602: Life Without an Oven

June 5, 2013 · 38 comments


Family lore:

My dad was nine when a neighbor living on the south side of Ocean Parkway offered my grandfather first crack at the gorgeous 1920s Spanish-style house he was putting up for sale because he was moving to L.A. It was around 1934, the Depression was not yet over, and the $25,000 price that Jay Silverheels asked was too steep; my grandfather chose to stay in the two bedroom apartment he shared with his wife and children. Rejecting the man who played Tonto, my grandparents would remain at 602 Avenue T for the rest of their lives; they lived there, and they both died there.

I’m not sure what it was about the place; it wasn’t the view, although the east-facing bedrooms were cooled by the breezes blowing in off Coney Island, and on a clear day you could see the Parachute Drop and the Cyclone. A Knabe baby grand piano sat in the dark living room adjacent to the window and up against a steam radiator, which would eventually cause its deep mahogany finish to bubble and peel, and its ivory keys to craze like porcelain. A posterboard-mounted print of Breugel’s The Harvesters hung above a yellow-striped Duncan Phyfe sofa, popping out of its Rococo frame, concave with the humidity of sixty Brooklyn summers.  By the time I moved in — 1990; a very bad breakup — the Breugel field hands had grown distorted and grotesque, like a passel of rejects from a rural freak show on siesta.

I went to 602 to heal my wounds; I had nowhere else to go. It was where my father, twelve years earlier, had gone to heal after he divorced my mother; he had nowhere else to go. Back then, in 1978, my grandmother was still alive, shuffling around the place in a series of pearl-white vinyl slippers, the kind designed to look like ballet shoes; kitchen to foyer, foyer to bedroom, bedroom back to the kitchen where, one afternoon in 1974, two weeks after I saw Young Frankenstein at the Ziegfield, she served me a whole boiled calves brain on a small white luncheon plate flecked with tiny magenta petunias.

Each of us has an immediate olfactory connection to our grandparents, and mine was launched during the late Sunday mornings of my childhood, when I walked into their lobby at 602; it smelled, perpetually, of chicken fat. Nearly every tenant in the building was religious, and that many people cooking that much griebenes under one roof had taken its toll: the essence of schmaltz had been sucked into the pores of the place. When I came back to 602 in 1990, the building still reeked. I feared for my clothes. I was certain that my cats would stink like a pair of fat Shabbos pullets.

The apartment had been uninhabited for the two years since my grandmother died; my father had moved into his girlfriend’s house a few years before that, but he decided to maintain the place anyway. He left the electricity turned on. The phone stayed hooked up (Essex5-1177). My grandmother’s clothes were still hanging in the closet when I moved in; her makeup and hairbrush were still in the medicine cabinet. When my father checked in on me that first night, his call set off the phone amplifiers that hung near the ceiling in every room — my grandmother was profoundly hard of hearing in her later years — which shook the walls and windows and made the cats shriek; he never had them disconnected after she died. He was calling, he said, to give me some advice for living there comfortably.


“Don’t turn on the stove—“ he warned that first night.

“But what if I want to cook?”

“Use the top burners, but never more than two at a time. And don’t light the oven. I’ll take you to Macy’s tomorrow, to buy a microwave.”

I was suddenly single, bereft, living in my long-gone grandmothers’ apartment along with all of her things — there was an unopened jar of gefilte fish in the refrigerator and a half-eaten box of Coffee Nips on the foyer table, like she had just stepped out to do an errand — and I couldn’t even roast myself a chicken without blowing the place up.

My cookbooks — hundreds of them — were packed in boxes that sat piled up in the living room along with what little furniture I owned; my cookware stayed buried under layers of bubble wrap. There was no reason to unpack it: I couldn’t bake a pie or a loaf of bread. I couldn’t broil a piece of salmon, make a lasagna or a brisket, oven-braise root vegetables or a leg of lamb. I couldn’t bake a frittata or make a pizza, or brownies, or a timbale.

I couldn’t even bake a potato.

We went to Macy’s the next night, and my father bought me a microwave big enough to be an end table.

“There’s a roast chicken setting—“ he said, pointing to its front panel. We took it home, plugged it in, and it immediately blew one of the two fuses that powered the entire apartment.

We went out for dinner to a nearby Chinese restaurant called Karr’s, and ate at a small table near the bar, and got drunk on Gin Gibsons.

“So where do I buy food?” I asked, over plates of shrimp in lobster sauce and pork fried rice.

“On King’s Highway,” he said.

