Noe Valley Voice September 2001

From This Kitchen to God's Nose

By Douglas A. Konecky

Eastern Europe must have smelled like this once: chickens simmering feet-up in the soup pot, pickles in garlicky brine, hot rye bread studded with caraway seeds, fresh herbs. You felt it the moment Grandma Eva and Grandpa Ben opened the front door of their tiny L.A. apartment: the smell rolled out of the house, put its welcoming palms around your back, and pulled you inside.

My grandparents' whole generation lived in buildings that smelled like this. Their dark hallways radiated all the secrets of Jewish life: mushroom barley soup leaning against the door, sautéed onions riding on the elevator, brisket and horseradish playing cards in the lobby.

Grandma Eva died first, and then Grandpa Ben. The day of Ben's funeral, my uncle and I went to my grandparents' apartment to pick up some old photographs. I stood on the front stairs, not wanting to unlock the door, then turned my key in the lock. The smell smashed against my nose, catapulted past me down the stairs, then was gone, fleeing down Croft Street at a million sniffs a second.

"They're gone," Uncle Morrie said.

Inside, my grandfather's easy chair, the old orange Motorola radio, the white plastic slipcovers on the sofa, the red and green jelly candies in the glass jar, and the brown leather photo album on top of the dresser were all in their places, where they were supposed to be. But life had fled this apartment. Inside smelled like outside now.

We drove the canyon back to my mom's house for the funeral reception. Now a very strange thing happened. When my mother opened her front door to us, the smell was right behind her. It wrapped itself around us with a wink and ushered us in.

From this moment forward, my mother, a modern woman, had the smell of the shtetl living with her -- brine to broth, soap to sponge cake. Now I knew smell could run faster than Uncle Morrie's old Dodge van.

It's 20 years since, and in all that time, my mom's home in L.A. has continued to smell like my grandmother's. Yesterday, Mom flew up to San Francisco to cook us her world-renowned brisket of beef.

Mom's brisket is the trial lawyer of beef, the fancy doctor, the president of the university, the rabbi with the Cadillac. It's the reason God made cows. It's the Ace of Brags, which can never be trumped. I had been singing my neighbor Dana the praises of this most glorious dish, and it was time to stop talking and start walking.

Mom and I went to the neighborhood butcher, and he carefully trimmed two briskets. Mom stared at him like Grandma Eva and he trimmed them a little more.

We bought stewed tomatoes, one of the secrets. Then I stood over Mom's shoulder and watched how she constantly regulated the temperature and amount of moisture in the pots. The point was to make the meat tender and juicy, not dry like most briskets. No Lipton Onion Soup mix. This isn't pot roast. Anyone can make pot roast. The butcher's mother can make pot roast.

Mom's 85. Navigating that wooden spoon tired her out. I went down to her room, and we talked awhile. Then when she fell asleep, I came up to skim the gravy. The smell was waiting for me, but casually, as if to say, "I'm with her."

Still, it spooked me. I ran back downstairs. Mom was snoring. So I sat by her side a few moments watching her sleep, thinking about all the briskets, the songs we harmonized together, the habits both good and bad that we shared close under the skin. By the time I walked upstairs, the smell was gone.

I know what this means.

Mom woke up, and we took a brisket next door, a huge platter steaming under tin foil, for my Cajun neighbor. Mom had many people with Louisiana accents asking for her recipe. She told them all to ask me. What a joke.

There is no recipe. "Just keep your eye on it," Mom says. "Use your nose."

Until yesterday, I didn't get it, but I think I do now. I'll never be able to make Mom's brisket. When she goes, her treasures will accompany her, like Tutankhamen, to the place on the river with the dining chairs, where the good memories are. I'll cook, and I'll fail, but it won't matter. The smell will live on, as the Russia of a hundred years ago lives on, transferred from one generation to the next, continent to continent, city to city, brisket by brisket. I'll keep my eye on it. I'll use my nose.

"This is delicious, Mom," I say, taking a sip from her wooden spoon.

"From your lips to God's ears," she answers, sipping the gravy herself, nodding with satisfaction.

"No," I say, "from this kitchen to God's nose. If he's hungry, he should bring a plate."

Doug Konecky is a songwriter and humorist whose Sanchez Street kitchen rarely has need of aromatherapy.


The Noe Valley Voice welcomes your opinion pieces and personal essays. Mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 900 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail jaxvoice @ Include your name, address, and phone number, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you'd like your manuscript returned. Thank you.