The elevator door opens on the 12th floor and I inhale the heady scent of sautéed onions. I don’t have to wonder where the smell is coming from, I know: Eva is cooking.
From the first day that my husband and I moved into our East Side Manhattan apartment, we were greeted with the intoxicating food scents wafting through the door of my neighbor Eva’s apartment, just down the hall.
I ran into her in the corridor one day and told her how enchanted I was by the smell of her cooking.
“You’ll come for dinner,” she said, sealing our future friendship.
Eva is 80. Her last name is Young and it fits. She’s 80 years young and always in motion, usually in her spanking white, sunlit kitchen across the street from the East River. Her dishes are her food gifts to her friends and relatives: Vegetarian chopped liver, salmon with dill sauce, squash soup, pea soup, sweet red cabbage with apples and all kinds of sugar cookies and cakes. Only someone like Eva makes chicken soup because her doctor has a cold. In the dead of winter, she brings it to him.
He should pay you, I’m tempted to mutter, but I hold my tongue.
Nothing goes to waste in Eva’s kitchen because Eva doesn’t throw away food, instead recycling it from one dish to another. An extra pear becomes part of a pear cake, some leftover chopped meat becomes the stuffing inside her kreplach.
When you’ve gone without food like Eva has, you relish abundance and you offer it, a shield against the past and the pain of going hungry.
Eva is a Holocaust survivor and up until a few years ago, she had the remnants of bruises on her back to prove it. Her story is hard to hear and she only tells it when she’s pushed to, often looking off when tears fill her eyes. She works every day to forget and cooking, perpetual cooking, works better to calm Eva than Xanax.
She was a child in Lipsko, Poland, when she was taken captive by the Nazis in 1939. She lost all her family in the death camps and the only way she survived was by pretending to be 15 instead of 12 so that she was old enough to work unimaginable hours with barely enough food to survive in the horrific labor camp of Skarzysko. She managed to escape, but was recaptured and sent to the Majdanek death camp. Somehow she escaped execution and was returned to Skarzysko where she worked at a blast furnace, making bullets for the Germans. She survived with money from the sale of a diamond her father had implanted in one of her molars.
Other children might have succumbed to exhaustion, biting hunger and despair, but not Eva. She has a spiritual gift for joy and laughter that even the death camps couldn’t crush.
“Even in concentration camp I was making jokes — all the people were laughing,” Eva told us. “They like to be around me because they said I was a lot of fun.”
Telling jokes and recording new ones is as much of a pastime as cooking for Eva. At holiday parties, she tells them in rapid-fire succession, with almost an urgency if there’s a lull in the conversation.
In her organized apartment, she keeps a notebook where she has written down each and every joke, just the way she has written down each and every recipe.
Joke No. 6:
An old man comes to the doctor. “Doctor, I have a problem,” the old man said.
“What’s the problem?” the doctor asked.
“Well, I am making love almost every night.”
The doctor laughed and said, “Sir, this is not a problem.What’s your problem.”
Eva shares her recipes the way she shares her jokes and her food. Every time I compliment her on something new that I try, she offers to give me the recipe and usually insists that I watch her prepare it, a kind of live YouTube demo to make sure I do it right.
And then there are the recipe cards that she lends me with her hand written recipes, each one charmingly annotated with VG for very good or VVG for very, very good. Eva is a woman who speaks four languages and has been a successful business executive in this country, yet she feels she has to apologize for her spelling on the recipe cards. Chopped comes out “chupped,” and “catchup” for ketchup. Her approximations add inestimable charm to the recipes; they carry the weight of who she is, but I don’t tell her that.
When I do tell Eva is that my teenage daughter has become a vegan. She puts her hand on her cheek and shakes her head.
“Oy, you have a problem,” she says.
The next day my intercom rings before dinnertime. It’s Eva. She was making eggplant salad and she wants to bring some over for Sophie. The day after that it’s a rice and vegetable salad. And then a container of squash soup. I think she’s seriously concerned that Sophie may starve.
When the hall became strangely devoid of food scents for a week, I became concerned. I contacted Eva and found out that her husband, Julius, was in the hospital. A simple surgery hadn’t turned out the way it was supposed to.
Instead of coming home in one day, he spent weeks in the hospital. Things didn’t look good and I got daily updates from Eva.
“We need a miracle,” she said at one point, going home at the end of a long day in the hospital, sitting by his side.
But the miracle, in fact, took place and Julius came home. She nursed him back to health with good food and good humor. Julius is 90 and still tells jokes of his own, often at the table after he has eaten one his favorite of Eva’s dishes.
“To be optimistic in life and hope, that’s the most important thing,” Eva told us. “To be hopeful, not to lose hope, that’s the only thing of survival.”
In mid-December, Eva and Julius left for Florida to escape the cold. The corridor seemed so much less homey with them gone.
Eva called the next week to see how we were. The weather was below freezing here, I was happy that they were spared. Several days later, the intercom rang in the afternoon, about the time that Eva usually rang. I hesitated for a moment, and then I picked it up. The doorman said there was a package for me. It turned out to be a large carton. I opened it up to find fresh grapefruits and oranges.