The skill I regret most not having is being able to cook. Now don't get me wrong. I am not one of those guys who can't boil an egg or who stands dazed before the frozen food section in the grocery store, but my culinary skills are decidedly basic. This lack of talent saddens me all the more as my mother was a phenomenal cook and I have inherited all of her recipes— none of which I have been able to master. So, every time I sit down to my simple meal of baked potato, undercooked vegetables and overly seasoned steak, I sense my mother's disapproving presence.

I have a great appreciation for good food. My tastes range from Indian to Mexican, Japanese, Greek and French. I know a good dim Sum when I taste it, have sent back a crème broulé with an insufficient crust; but given my druthers I still love a good Jewish meal. Not surprising since I was raised in a home that kept strictly kosher (separate dishes for milk and meat, no pig products or fish without fins and scales) and my taste buds have retained their religious affiliations.

The community where I grew up did not have a kosher restaurant, so unless we were invited out to a family that shared our religious affiliations, we ate all of our meals at home. Not that I minded. In fact, on those occasions when I ate at a friend's house, my mother would grill me on my return, not about the gossip or how the house looked, but on the table fare. If I unintentionally mentioned a dish that was not in her repertoire—or worse, that a dish she made tasted “better” (G‑d forbid)--within the hour she would be on the phone. “Mashey tells me you have a wonderful recipe for... would you mind sharing it with me?” At the next opportunity the dish would appear, and to be honest, tasting better than the original. I loved my mother’s food but if I was angry with her, I knew the only way to really hurt her was not to eat a large portion or tell her that I didn't like it. Going away hungry was small satisfaction for the hurt I had inflicted on her.

Everything was eigenegebachene. Homemade. I grew up in what used to be termed “genteel poverty,” but you wouldn't know it from our diet. Everything was eigenegebachene. Homemade. My mother made jams from the gooseberries and raspberries that grew in our back garden, wine from grapes and a more acrid kind from raisins; she made cottage cheese from the fermented milk that hung in muslin bags from the clothing line and turned the cheese into the sweetest cheese cakes. But she specialized in Jewish food. On Friday night, we would arrive back from services to a dining table covered with a white tablecloth, glistening candlesticks and a meal that would cost me a small fortune nowadays in the finest restaurants. We began with a choice of appetizers (though we never used such fancy terms): chopped liver which we piled on to my mother's fresh baked challah bread, or calve's foot jelly (called petcha), chicken soup, and chicken or meat with a variety of side dishes: a potato pudding, or a tzimmis made from carrots, prunes and meat (which I loved when it was three or four days old and cooked over and over again), kishka (stuffed derma) or helzel (the skin from a hen's gullet stuffed with bread crumbs), and whatever new surprise my mother had come up with. My father would heap his plate high, and since everything was also cooked in chicken fat and he then poured salt over everything (and by the way he smoked a pack a day) and he lived to the 90, I can only hope that I have inherited his genes.

On the Sabbath, we would again sit down to another huge meal. This time the piece de resistance was a dish called "cholent." Some people think of this as a Jewish chili but they have it wrong. Made with beans but also barley with a piece of flanken meat and covered in maple syrup, it cooked for twelve hours in a crock-pot. Two helpings of this—my mother's minimum daily allowance—and one wouldn't need to eat for the rest of the day. Friends would beg to be invited to our table just to have my mother's version of this dish. You could win her eternal love, by asking for fourths! Oliver Twist would have been embraced in our house as he held up his bowl for some more.

Of course, every religious holiday brought its special brand of foods: on Chanukah were potato pancakes, the only dish I have managed to duplicate up to my mother's standards, hamantashen for Purim, blintzes for Pentecost, where my mother would make by hand scores of delicate paper thin crepes. Nothing I have eaten at the best restaurants has yet to match her skills. Passover brought its own range of foods some like imbelech, a hard candy made from carrots and nuts, or “bureke” jam, made from beets and almonds seasoned with ginger, that we spread liberally over the matzah, giving the rather bland unleavened bread a far a more palatable taste. As much as I have looked, I have never found it anywhere else.

“How does it taste? Need more salt? Pepper?” Nonetheless, despite the wonderful religious cuisine, my favorite meal was decidedly secular: The Thursday night repast. That night was “swim night” at school and I would arrive home gleaming and chlorine fresh to a table crammed to abundance: fresh baked bread, little buns called bulkelahs, others with onions in the middle called tzibbeleh bondes, chopped herring, fried gefilte fish called pletzlach, and the highlight of the meal, fresh made gefilte fish, still steaming from the broth. For dessert, custard with fresh stewed fruit in the middle, cheesecake, strudel or what other cake my mother had time to prepare. By the time I left the table, whatever calories I had burned off swimming laps were soon back on in spades. My mother would never sit during this meal but would hover over us all, making sure we had at least two portions of each. As I bit into a piece of fish seasoned to perfection she would ritualistically ask several questions: “How does it taste? Need more salt? Pepper”? I would always answer, “No, it’s perfect.” Which it was. And then she would ask, “Better than last week?” And I would answer, again truthfully, “yes, even better, Ma.” With every week better than the week before, by the time I left home at the age of 18, I suspect I was eating the nectar of the gods.

But I didn't know that then. Only when I went to college and no longer sat down to her meals did I realize how much I was spoiled. What made it worse was that I then realized I couldn't cook. For reasons not relevant to this saga, I chose a college thousands of miles from home. I had set out on my journey confident that I could duplicate her masterworks as I was armed with her recipes, which, I must say, were annoyingly vague (“a pinch of this, a little of that.” “I don’t know,” she said, as I tried to write them down, “I just go on instinct.”) My confidence evaporated quicker than a failed soufflé and so on many a night when I sat down to a lonely meal I felt like I was doomed to nothing but memories of the meals that were. The Bible tells us that when the Hebrews were in the desert, they received a blessing of manna that came with the morning dew. It looked like a coriander seed but tasted like anything the eater wanted it to. What I would have given for such a boon but no such luck. Instead I was an exile doomed to eat gruel.

My mother died some years ago, and as sat in mourning we found enough prepared food to feed an army. My brothers and I indulged in one last Friday night meal of my mother’s best. Before I left, I scrounged around and found three jars of her beet jam put away for a future Passover. Without telling anyone, I squirreled them out of the house. With great frugality, I managed to make them last for a few years. When I finished the last jar, I scraped its edges like a junkie hoping to get enough for just one more fix. To no avail. I ate the last morsel with tears in my eyes.

With my parents deceased, I began to face my own mortality. I have this theory that life after death is exactly what we think it will be. If you don’t believe in eternity, you don’t get it—it’s over. If you believe that you will come back in another form, then you do. If you believe in Hell and you think you're a sinner, then you're doomed to be stuck on a fork and roasted over a hot fire. I haven't seen much in Judaism about Hell and we're also decidedly vague on what Heaven is. I was in a quandary what to expect until I saw a Japanese movie some years back. Called “Afterlife,” it showed a group of the recently deceased being led to a way station where they watch a video of their lives. Then they get to pick their favorite moment which is then recreated for them and that becomes their heaven. After the movie, a group of us talked about what moment we would take with us. I didn’t have to hesitate to come up with mine.

After I enter Heaven, I see a table that seems to extend into eternity arrayed once again with the dishes from my favorite Thursday night meal. As I bite into a hot, steaming piece of gefilte fish, my mother once again hovers over me. “How does it taste”? “Need more salt? Pepper? “No, Ma. “Better than the last time you had it? “ Yes, Ma." Much better.”