by Joyce Kahn
For Ruth Coppersmith of Adamant, cooking is a passion. I have eaten at her table many times, always marveling at the delicious combinations of foods she prepares, always grateful for this far-better-than-restaurant experience. As she explained, we all need to eat, and where else can one feed oneself and also nurture others, giving love and good food at the same time, while feeding one’s needs for creativity?
“You have to eat, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting time. A creative effort, like drawing or painting, I have to have time set aside to do that. If I’m in my own house, it’s very hard for me to set aside the time and space to do that. But if I want to be creative, I can always cook because I have to cook anyway. And I like to feed people. Almost anybody will appreciate a good meal. Even if you have plenty to eat, having someone else do this for you is an act of love, and that’s why I like it. For me it’s such an easy and creative way to share with other people and nurture. And who doesn’t like it? And if I know how to cook well, and I know how to gear toward different tastes and dietary needs, then people are almost always happy. That’s why I love to cook,” Coppersmith said. “Gardening is another passion, but I don’t think I’d like gardening nearly so well except that I dream up these things I’m going to cook. I like to grow things that are different or exotic or challenging, and I have it down to a science.”
Coppersmith’s earliest memories of food have positive associations. Her memories are of the tastes and scents of her paternal grandmother’s kitchen, and the foods so lovingly and generously prepared there. And they are also the foods from her maternal grandfather’s, where the family would also visit every Sunday. Having grown up in the Middle East and become a young widower responsible for two young children, he learned to prepare the cuisine of that region — stuffed cabbage, okra, kasha varnishkes, sesame candies, halvah, all “kind of exotic.”
Coppersmith’s mother, a “good but not-creative cook,” did not permit her in the kitchen when cooking, but Ruth was exposed through her family’s forays to restaurants, to many of the ethnic cuisines for which New York City is famous. The family frequented Chinatown for authentic as opposed to American Chinese food, ate in Armenian restaurants where she loved zucchini stuffed with lamb and covered in a sweet tomato sauce and baklava with kayak, a sweet clotted cream, and also dined in French and Italian restaurants. “There are many positive food memories. That is how I got into food,” she said. “Early memories are full of smells and tastes. As far as the five senses go, I’m really into touch and smell and taste as well as visual and auditory; textures, how things feel — crunchy things and soft things and custardy things, and because they’re part of my earliest memories, they’re deep inside me, and cooking brings them back to me.”
The first thing Coppersmith was allowed to cook was butterscotch pudding. But she received practice in food presentation, when at her mother’s cocktail parties, her role was arranging the hors d’oeuvres on a platter: these were the crackers and mock caviar, an eggplant dip from a recipe in The New York Times, always served in a special bowl used only for that purpose, and special slices of cheese or dip.
Her father always taught her to eat what was put in front of her or at least taste it; and while she did not appreciate this always as a child, she believes it benefited her later, when as a young adult, she became more adventurous with food.
Coppersmith’s first real cooking experiences began after college, when she moved with her then-boyfriend into the “puppet house,” (making puppets and performing with them is yet another passion). They were poor and she was not yet vegetarian, so she cooked horse meat and pork chops and chicken marango. She would buy used cookbooks and when searching for a certain dish to prepare would put three or four out to look at and pick and choose what she wanted from each. She still cooks like that unless she is so familiar with a recipe that she doesn’t need the books. But most of the time she checks back with a recipe to choose different versions of the same dish. Sometimes she’ll invent something not in any of the recipes.
Coppersmith is also quite skilled at substitutions and can adapt any recipe to the needs of the diner. She can turn a meat dish into a vegetarian one, and make adaptations for gluten free, low-carbohydrate sugar-free, which she has to do for herself because of high blood sugar now, or for low-fat dairy dishes. Primarily vegetarian, Ruth will consult standard cookbooks such as “The Joy of Cooking,” and substitute other proteins for the meats.
Away from her home, Coppersmith substitutes in the kitchen of The Family Center and for area elementary schools. Restaurant cooking doesn’t interest her, and she isn’t interested in opening a business, which she said would ruin it for her. The largest group she’s cooked for is 16, but she’d like to learn to cook for 40. She has thought about going to the New England Culinary Institute for this purpose and also might like being a camp cook on a small expedition, where she would have a role to play, a skill to contribute. Coppersmith has also offered private cooking lessons and has thought about offering classes in low-carbohydrate cooking.
But for now, this excellent cook is content doing the cooking she’s currently involved in, and I for one, exult when invited to dine at her table.