Her recipes had been stuffed away in old cookbooks for years. As I recovered, they were exactly what I needed.
Before she died from cancer in 2007, my mother was a terrific cook, someone who always had some great recipes up her sleeve. An extemporaneous thinker in the kitchen, she had a habit I came to cherish: Whenever she had an idea for a new dish, she’d write it down on a sticky note or a scrap of paper and stick it in a cookbook.
Above, the author’s photo of his brioche French toast—prepared according to his mother’s recipe.
After she passed away, and my father moved to a new house, the cookbook collection dwindled, but when I moved away from home I took a few with me, because Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything seemed like great cookbooks to have on hand. Little did I know my mom’s original recipes for paella, for brisket, for a fruit cobbler were hidden on scraps of paper inside.
I discovered the recipes in 2015, after I graduated from college and moved from Texas to New York to pursue a journalism career, but I never used them. When I cook I usually make the same handful of dishes, almost always for a group: a risotto dish for potlucks, a roasted Brussels sprouts dish for family dinners at my sister’s nearby home, or a roast branzino for a dinner party with friends. Other than that, who needs to cook, right? This is New York—we’ve got all the cuisines on demand.
Growing up, French toast was the momentary blissful distraction from the daunting realities of my mom’s fatal disease, which rattled the Hirschfeld household for years.
Then March rolled around and put everything in perspective. March 8 was the anniversary of her passing. March 13, President Trump issued a national emergency because of Covid-19. And on March 25, living alone in a Brooklyn apartment, I caught the deadly virus. I began to feel symptoms like shortness of breath and a cough. Luckily, my landlord’s husband is an emergency room physician so I was able to get an evaluation at home without contributing to the overwhelmed hospital system in New York City.
It came out of nowhere, at least as far as I could tell. Seemingly without warning I became feverish. I had trouble breathing. Some moments felt like altitude sickness and others felt like a 400-pound weight was strapped to my chest. I was scared enough to question my own mortality. It got bad. But I had a support system to help me get through it. My dad, a physician, called to check up on me daily, as did many of my close friends and relatives. I also have a few friends locally who were gracious enough to leave soup and orange juice at my front door.
I came out the other side humbled—and hungry—yearning to reconnect with my past to create a better understanding of my future. Tackling my mom’s recipes seemed like the easiest way to get started. I walked to my kitchen, opened the cookbooks and removed my mom’s collection of notes. I laid scraps of paper on the counter to find one to try. Six of them seemed doable with the ingredients I had on hand. Two seemed fitting for quarantine cuisine. One of them, the French toast, stood out.
French toast seemed particularly appealing now, not just because it’s plated in front of me but as it’s almost Mother’s Day.
Growing up, French toast was the momentary blissful distraction from the daunting realities of my mom’s fatal disease, which rattled the Hirschfeld household for years. The dish symbolized that break from stress. Even in her darkest moments she would make it for me on Sundays, or with me, for my dad, on Father’s day.
Out came the eggs, vanilla, milk, a dash of cream, a pinch of sugar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I cracked the eggs and whipped in the other ingredients. I took a slice of brioche and dipped it in the mixture. I measured by taste, like my mom had. Turned the skillet on, medium heat, melted the butter, and put the brioche slice in the pan. It sizzled, and when its edges were golden brown I flipped it to the other side and waited for the same result. When it was done, I put it on a plate and topped it with maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
French toast seemed particularly appealing now, not just because it’s plated in front of me but as it’s almost Mother’s Day. While we are all homebound and apart, I can bring her warm memory close with her recipe and an added garnish—a dollop of nostalgia.