“Is there anything closer?”

“Avenue U—near the F train. But your grandmother never shopped there.”

I couldn’t understand why. It was a short walk; there were no taxis or buses involved in getting there. But during my first week at 602, none of that mattered, because, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t cook. I ordered pizzas that made my neighbor gasp in horror when the delivery guy passed her in the hallway carrying the grease-stained, white cardboard box stamped SAUSAGE. I ordered Chinese food. I took the subway to Park Slope and ate at a vegetarian restaurant on 7th Avenue near Union.

But I didn’t cook.

Not once.

A week later, after coming down with a terrible cold I attributed to depression-related stress, I left work early and, trying to walk from the subway station on Avenue U and McDonald Avenue to Ocean Parkway, found myself navigating a wall of fast-moving, tight-lipped older ladies pulling empty grocery pull-carts behind them. It was two o’clock. I was hungry. So I turned around and followed them under the elevated F train tracks to the other side of Avenue U, where my grandmother never went.

There was a cheese shop and a tiny green grocer selling fresh fava beans and baskets of spikey, green Puntarelle. There was a pork and sausage store that also sold fresh and dried pasta; a bakery selling fresh semolina bread dotted with sesame seeds; a fishmonger, and a butcher. The ladies were all doing their marketing, to make dinner that night.

Hoarse, I asked the cheese man for Taleggio; he just shook his head, no. An older woman wearing a jet black cardigan, jet black wool skirt, and suntan pantyhose eyed me up and down like I’d just arrived from Mars.

But don’t go anywhere—the cheese man continued. Just wait a minute.

He went into the back of the store and a few seconds later returned with a demitasse cup.

Drink it all at once—for your cold. Come back tomorrow. I close at six.

Every day, I did my shopping on Avenue U, and every day, the little old Italian ladies in black grilled me about what I was making and how I was making it. Sometimes they nodded in approval, and asked me where I lived, and whether I was single because they had a nice grandson. Sometimes — usually — they corrected me. Fiercely. But kindly. When I said I couldn’t bake anything because the oven might explode, they said You don’t need an oven.

At the pork store and the greengrocer, I bought anything I could cook on top of the stove: there were thick fennel and garlic sausages that I simmered with red wine, grapes, and thyme; fava beans that I boiled and shelled and mashed into a topping for the semolina bread that I toasted in an oil-slicked skillet and then rubbed with garlic; I wilted the bitter Puntarelle in a pot of salted, boiling water, tossed it with orrechiete cooked in the vegetable water, and folded giant spoonfuls of thick, fatty sheep’s milk ricotta into the warm pasta. In the coming months — eighteen of them, before I moved back to Manhattan to get on with the business of my life — my grandmother’s ancient aluminum pots clattered on the stovetop, their bottoms rounded and dimpled with age. I chopped with my great-grandmother’s hockmesser — the four pound, wood-handled cleaver she carried over from Romania; I steamed what needed steaming in a white enameled colander set over a pot of boiling water; I wine-braised spatch-cocked pigeon in an old Teflon fry pan covered with a warped cookie sheet; I dredged Branzino in seasoned egg and flour and slid it into a hot, butter-coated 1930s oval metal casserole that had baked decades of kugel; I drank cheap red wine out of the tiny four-ounce milk glasses of my childhood Sunday afternoons; I drizzled warm, sectioned figs with the dregs of my grandfather’s Slivovitz that I found in the depths of the hall closet, buried behind torn shopping bags bursting with the fading letters that my father had written to his parents from the Pacific during World War II when he was nineteen.

602 was the place I went to get my bearings, and to relearn who I was, just as my father had after his divorce. When I moved out — when it was time to get back to my life — I took nothing with me: not the hockmesser or the Slivovitz, the time-warped Breugel or the juice glasses. I left with my cats, and my cookbooks —still sealed in their moving boxes from the day I arrived — and tucked the stash of my father’s wartime letters in my knapsack. The only other thing I grabbed before I walked out was the sheaf of wrinkled, handwritten notes I’d scrawled while standing in the stores on Avenue U with the Italian ladies, who taught me that sustenance begins and ends with imagination and ingredients, and who forever changed the way I think about food, and what it means to feed myself and those I love despite the obstacles of place, time, and history.


