own mayonnaise or spoon it from a jar. Either way, it’ll come out soft and gently flavorful. Would I ever make this dish at my home and serve it to friends? If I did, it’d be with equal parts irony and nostalgia, accompanied by booze. But eating it at my parents’ house is void of irony. It tastes like growing up, like eating dinner together at home. —Tamara Micner
Tell me about this recipe.
I found about the recipe from my mother-in-law. Their family had been making that recipe for many years, and quite a few years ago, we started making it ourselves.
Is there anything you do that’s different from how Baba makes it?
The only difference is that she sometimes barbecues it, and I never barbecue it. I always put it in the oven.
Do they cover it with foil on the barbecue?
Yes, I think they do. It’s pretty good as well.
Why do you use red spring salmon?
We like the taste of it. We find sockeye and coho too strong-tasting. This is a more mild-tasting fish.
I know you ate a lot of salmon growing up, because your mom made you.
Yes, salmon and other fish like sole and halibut, when I was a teenager.
Nowadays you don’t like some of the foods she made you eat, but you do like salmon.
I do. I think it was mostly white fish I ate when I was on diets, so that’s probably why I still like salmon.
Tell us about where you were born and where you grew up.
I was born in Chile, in 1960. I grew up in Chile until I was ten years old. Then we moved to Israel, with my parents and my brother, and I was fourteen when we moved from Israel to Vancouver. So I guess you could say I grew up in three different countries.
Do you have a favorite food memory from when you were a kid?
There was this cake that they used to order when I had birthday parties in the Estadio Israelita. It was lúcuma with crema pastelera, and it was very good.
Can you describe lúcuma and crema pastelera?
Lúcuma is a fruit. You boil it and make it into a purée, you add sugar, and you use that as a frosting. For crema pastelera, you use sugar and eggs and flour and milk and vanilla extract, and you make a frosting from it.
I think it’s like crème pâtissière.
Yes, it is. It was a sponge cake, with the lúcuma and the crema pastelera as frosting. Everybody seemed to like it.
Do you have a favorite food memory from Israel?
I would say the bourekas that my aunt’s mother, Ora’s mother, used to make from scratch. When we used to visit Kibbutz Amir, where they lived, we would have that in the afternoons. She was from Lithuania. Her name was Shenka.
Do you think you and your mom had similar tastes?
We both liked traditional Chilean food and traditional Jewish food. But she didn’t cook, and she was more into vegetables and fruit—which I ate, but it wasn’t by choice.
You don’t cook that much, either.
That’s true. But I used to when you and Mimi were growing up. I cooked every day.
Where did those recipes come from?
I took cooking classes in high school, and I didn’t really use recipes for everyday cooking. I just made more basic things, like roast chicken, steak, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, rice, and vegetables.
Do you have a favorite thing to cook?
My favorite thing to cook is a turkey. But I only make that when I have a lot of people over, because it feeds a lot of people and it takes awhile. The preparation doesn’t, but it takes about three hours in the oven.
And you have to take it out and baste it.
Yes. Not everybody does that, but I do that every half an hour, and it comes out really juicy.
Tamara Micner is a playwright and journalist who lives in London and hails from Vancouver. Born in Chile, Karen Micner has lived in Vancouver since the ’70s, and used to teach high school French and Spanish.