Chopped Liver

By Marty Ross-Dolen

Twebhe phone conversation with my grandparents will always feel like it happened moments ago, not years ago. Not in the fall of 1999, the year we moved from New York City to Albany, New York, closer to family; the year we bought our first house and our first dining room set and decided to host our first Rosh Hashanah dinner. I had most of the recipes that I needed: the matzos balls in homemade soup, forever-cooked brisket soaked in chili sauce and beer, potato kugel casserole, honeyed carrot and sweet potato tzimmes stew, and spiced honey cake served with slices of apple. But one special recipe was missing, the family delicacy—my grandparents’ chopped liver.

*   *   *

“Hi, Grandma! It’s Marty!” I slowly yelled into the phone after she answered, blank recipe card in hand. My husband never questioned who was on the other end when I was speaking to my grandparents. The volume and speed of my speech was completely indicative.

“Hold on—I need to turn down the television.” Half a minute later she would return to the receiver, not sure who was on the phone, unable to make out the initial voice with the television sounds behind her. Once she knew who it was, we exchanged pleasantries, my checking in, her wondering why I hadn’t called until now.

“Grandma, I want to make chopped liver like you used to make,” I yelled. “Do you remember how you used to make it? Can you tell me the recipe?”

She laughed, a laugh that I knew better than any. And she told me to hold on, that she was going to get my grandfather.

*   *   *

My father’s parents were ethnic Jews. Both born to Jewish Austrian parents who immigrated at the turn of the twentieth century, they were raised in the boroughs of New York City and taught to understand Yiddish, eat Eastern European Jewish food, follow Jewish superstitions and customs, and marry Jewish, if they knew what was good for them. My grandfather became a bar mitzvah in the Reform synagogue in Washington Heights, the section of northern Manhattan where he lived with his family at the time. He met my grandmother during a summer off from dental school—he was a counselor at Camp Windsor, a camp for Jewish kids that my grandmother’s parents owned in Starlight, Pennsylvania, on the edge of the Pocono Mountains. He fell in love with the owners’ youngest daughter, and they eloped soon after, a braided wedding band he made from strips of dental gold encircling her left ring finger.

Without reference to God or religion in their adult lives, my grandparents raised their children in the hamlet of Roslyn Heights, Nassau County, Long Island, in a small suburban house that backed up to the Northern State Parkway. “If you close your eyes and relax your mind, the speeding cars will sound like a roaring brook,” my grandmother would say on our visits, tucking me into the built-in bed in the wall where my dad had slept as a boy. Lulling me to my dreams, she would run her perfectly polished, rock-hard fingernails down my bare back, a “back scratch that tickles” that I begged for every time we had a moment together.

“We never joined a synagogue, didn’t celebrate the holidays,” my dad describes. “At Christmas time they would hang lights on a philodendron plant and call it a tree.” With the determined efforts to assimilate, to fit in, to be Americans in 1950s suburbia rather than Jews, my grandparents worked hard to deny their heritage, steaming clams and oysters in the backyard and skipping Yom Kippur and Passover, raising children who knew they were Jewish but didn’t know what that meant.

Yet the pieces of their own parents and the generations before, the parts that made them who they were, their ethnicity, was stuck to them, glued like the honey in the carrot tzimmes. I remember as a child the sounds of their house, Yiddish phrases and loud discussions about politicians and politics, cheers and jeers aimed at the umpire during the Yankees game. They argued with one another for the sake of arguing, rolling their eyes and turning their backs, but these quarrels were quickly forgotten when interrupted by whatever new distraction came along. They found humor in sarcasm and puns, loved the opera, classical music, and the Belmont Stakes, and found great pleasure in the experience of retail. And they made their own chopped liver from scratch, a delicacy served for guests and sometimes for themselves alone, together.

*   *   *

“Hello?” My grandfather was now on the other phone, speaking slowly and faintly, his voice shaking a bit, while my grandmother went back to her spot at the other phone, probably in the kitchen.

“Hi, Grandpa!” Yelling again. “I am calling to get the instructions for making chopped liver the way that you and Grandma used to make it. Do you remember making chopped liver?”

I could hear his eyes smiling in the silence on the phone.

*   *   *

My mother was raised Methodist, but as my father wished to develop his own Jewish identity after leaving his parents’ home, my brothers and I were raised Jewish until I was ten, when my parents divorced. I took a Jewish Studies course in college and attended the medical school affiliated with Yeshiva University, surrounding myself with Jewish students and teachers of all degrees of religious observance. I met my husband there, a man with two Jewish parents and zero Jewish ambivalence, and we chose to raise a family steeped in the rituals and rites of Judaism, marked by a holiday table set with the necessary dishes and foods, filling the house the day before with the aromas of preparation.

