Too Many Cooks

My mother was the first to appear. "Where's the salt?" she asked, as she steered the bib of an apron over her upswept hairdo.

"No salt," I said. "I'm on a low-sodium diet."

With that, my father leapt to her side. "You think that's bad," he said to his wife, "she's using..." He stopped to pick up the bottle of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, then continued, "this, this thing, instead of schmaltz."

I knew, when I started cooking my own food, rather than selecting from hot bars at Whole Foods and Mariano's -- as I had done for the first year back in my hometown -- that it wouldn't take long for my deceased parents to pop up in my imagination.

Both died of heart attacks -- Dad at 48 and Mom at 67 -- so naturally, my doctors and I have been vigilant about reversing the family DNA. Admittedly, my guard had frayed at the edges during my year of hot bar browsing. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, fried chicken, and Polish sausage had been regular selections.

This salty, starchy smorgasbord slowly added pounds to my 4'9" frame and worse than that, they all took shelter in my stomach. I blamed the balloon at my waistline to diminishing height, and had used rubber bands to stretch between button and buttonhole.

"I think she's doing great." It was Tommy, my second husband who became a vegetarian soon after we wed, and remained thus until he died at 76 of brain degeneration and throat cancer.

My parents -- now surprisingly amiable and agreeable, unlike their 25-year marriage -- moved closer together. "Listen, Tommy," Dad said, "you're a good guy, buy you're a goy. What do you know about Jewish cooking?"

"We love the way you took care of our Elaine," Mom said, "But you're out of your league with Kasha Varnishes." Then, she placed a supportive arm around his shoulder.

"That's where you're wrong, Mom," he said. (My eyes moistened when I heard Tommy call her that. Evidently they've met up in heaven.) Your daughter made that dish for me; it's very vegetarian and healthy, if you make it the right way."

"Look, the recipe calls for 1 tsp. salt," my mother said, as she held up my newly assembled three-ring notebook. "Would that kleyntshik amount kill you?"

I paused before answering and enjoyed the image of my dearly departed trio. There was Mom -- not fat, more curvaceous --, Dad, overweight by likely 30 pounds with diabetes adding to his health issues, and Tommy, slender, muscled, and out of this earth before his illnesses had opportunity to vandalize his physique. How I loved, and missed, them all.

"Look, sweethearts, I know you have my best interests at heart, but I believe I'm on the right track." I removed my apron, placed my hands on my hips, and did a runway walk. As I sashayed, my palms moved to my stomach. "Gone," I said. "My two months of low salt and no red meat, plus daily exercising have drained seven pounds of fat -- nay, schmaltz -- from my body. I feel terrific!"

My parents took a seat on my daybed. "No red meat?" Dad asked.

"Pastrami, corned beef, all deli, all gone." Mom said. She shook her head, looking as disappointed as if I had switched allegiance from Hadassah to Daughters of the American Revolution.

I perched on a stool next to my island counter. "You'll all just have to assume I know what I'm doing."

"You're going to waste away to nothing," Mom said, her blues eyes downcast.

"Do I look malnourished?"

"You could be a bit more zaftig," Dad said.

"Mom, Dad, she looks great," Tommy said. "And, she visits her doctors regularly, so they'd catch anything that doesn't look kosher."

Both of my parents sat erect from their relaxed positions on the daybed. "Kosher, he said! Our son-in-law said, 'kosher.'"

Now the conversation between the three of them was warming up. "Your daughter introduced me to plenty of Jewish foods," Tommy said. "Of course, I asked her to convert your chopped liver recipe to vegetarian."

My father took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. My mother closed her eyes. Was she crying or laughing?

"Extra virgin olive oil, onion, toasted walnuts, hard boiled eggs, canned peas, salt and pepper to taste," Tommy said.

With that, both of the apparitions of my parents vanished. I could hear faint laughter accompany their disappearance.

"Hold up, time for me to go, too," Tommy said, waving an arm to empty air. Then, he patted my tush, and whispered, "zaftig enough for me."