The Kitchen as a War Zone

Burt Prelutsky

11/30/2007 12:01:01 AM - Burt Prelutsky

Recently, I wrote a piece in which I mentioned that there are certain things that I would never want to see on my dinner plate -- things such as squirrels, snakes, ostriches and rabbits -- no matter how much certain people insist they taste like chicken. Besides, if I want something that tastes exactly like chicken, why wouldn’t I simply order chicken?

Frankly, I’m amazed at the variety of things we humans consume. I mean, imagine being the very first person to look at a turkey or a crab and saying, “Yum yum, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that!” They must have been certifiably bonkers or very, very hungry. And who was the odd duck who first considered supping on a lobster, and just how did he decide between that and a lump of coal? Did he flip a coin?

I suppose what we consider edible is partly a matter of geography and partly a matter of the type of home in which we were raised; like so many other things, partly nature and partly nurture. In my case, my mother, otherwise a fine, upstanding woman, didn’t put a great deal of stock in cooking. It just wasn’t something that captured her imagination. You might say she had something of a green thumb, but employed it in the kitchen instead of the garden, where such things belong.

Long before Cajun cuisine made its mark on America, my mother was blackening everything from hamburgers to cookies. Even without a barbecue, she managed to instill charcoal flavoring in all her dishes.

The two items, though, that never failed to strike terror in my heart were her salmon patties and her coup de grace, gefilte fish. That poor fish suffered through two funerals. The first took place when they were caught, the second when they died all over again in our kitchen.

In retrospect, I think the main problem with the salmon patties is that they contained more egg than salmon, which would probably explain why they had large yellow blotches, making them look as if they had passed away of a rare tropical disease.

The problem with gefilte fish is that it tastes as unappetizing as it sounds. On the plus side, my mom’s version of the dish was no worse than anyone else’s. On the minus side, it wasn’t any better. Until I looked it up just now, I didn’t know what went into making those things. If you’re taking notes, they start out as carp that’s been deboned. It’s then ground into a paste and mixed with eggs, onions and bread or matzo meal. Finally, it’s poached in a stock made from the head and bones of the poor victim. As a result, it’s one of those rare items that smells every bit as good as it tastes.

There are, believe it or not, people -- people to whom I’m related -- who actually regard it as a delicacy, and who would probably insist it tastes just like chicken. And what’s more, they’d be right, if they’re talking about gefilte chicken.