Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.
In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.
My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”
For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.
I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.
He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.
So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).
But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).
So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.
And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.
It was time to start over.
I’ll confess right off that this is not my most embarrassing culinary moment, because I actually air the worst ones in my cookbooks. Like “Brisket: A Love Story,” “Chicken Soup: A Disaster Story,” and “Chocolate Mousse: A Scary Story.” Although all could be simply classified as epic kitchen tragedies. Dunno why exactly I always tell all. Must be that I feel taking the humiliation to an uber-public level will serve as penance of some kind. But that’s just a guess, after all I am a cookbook author, not a psychotherapist.
You see, I was not a “born cook.” (But boy was I born to eat!) So when I had to cook up my very first Shabbat meal as a married lady, every course was a different form of disaster. You wouldn’t think there are so many ways to ruin good food.
My potato kugel was a perfect example. Sitting at our Shabbat table was Hubby, my mommy, my granddaddy and my dear sis. They had all come to “help” this inexperienced cook, not to snicker. At least that’s what they said. When it came time to serve the kugel, even I knew that it didn’t even resemble one. It looked more like an off-color giant latka that had been run over by a truck. I cried, and I decided not to serve it.
But I couldn’t fool Hubby. He knew I had labored over it because potato kugel is one of his favorite Shabbat foods. So he asked about it. I shook my head, wide-eyed. “Come, on, I know you prepared it,” he prodded gently. I shook my head again, searching his face desperately for understanding. Finally, staring at my shoes, I whispered that I was too embarrassed to bring it out. He sweetly, calmly and lovingly told me that I should never be embarrassed about my food, that I had worked hard on it for him and he wanted to have his new wife’s first potato kugel. (He scored extra points from the family with that speech.) So head hung, I brought it out. A suppressed gasp gripped the table. Hubby smiled weakly. Everyone else looked over their shoulders at the wall, the ceiling, the floor. But he gallantly cut himself a piece and sent it down, as I watched in horror. Ever the noble prince, he actually ate another piece. Then he announced his verdict. “Perfect,” he paused, “for a Passover cake!”
That’s his secret: when I want to cry, he makes me laugh. When I want to scream, he makes me laugh. So I laughed through my tears, everyone relaxed, and the kugel mysteriously disappeared from the table.