Chopped Liver and Sweet Tea: Cooking Up Memories for Mom

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Fliss)

I live in Seattle, but I am a New Yorker with roots in the Deep South — which is to say, I love pork and pastrami, mint juleps and Manischewitz, and chopped liver and sweet tea. The dearth of Jewish delis has affected me more than I thought it would, but I, at least, can find variations of my culinary desires, which tend to be pickles and matzo ball soup.

For my mother, the situation is more dire; she longs for tongue and chopped liver, which are considerably more difficult to find. So I decided to give her memories on a dish — and in a glass.

The Schmear of My Childhood

It was 1988, at Epstein’s Deli in White Plains, New York. The air smelled like fried foods and briny things. I sat on a blush leather banquette, making faces at myself in the mirrors on the wall. I remember the metal clang of the register and the incessant calling out of orders: Extra kraut on that Reuben! Two knishes to go! 86 the matzo ball soup!

Who’d want to 86 the matzo ball soup, I don’t know.

Finally, it was our turn: New and dill pickles delivered on a silver platter and fries with the skin still on beside a sandwich as tall as the Chrysler building. The waitress called me sweetie and my grandma, dear. On the way out, a black and white cookie’s frosting melted in my hand.

Making the Chopped Liver

This was going to be an amazing nostalgic surprise for my mother and I couldn’t wait to get to work. At the grocery store, I found chicken livers for $1.44 and uncovered freezer-burned schmaltz (that’s rendered chicken fat for the uninitiated). Eggs, onions, parsley, salt, and pepper and I was ready to attack Andrew Zimmern’s family recipe.

I fried up the onions and livers, I hard-boiled the eggs, and I put it all into the food processor. Whir, whir, whir. That smell — earthy, dense, salty — brought me back to Epstein’s (and to later excursions to Katz’s or the Second Avenue Deli).

I spooned out the stuff, the successful consistency of mortar; I could build a house with it. It was perfect, so into the fridge it went to cool.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Fliss)

Making the Sweet Tea

In the meantime, I set to work making the other part of the equation: sweet tea. If you’ve never made sweet tea before, it’s simple. All you need are Lipton tea bags, sugar, water, and a pinch of baking soda. (I am unclear if this last ingredient is necessary, but Southern lore says this cuts down on the tea’s bitterness, and I daren’t leave it out.)

Boil two cups of water. Combine the water, baking soda, six tea bags, and 3/4 cup sugar in a bowl. Stir to dissolve.

As I did so, I remembered my grandmother’s hand holding my own as I made sweet tea years ago; I remembered her Yiddish words pronounced with a Southern twang and her obstinacy that 40-plus years in New York and later Florida never, ever made her a Yankee.

Next add in five to six cups of cold water, less if you want it sweeter, more if you’re not from the South.

Satisfied with the sweetness, I poured the tea into a plain glass pitcher, like my grandmother did, conjuring up a breeze in from the Atlantic, salty hot Florida air whistling through the screen door — and glasses with tiny oranges on them. Everyone had these glasses (I know from the myriad estate sales I’ve been to), but these were my grandmother’s and now they are mine.

A Gift for Mom (and for Me)

When I presented the chopped liver and tea to my mother, she cried for the gift of long ago and far away. And I see that I’ve given myself a gift too. I brought my late grandmother into my new Seattle kitchen, a place she never got to see. She would have eaten my chopped liver on a cracker, her pinky raised daintily, and declared it “grand.”

I know that in this kitchen, too, I’ll teach my daughter about her namesake and the gluttonous and delicious recipes that go into making a family. I’ll hold her hand as she stirs and tell her I’ll do the same for her daughter.

I kept the remaining schmaltz in the freezer for future liver endeavors, or perhaps for matzo balls. Either way, there’ll be a pitcher of sweet tea beside it.