Is it in the genes? The Italian-Russian-Jewish mob

“Let ’em eat cake!” or rather in the household of Jackie’s mother, Bernice,“Make her eat cake!”

That was the battle cry of Jackie’s Italian grandmother, Stella, and her Russian grandfather, Joseph. It was their solution to their daughter, Bernice, being too skinny. Cake “four times a day” would turn her into her father’s ideal of beauty, namely a robust peasant girl. She never got any fatter, just borderline hyperglycemic.

To this day, she suffers a wicked sweet tooth that compromises her otherwise healthy lifestyle. “Food was God in my house,” says Bernice. “My father wasn’t fussy about anything else, but our food had to be the best. We supported the local merchants. They used to bow when my mother walked into the store.”

Joseph’s greatest joy was seeing family and friends served wonderful meals in his home. But he didn’t cook. Bernice’s mother, Stella, was queen of her kitchen! She was from a large Italian family of exceptional cooks, but she converted to Judaism. Having to pass herself off as a Jew after marrying and converting to Judaism, she was forced to learn to cook the food, everything from gefilte fish to blintzes. And the food never gave her away.

Bernice, the rebel, avoided the kitchen at all costs, especially because her father insisted, “The only way you’ll get a man is if you learn to cook like your mother.” She proved him wrong, but that’s not a food story.

As Jackie remembers, “My mother always said what distinguishes great cooks from good cooks is that great cooks love to cook. Every meal is an opportunity to express that love.”

Bernice was a good cook but having to shop, cook and work full-time while raising three kids on her own was a nightmare. She remembers, “It was like feeding a small army every day. I used to rejoice when I had leftovers, then cry the next day when I got home from work and found that ‘someone’ had eaten them and left just a tablespoon in the bottom of the pot.”

She really could have used a personal chef in those days. Bernice cooked under duress and only ever enjoyed doing it when she found the time to cook for company. Fortunately, for almost everyone, cooking became Jackie’s chore.

For her two brothers, it was an exercise in “the pleasure with pain.” Not only did they have to eat at the odd hours when her culinary masterpieces were finally finished, but they had to clean up after her! It was the beginning of the #1 Gordon House Rule. If you cook, you don’t clean. Could this be what inspired Jackie to be a great cook?

Jackie’s mother was disconnected from her family, but after 35 years she reunited with her brother. And as it turns out, Jackie is related to chef Larry Forgione, an early champion of American food and produce, on her Italian grandmother’s side. And they both worked at the River Café. Years apart, so they never met, but it’s a bit spooky just the same…

Share This: