Most nice Jewish girls coming of age dream of poufy dresses and big parties. I wanted neither. Not a fancy frock, not a blowout bat mitzvah — not even cupcakes. I dreamed of getting a Cuisinart, and I spent hours deciding exactly which model I wanted in lieu of a party.
Mine was not exactly a normal childhood, at least not for the suburbs of New York City in the early 1970s, when most kids had stay-at-home moms. Both my mother and father worked, usually six days a week. And rather than hiring a nanny or housekeeper, they entrusted my father's highly observant, Old World parents with the care of the mortal and moral young souls of their children.
By the time I was 11, my sister and I had emancipated ourselves and become the first latchkey kids in the neighborhood (that I knew of). And within the year, I'd assumed the mantle of Family Cook.
Don't get me wrong: I wanted the mantle, which, in fact, was a chef's apron, like the ones sported by Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and Pierre Franey. So great was my desire to cook my own meals that I declared myself vegetarian (that meant my grandmother's Eastern European, meat-heavy offerings were verboten).
My mother, who came from New Orleans, was never bigger than a baby bird, and aside from several Creole dishes and an occasional rib steak, which was more often than not accidentally blackened, she had little interest in cooking. She was happy to shop, though, and every Sunday, trekked from one gourmet store to another to satisfy the list I composed after watching the famous French chef on television.
My parents celebrated my culinary creations. They were both anxious that my sister and I escape the limited lives of women in the highly observant world of my grandparents. Even my grandparents tacitly accepted; they also wanted my sister and I to be professionals, as well as mothers and wives, although not housewives.
The issue of my bat mitzvah, however, was something else.
At the time, Orthodox Jews of my grandparents' degree of orthodoxy did not recognize or allow girls a religious ceremony. But a party was de rigueur. My sister obliged, sort of, with a lavish and formal Sweet 16 party at an all-kosher hotel.
At 13, I, on the other hand, made very clear that I wanted no part of it. Instead, I wanted a Cuisinart.
Cuisinart was a single-word brand that meant food processor. Like Xerox and Vaseline, there really was no other word in the lexicon. The engineer and devoted foodie, Carl Sontheimer, had wanted to bring the power of French commercial kitchen tools to kitchens in the United States. Inspired by the French Robot-Coupe, he spent years perfecting the machine for home use. He added blades and cutting discs in order to make it a multifunctional tool and he named it Cuisinart.
When it was introduced in 1973, the clear plastic bowl perched above a powerhouse of a 575-watt motor was adored by chefs, famed food instructors, and the press. Julia Child said that the Cuisinart was the most important invention since the electric mixer.
I saw it first in a Gourmet magazine. Yes, when other girls were reading Tiger Beat and oohing and cooing over Leif Garret, Donny Osmond, and Bobby Sherman, I had my nose buried in the glossy pages of food magazines. As my peers played Mystery Date, I read up on patés, terrines, and quenelles.
I yearned for the cache of being a true cook, and I had my sights on the first seriously professional tool. I asked for one; I asked a lot. I wanted it; I needed it. I would trade any party, any treat, any extra for the rest of my life to have it.
When my mother finally said yes, my life was complete. Then I realized that, even with parental bankrolling, the machine of my dreams was still beyond my grasp. The Cuisinart was available only at Hammacher Schlemmer in New York, but no one had time to go to the city to fetch it, and I was too young to go by myself.
So I waited. And waited. I wanted the Rolls Royce of machines and it was worth the wait, I told myself.
By 1978, my older sister and I were allowed to take the train into the city, where you could also find the Cuisinart at Macy's Cellar. Our deal was simple: She would accompany me to Macy's Cellar and I would accompany her to yet another Star Trek convention. I searched out the fanciest, biggest machine with the most attachments available. It was wildly heavy, but I proudly schlepped it to the Trekkie Convergence, lugged it back to the train, and carried it like a fat baby on my lap, making sure that the emblazoned logo was on full display.
Back home, there were issues. Storing the blades was something of a challenge. The cutting discs all had long handles attached and were very sharp. We wrapped them in layers of paper towels, which my mother proceeded to tuck into the recesses of the dark wood cabinets, making them near impossible to get. They were rarely used after those first few weeks.
There was also a learning curve in terms of operating the machine, which turned on when clicking the bowl and cover into place — not with any on-off switch. And soup-making was a hot mess. Ladling my vegetable potions from the pot into the machine, then puréeing often led to boiling spews, sprays, and drips. Even when I got the hang of operating the Cuisinart, the system of puréeing I developed required twice as many bowls as I'd used in the past. The cook's convenience left a sinkful of dishes for my mother to face after a long day at work.
It's also true that, in my determination to amortize my parents' bat mitzvah investment, I may have overused my prize. Neither my mom's tomato and okra soup, nor her jambalaya deserved to be turned into purées. I also over-pulverized my dad's tuna fish and ground his pricey rib steak into bloody slush, thinking it might make a ground meat. I made breadcrumbs into smaller-than-air particles, with my sister the Trekkie swatting away the dust like I had ground Quadrotriticale and trillions of tribbles were about to descend upon us.
Still, the advantages of my prized appliance outweighed the mess and mishaps. My first machine-made pie crust was a hit, and my parents were amazed by the challah, wheat breads, and pizza my Cuisinart and I made for their dining pleasure. I made super-hip nut butters with aplomb; I "discovered" pesto and made creamy hummus; I even showed my grandmother how fast it puréed her eggplant dip, to her absolute delight.
Most importantly, I felt modern and grownup. And I wouldn't trade that for all the parties and poufy dresses in the world.
(Image credits: Tami Weiser; Gina Eykemans)