*   *   *

My grandparents were living in a high-rise in Fort Lauderdale by this point, having moved to the land of retired ethnic Jews twenty years before to play Bingo, watch cruise ships sail to and from harbor, frequent the all-you-can-eat shrimp bar at the local Marriott restaurant. They had enjoyed the early years there, my grandfather befriending neighbors at the pool, my grandmother visiting her sisters in the next building over, both volunteering at the local hospital. I tried to visit them once a year during my spring breaks from high school, college, medical school, year after year tanning by the pool with my grandfather and his friends, watching Wheel of Fortune with tall parfait glasses filled with mint chocolate chip and a frozen bite-size Snickers, dressing up for the weekly Bingo game that always promised a few dollars’ winnings.

But by the time I was calling for the chopped liver recipe, my grandparents’ existence had begun to sour in Fort Lauderdale; their sisters and cousins and friends were dying, their hearing impaired, the television always on, volume turned high just to be audible. They had always argued with one another, bickering and turning their backs, but the arguments had become mean, filled with resentment, regret, anger about growing old and holding each other back, as if either was going anywhere. I began to dread my weekly phone calls to them, once enjoyable conversations about the cruise ships’ schedules and the goings-on in my busy life, now discussions filled with complaints and irritations.

He’s so slow, she whispered into the receiver. He takes forever when he walks down the hall to the elevator to go get the mail. I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t live this way.

Seething words that flowed in between short puffs of her cigarette, a slight whine in her voice, an imagined protruding lower lip. And she was right; he had a shuffling gait and moved slowly, very, very slowly, from room to room and back.

I can’t breathe, he complained when she was out of earshot. Her smoking is going to kill me. She wants to kill me. And she’s always angry with me, always telling me to hurry up, always yelling at me.

Speaking through clenched teeth, head probably shaking side to side. And he was right. Her smoking was oppressive, horrible, filling the room with smog and stink. And she probably did yell at him, and, on some level, she probably did want him dead.

And I hated it all. I found that I would have to recover from my conversations with them, process their unhappiness, before I could continue with my day. I stopped calling until I could not stand the silence anymore, could only remember the good conversations and needed to be reminded of the bad. Then I would connect by phone, be reprimanded for the delay, and my stomach would churn, knowing that their imperfect marriage had come to be filled with this vitriol, that I couldn’t be on the phone with one or both and laugh for any length of time. I loved them both too much to be privy to their rage against each other.

But I wanted that chopped liver recipe.

*   *   *

“Mac, didn’t we start with about a pound of fresh chicken livers from the butcher? I think it was one pound. First we would brown them in the pan with some schmaltz, get the schmutz off of them,” my grandmother started.

“But not too much schmaltz,” my grandfather reminded her quickly, as if looking over her shoulder as she stood over the stove. “You don’t want to use too much of the chicken fat.”

“No, not too much,” she agreed. She agreed. She was agreeing with him.

He continued slowly. “You need to get two onions. I’m trying to think of the kind. Big ones. The biggest you can find. And you slice them very thin. What kind of onions again, Roz?”

“White onions. Get white ones and slice them very thin,” she repeated. “Because you need to cook them slowly, and they cook better if they are sliced thin. In a little of that chicken fat, you cook them. Cook them until they are golden brown, right, Mac? It takes a long time.”

“That’s right, Roz. White onions. Not too much of the fat, though.” My grandfather’s voice was serious, sturdier as he spoke, as his memories surfaced. “You cook them for a half hour or more even, stirring them all the time, golden brown. Just keep stirring them.”

I wondered if my grandparents could see each other while they were in different rooms on different phones. I can’t remember if they had a cordless phone or not, allowing for the mobility. I imagined them each seated in a different spot, and instead of seeing each other as they were in Fort Lauderdale, they were seeing each other as the other used to be, young, fun, standing in the kitchen in the house on Long Island, preparing for company with onions on the stove and clams steaming in the backyard, my grandmother smoking a cigarette, my grandfather shuffling, but not quite as slowly, and loving each other then for the things that they hated each other for now.

“Once the onions are a golden brown, you put the livers back in the pan and stir it all together until the livers are cooked through,” my grandmother continued. “Then you let the pan cool a bit, and you take some hardboiled eggs. Like four or so. Or maybe six. What do you think, Mac? Was it four eggs?”