Braised Sausages with Grapes and Thyme

As much as I’d like to say that, like Richard Olney, I once braised sausages in a young tannic red and then roasted them over grape vines plucked from the rich soil of Provence, I can’t: I first made this dish in my grandmother’s apartment near Coney Island, with grapes of unknown provenance and dried thyme that had seen better days when Nixon was in office. Still, the dish is very simple to put together, and over the years I’ve made it in every conceivable permutation: Bratwurst braised in black beer with sliced red onion and juniper berries, and then grilled; mild garlic sausage braised in sweet white wine and then grilled and topped with German mustard; Merguez braised in Ouzo and mint. I’ve even made this with great vegan sausages, and it surprised and delighted my vegan friends. The only hard-and-fast rule about making this dish is that you make it with excellent-quality sausages, be they lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, or vegan. And if you prefer your sausages with a bit of char (the way I do) finish them on a grill or in a stovetop grill pan, and serve them in their braising liquid.

Serves 2 (or 1 with leftovers)

1 tablespoon mild extra virgin olive oil

4 fennel and garlic pork sausages, poked a few times with a fork, at room temperature

3/4 cup dry red wine

1/4 pound red seedless grapes

3 healthy sprigs of thyme

Set a large cast iron skillet over a medium flame, and after a minute or so, slick it with the olive oil. Add the sausages and cook until golden on all sides. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Carefully pour in the wine and increase the heat to medium high; cook until the wine begins to bubble and slightly thicken. Return the sausages and any of their accumulated juices to the pan, add the grapes and the thyme. Reduce heat to low, set a cover on the pan (slightly askew), and cook until the sausages are done, about 8-10 minutes depending on their size. Serve with the grapes and the thyme on polenta, rice, or with slices of garlic-rubbed toast, drizzled with the wine sauce.

Note: If the wine has thickened too much by the time the sausages are cooked, add tablespoons of water (or more wine) — one at a time — and stir to loosen the sauce up.






{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ashley Bee (Quarter Life Crisis Cuisine) June 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I loved this story 🙂 Very sweet. Not sure how I’d survive without an oven though!

2 Alice Shiffman June 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm

This story is so poignant I had it happen with my parents house.
Beautifully written and I love your website.

I cannot believe that being the cook you are, that you have not had the
oven investigated…..please let me know why.

Keep the stories and recipes coming.

3 Elissa June 5, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Oh well, Alice, the oven was ancient—really really ancient, from around the late 1930s. And I was just too heartsick and stressed to even bother looking into it, so I just stuck to stovetop cooking for the 18 months I was there. Thanks!

4 Carol June 5, 2013 at 3:14 pm

I believe that the oven used too much electricity. I remember that an air conditioning unit blew out the electric box….a small t.v. was about all the wires could handle given the push button light switches and occasional small appliance.

5 Elissa June 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Actually, Carol, the oven was gas and had to be lit with a match. Wasn’t electric at all. The rotisserie was electric, though, and it was long gone before I got there.

6 Christine Schupbach June 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Oh, I agree, I love this post! It reminds me so much of when I lived in New London Connecticut and in a small apartment which in the downstairs portion of the landlord’s house, the oven was ancient and just like this, if you tried to light it, it would explode! And only perhaps one burner was usable, however there were the same issues there, you had to light them and they would blow up in your face! I ended up using the little toaster oven on the counter for Everything, even Beef Bourguignon, filet mignon smothered with mushrooms, barbequed spareribs, rainbow trout, you name it, I learned that you can make do with Anything to fix a great meal with creativity … my boyfriend at the time, who was the recipient of all of my creations agreed, I was the greatest cook! It was a true learning experience, of relying upon yourself.

7 Deborah June 5, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I love those intervals in life where you cook in weird and different ways for whatever reason. I came home from Japan once and found my brother cooking zucchini in an electric percolator on the back porch of my parent’s house when they were in Europe. Coffee flavored squash? Yes, but it got the job done. And he didn’t have a key to go inside and cook more elaborately.
A lovely piece!

8 Kim June 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Oh wow, I couldn’t have read this at a more timely moment.
I am in a very similar situation, although I don’t have familar surroundings to retreat to – or not yet anyway. I am trying to make the best of it, day by day.
Thank you. (And the sausages sound fantastic!)

9 Elissa June 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Thanks Deborah.
In a percolator?

10 Elissa June 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Thanks Kim. Hope things get better!

11 Margit Van Schaick June 5, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Thank you for this lovely, evocative piece. So glad you followed your instinct to accompany the Italian ladies to market, resulting in your cooking those wonderfully appetizing sausages. Your lack of an oven reminds me of the time I lived in Somalia: we used charcoal to cook and baked delicious cookies in an oven made out of an empty rectangular oil drum placed on top of a grate, with burning charcoal not only below the oven but also piled on the top (which had a rim added on for that purpose). Now that I’ve learned to bake bread, I bet that would have worked, as well. Looking back to that time, I’m pretty sure that cooking and baking those improvised meals helped me immensely in preserving my sense of self in that beautiful, yet so harsh land. Your writing is truly magical in the powerful way it brings memory alive.

