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On the Shelf: The Empty Plate

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My mother, the seder and the empty plate – and so it was in that very order. There was no Elijah-like phantom who surreptitiously visited our house and ate food. No, this empty plate, with my smiling mother hovering over it, appeared a few years ago on the front page of the food section of her local newspaper.

There she was, one of three women, featured in an article about Jewish cooking for Passover. The other two stood next to tables teeming with home-cooked food.

My aunt was the culinary talent in the family, but that day she wasn’t around to prepare the food for my mother’s photo shoot. And so there was my mother sitting next to an empty plate. To make matters worse, my mother offered a recipe that she must have concocted on the spot for biscochos made with matza meal and orange juice.

Biscochos are a sweet, hard biscuit shaped like a doughnut with a long history in our family. Her mother’s mother made them in Greece, her mother in Cuba. Several people called the paper to say that my mother’s version of the recipe didn’t pan out in America.

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,” goes the old Joni Mitchell song. This is so true for housework. Family lore has it that as children my mother cleaned and my aunt cooked – a sort of left brain-right brain split when it came to housekeeping. This became especially relevant at Passover. My mother cleaned for the seder, my aunt cooked for it.

It was a pragmatic division of labor that I never thought about until I had children and wanted a clean place for them and some notion of how to make them nutritious meals. I had no idea where to start so I hired a housecleaner and consulted some cookbooks to make my way. My friend brags that you can eat off of her floors. You can do that in my house too, but only on Tuesdays and maybe Wednesdays, after the housecleaner has been here.

But now there is hope and perhaps inspiration for people like me in a digest of housekeeping do’s and don’ts called “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House.” The subtitle identifies the root of my domestic deficiencies. Yes there is an art, and even a science, to keeping house. Who knew?

The author, Cheryl Mendelson, is a Ph.D. in philosophy and has a law degree from Harvard. She is very serious, high-minded, and more times than not preachy about the right and the wrong way to keep house. “Home Comforts” is worlds away from volumes published in the 1960s like Peg Bracken’s “The I Hate to Housekeep Book” and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which asserted that housework enslaved women.

More than 30 years later, an earnest book about housekeeping has almost 200,000 copies in print and has fueled debates about whether it is part of a new anti-feminist backlash. I’m not sure about the political implications of a book that unabashedly tells its readers that the original reasons for spring cleaning are no longer significant (no need to go through the house to wipe away a winter accumulation of black grease from cooking over an open fire or the grime of kerosene).

But like the Passover purge of hametz, or leavened foods forbidden to be eaten during the holiday, the intent is still relevant. Mendelson writes that “spring cleaning still has a place for anyone who can find the time for it or who rather likes the feeling of renewal that follows the major upheaval of turning your home inside out. Try it once before you rule it out. It is delightful to begin the new season with a home that has been scoured top to bottom, every drawer emptied, every piece of china washed, every bit of metal polished, every fabric washed, every square inch of all surfaces washed, polished, scoured, waxed or otherwise brought to its finest state.”

OK, maybe this is one way to begin each fall and spring, but do I really have to scrub every square inch of my house?

It is the kitchen, however, for which Mendelson reserves her fervor and some might say, cleaning paranoia. Here is the place where home economics gone awry can be deadly. Using a sponge, which often harbors germs and microbes like e-coli and salmonella, is tantamount to perpetrating a homicide. I have some experience with this fear of microbes or as my mother introduced them to me – microbios. The microbios knew thrived in the cold and given half the chance they quickly colonized a body. According to Mendolson something similar happens in the neglected kitchen. And the spiritual counterpart to this chilling state of affairs is the hametz-laden kitchen during Passover.

After flipping through 884 pages of Mendelson’s meticulously researched, extremely detailed tome, I think I have some idea of how she would feel about my mother’s empty plate. Housework is basic yet hard work. It’s the stuff of backstage maneuverings. But there’s a romance to it that my mother never fully understood.

Besides if Cheryl Mendelson had been there the day the newspaper reporter came to my mother’s kitchen, she surely would have been able to prepare something off the shelves in that kitchen. Or would she? As far as I know the only thing my mother stocks regularly is lots of saffron for the kosher paella that she is always intending to make – the one with hot dogs instead of sausage.

(Judith Bolton-Fasman is editor of JBooks.com, a member of the Jewz.com Media Network. Her column, “On the Shelf,” appears monthly.)

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