My Aunt Shirley is my favorite aunt. She has a degree in chemistry from Johns Hopkins. She’s retired now but she used to work for a big cosmetics company. She made all the fancy fragrances that come in those tiny two-ounce bottles that sell for $189. I won’t name the company because Shirley had a falling out with them one holiday season when the company called one of her new creations “too demanding” for their clientele. From then on she was relegated to creating scents that were sold in economy size bottles at Walgreen’s. She never recovered from the trauma and was induced to take early retirement. They called it a golden parachute; she called it a lead balloon.

She was known as The Brains of the Family, and would always fascinate us with her stories of how she developed new products. “Oh, that one,” she would begin. “I was sitting in the lab one day and decided to mix two milligrams of vanilla extract, six milligrams of rosehips and a dash of lavender. But the secret ingredient which I will now reveal is… a pinch of salt.”   We didn’t know whether to believe her or not since all of her potions included a pinch of salt, but she was entertaining and her personality more than made up for her shortcomings in the kitchen.

We used to alternate between my mother’s house and Aunt Shirley’s house for the Passover holidays. I always preferred my mom’s cooking, especially since Shirley couldn’t cook at all. The relatives who were fortunate enough to avoid her holiday dinners due to “a previous engagement” were enviously said to have gotten a gastric bypass. One year at her house the matzo balls were so hard my dad cracked his bridge. Luckily my Uncle Bernie was there and he is a dentist. He managed to fix the bridge just as dinner ended. Considering the food we suffered through that night, we all had our suspicions that my dad had done it on purpose to avoid further damage to his stomach. “I took one for the team,” he weakly explained, knowing full well that we had to eat that much more.

One year on the way to her house when I was a teenager, my parents delivered the usual admonition to be respectful, eat everything on your plate, ask for seconds (this always brought a groan), and tell Aunt Shirley how much you enjoyed the meal. We walked into the house and were greeted with the most delicious aroma of chicken soup, brisket and gravy. This was before GPS so we immediately thought we had mistakenly gone to the Cohen’s house which was one block over.

Muriel Cohen was known throughout the neighborhood as the best cook in Van Nuys.   Everyone said she could make shoe leather taste good, which we understood to be the highest compliment a cook could receive. Once we actually did get invited over there for dinner. Unfortunately I happened to have been in the pizza and hamburger stage of my life and was unimpressed with Muriel’s brisket. It tasted a little bit like shoe leather.

Much to our surprise Shirley came out with her apron on and beckoned us to the table for dinner. We all complimented her on the delicious smell coming from the kitchen. Did she hire a cook? There was no one in the kitchen except Bruno, their 110 pound Labrador who always sat between my mother and me at dinner and was the grateful recipient of many an overcooked matzo ball. We eagerly awaited the food but were terribly disappointed when Shirley brought out the usual medicine.

I suddenly figured it out and smiled knowingly at my aunt. “Shirley, have you been in the lab again?” I asked.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she replied. “I designed a brand new fragrance that smells exactly like all matzo ball soup. I was just sitting there in the lab one day and combined two milligrams of peppermint, three milligrams of sage and a dash of mandarin. But the secret ingredient, which I will now reveal is…

We all interrupted in unison and added “a pinch of salt.”

She looked a little hurt but smiled, and added reprovingly, “Kosher.”



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