“I’d say four to six hardboiled eggs. It depends on their size, I’d say.”

As I busily wrote the details of this conversation on the recipe card, smiling and giggling to myself as they looked to each other for every reference, a confirmation of each detail, I realized that my grandparents were engaged in a decades-old dance, a lovely, happy heel-clicker-turned-waltz composed of two voices, taking turns, tossing back and forth, leaning and balancing.

“Then you’ve got to get out the meat grinder to combine it all, of course.”

Huh. The meat grinder.

“Where is the meat grinder, anyway?” I interrupted. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I remembered seeing it on their kitchen counter in Roslyn Heights during a visit when I was little, attached with a clamp to the edge, a thick, silver, hand-cranked machine where solid foods entered one end and mush exited the other.

“I don’t know where it is,” my grandmother answered. “Do you know where it is, Mac? I need to look for it. We must still have it somewhere. And you can have it, dear. As soon as I find it, you can come get it.”

*   *   *

Unfortunately, traveling to Florida from New York had become an option that I was no longer considering. A few years before, I had decided to book a trip to Fort Lauderdale for the sole purpose of convincing my grandparents to stop fighting, to talk it all out in my neutral presence and find peace. I remember sitting at the gate at La Guardia, looking out the giant windows at the high winds and rain, and deciding, suddenly, that I did not want to be in the presence of their rage. I did not want to be the one to temper it, to place myself in the line of fire. So I called them from La Guardia to let them know that I was cancelling, that the weather looked bad to me, and I didn’t want to get on the airplane.

Of course they were heartbroken, and I felt sick that I had caused such disappointment, knowing full well that visits from family were rare. But I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew that I was protecting myself from seeing what I could hear on the phone, the sneers and eye rolls, the constant unhappiness with one another. I also had the feeling that I would never go to them again, sure that I would see them regularly on their visits to me and to family that lived close by. Ten more years they lived in Florida, and I didn’t visit them once in that time. I held too tight to the moments when they were happy there, refusing to replace those memories with the unhappy ones they were making now.

*   *   *

“That’s all right,” I scrambled, quickly thinking of what I might use rather than the meat grinder. “I have my Cuisinart that you gave us for our wedding. That should do the job. I’m fine without the grinder.”

“Well, I suppose you could do the same thing then with the food processor as you would with the meat grinder,” my grandmother said. “You just have to be sure not to mix it up too much, make it into a paste. It needs to have texture. Don’t you think so, Mac?”

“I wish she had that grinder.” My grandfather paused. “But you can try. See how it goes. First, you add some of the cooled livers and onions, then an egg or two, then the livers and onions, then an egg or two, alternate, until you like the consistency, until it looks right. Then add the salt and pepper. Not too much. Just to taste.”

“Right,” my grandmother echoed. “Don’t forget a little salt and pepper. But taste it. Don’t add too much. You don’t want it to be too salty.”

And then there was silence. We were each tasting the chopped liver in our minds, adding the necessary salt, turning the handle of the grinder one last time for them, pulsing the Cuisinart once or twice more for me.

“Those were good times, weren’t they, Roz?” my grandfather broke the quiet.

“Yes,” she responded warmly. “They really were.”

*   *   *

The chopped liver that I made that year, carefully pulsing the food processor, protecting the texture, was divine. The hit of the holiday. My father was thrilled—“Almost perfect,” he said. “Just about right.”

And I knew what he meant. Perfect would have required the kitchen on Long Island, clams steaming in the back, the roaring brook of cars on the Parkway, laughter, smoking, shuffling, and taking turns at the crank of the meat grinder.

*   *   *

My grandparents are gone now, and I miss them deeply. A couple of years ago, after they died, my aunt brought me the meat grinder. It’s in pretty miserable shape, tarnished, the surface pitted from years of sea salt air while packed away in the Florida kitchen cabinet. And although I haven’t used it, I like knowing it’s there, its essence filled with what was good about my grandparents’ marriage, their heritage, the ethnic traits that they couldn’t help but transpire, those that I carry on. Perhaps one day I will polish it, scrub the pits, and put it to use again, relieving it from the deleterious effects of time.

___

Marty Ross-Dolen is a retired child psychiatrist currently staying home to raise her two children.  She lives with her family in Bexley, Ohio, where she devotes her time to writing and volunteering in the community.  She has attended several writing conferences and three graduate-level creative nonfiction classes at The Ohio State University.  Her work has most recently appeared in Foliate Oak and The Penmen Review.


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