My earliest memory took place in the kitchen. I must have been small as I remember standing on our kitchen stool and only then being waist high to the counter. I am holding an 8-inch chef knife. I know because it was Val’s knife, with which she could as easily break down a side of beef as carve intricate vegetable flowers to decorate a platter. To look like her I have a white linen napkin tied around my head, although I have a ponytail rather than her salt and pepper bun held in place by grand tortoise shell pins. Her large rough hand is over mine, I can still feel her grip, and she is saying, “This is how we do” as we slice an onion. My eyes are streaming but I remember the feeling of intense concentration as I try to get it right.
Valerie Slovak traveled from Czechoslovakia to New York shortly after the end of World War II. I can picture her disembarking from steerage and queuing up at Ellis Island. She must have been in her late teens. I do not know why she was alone. She got her start working as a cook for wealthy Jewish families in Manhattan at a time when formal dinners, serving “French food” was back in style after the years of shortages during the war. I do not know how she learned the French repertoire but I know that her command of flavors and her technique were peerless. She also would prepare the dishes from her home. The soups and stews, chicken paprikash with spaetzle, roast brisket with gravy, apple and cherry strudels, and noodle kugels all harmonized perfectly with the Ashkenazi classics. Why did I never ask how she ended up in Detroit working for my parents?
She could do anything with her hands; cook, draw, sew, embroider, create intricate decorations in any medium. Her one great regret was not having a formal education. When I got home from school I would hang out with her in the kitchen doing the basic prep; snapping the beans, peeling vegetables, and chopping onions while learning by watching her at the stove. At the same time, she insisted I share every bit of what I learned that day at school.
Our relationship was my introduction to moral conundrums. I admired and loved her so, yet she was a racist, training our dogs to go berserk if anyone of color came up the front steps. What happened to her son, just a little older than my brother, while she lived with us six days a week? She would return to her home just on Sundays, a journey which she called a return to the “salt mines.” This description always perplexed me. There is so much I don’t know.
My taste and cooking style are very different from hers. I particularly love strong flavors; chilies and garlic, ginger and fish sauce. I frequently use olive oil and the spice combinations from North Africa and the Middle East. I mostly cook on the top of the stove or use the grill rather than the oven. But my philosophy, my respect for ingredients and proper technique, my commitment to good food and my joy in the kitchen, that’s all pure Val.