12 Mary June 6, 2013 at 12:12 am

Beautifully written and wise, wise words- food is sustenance for our body and spirit.

13 Amber June 6, 2013 at 4:14 am

What a lovely story. I loved that you went to the place that your Grandmother never went and shopeed and found such a rich vein of ingredients and advice! I have just bought your book and am very much looking forward to reading it!

14 Arlene June 6, 2013 at 11:12 am

This really took me back. My grandmother made fantastic meals with battered enamel pots that used a plate for a cover; beat up frying pans that never sat squarely on the stove so the oil always pooled on one side, one good knife, and 2 wooden spoons. I don’t remember her ever buying a new kitchen item in the 35 years I was lucky to have her.

P.S. loved your book and congratulations on the review in the NY Times.

15 heidi June 6, 2013 at 11:19 am

I cook not only to eat,but for my sanity, to save my mind when everything else becomes too much, and because I love to. My oven is currently not usable and I have made do with a toaster oven.One can cook anywhere and any way,and it can be wonderful. It’s what comes from your heart, even if broken at the time. Often, at that time, the love you need to give can be put into your food.A broken heart and a broken oven, you learn a lot from both of them.My heart is no longer broken and I hope that soon my oven will follow suit.

16 Jennie June 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Thank you for the story – I LOVED it!! I felt like I was right there with you. Lovely!

17 Elissa June 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Jennie, thank you so much for reading!

18 Elissa June 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Thanks so much Arlene!

19 Elissa June 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Thanks Amber–

20 Elissa June 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Thanks Margit–

21 Elissa June 6, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Thank you Mary-

22 Wendy Read June 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Such beautiful writing, I was right there. Parents were born in Brooklyn, so familar..wow. Loved it!

23 Amanda June 9, 2013 at 9:04 am

Wonderful post! I loved reading it and at the same time felt I was in a very private place that I shouldn’t have been! Have you considered writing a book–not a cookbook?

24 Elissa June 9, 2013 at 10:19 am

Hi Amanda, my book is actually very much not a cookbook—it’s a memoir. Hope you enjoy!

25 Jennifer June 10, 2013 at 10:06 am

I think I’ve died and gone to heaven…..I cant wait to make this!!! And am in a similar situation with the oven….for the 2nd time in my life! Lived somewhere once before where the oven never worked in the 2 yrs we lived there….right now just don’t want to get a new stove right now…. will have to before Thanksgiving though!

26 gorgeoux June 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Your grandmother was Romanian? One of these years, let’s take a trip to my parents, so they can treat you to the non-schmaltz repertoire of that worldwide unique cuisine. It’s a very serious offer, for I know it would be another homecoming.

27 Amy June 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm

This is so inspiring! I have a charming vintage oven made in about 1950, and it takes forever to get up to temperature, heating the whole house in the process. I just can’t bear to turn it on in the summer at all, so I have to stick to stovetop cooking or grilling. Sometimes limitations enhance creativity.

28 Maryn June 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm

What a lovely post. Because I’m from Bay Ridge, I looked the address up on Google Maps to see just where it was. The StreetView of the building has the *exact* same awning, after however many years. Brooklyn: Some things never change.

29 Adri {Food-N-Thought} June 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Lovely read. We just never know what we are in for… with or without oven.

30 Suebob June 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm

This is a lovely piece.

31 Stephanie-Oh June 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm

You write so beautifully. I love coming to your blog. Thank you for sharing your story.

32 Ally June 24, 2013 at 4:23 am

I think this is one of my favorite posts I’ve ever read. Such beautiful writing & imagery!

33 Patricia July 8, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Thank you for this lovely story, even though it made me cry. I had to leave my home and come and live with my daughter after my 35 year marriage ended. She and her husband are wonderful, my young grandchildren sweet, but this is not my home. I feel like I too, am getting my bearings, learning how to make an income, and will hopefully soon be able to walk out the door and start my life again. I just found your blog, and will be spending the evening reading it, with a glass of wine in my hand. I can hardly wait.

34 Elissa July 8, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Best of luck to you Patricia—–your life will get better. Hugs.

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