Rosa and Eliza

Rosa Mannheim, Adelaide's mother, finds it difficult to manage her newest servant, her husband's purchase, the cook Eliza.

Isolated and lonely, Rosa threw herself into the only Jewish observance she could manage in Cass County. She would keep a kosher kitchen and a kosher table. Their cook was new. Rosa had asked Mordecai to buy a cook from a Jewish family, but he had taken a fancy to this one and paid too much for her at auction in Savannah. “You’ll have to teach her to keep a Jewish house,” he said.

Her name was Eliza, and she was a good ten years younger than Rosa. Her skin was very brown, the African color Rosa found so strange, and her eyes were so dark that the iris melted into the pupil, making her expression hard to read. From her very first words—“Yes, ma’am”—Rosa heard the coastal Georgia speech, so heavily African, that she found hard to understand.

Rosa said, “We’re Israelites.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know what that means?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Our religion forbids us to eat pork or shellfish. Or to eat meat and milk together in the same meal.”

She raised her eyes in surprise. “Whatever do you eat, ma’am?”

“Chicken. Turkey. Beef. Vegetables. Eggs. But no bacon, no ham, and no lard.”

Surprised again, she asked, “No lard or bacon grease?”

“Absolutely not.”

“How will I cook without grease, ma’am?”

“You’ll use cottonseed oil. We brought it from Savannah.”

“Cottonseed oil,” she said, perplexed.

Flushed and embarrassed, Rosa felt herself start to lose her temper. “You’ll do as I tell you. It’s our religion. You can’t be a good Israelite unless you follow the dietary laws.”

Puzzled, polite, she asked, “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but what happens to you if you break them laws? Do you go to hell?”

“Jews don’t believe in hell,” Rosa said impatiently. “God commanded us to do it. It’s in the Bible.”

Eliza nodded. She understood the notion of command. “Yes, ma’am,” she said.

Eliza was a skilled cook. She could make a flaky pie crust, if she had lard, and a tender chicken, if she could dip it in buttermilk and cook it in butter. But the dietary laws, and the German dishes that Rosa wanted, made her unsure and inept in the kitchen. After each failure, she said mournfully, “Ma’am, it’s that cottonseed oil. Nothing sets up right or tastes right.” A lighter-hearted mistress might have laughed and encouraged, but Rosa was more than impatient. She was full of dislike and equally full of fear. She scolded, and when she lost her temper, she slapped.

On the day Rosa found the cup of bacon grease hidden in the cupboard, she exploded. “Why is there bacon grease in this kitchen?” she cried out, glaring at her servant.

“Ma’am, it ain’t for your meals. It’s for ours, the servants who eat in the house. I keep the dishes and pots separate, like you told me.”

What was the gleam in those dark eyes? How could she sound so servile and seem so insolent? Rosa cried out, “How many times have I told you?” She grabbed Eliza by the shoulders. “Over and over! Get rid of it and never bring it in this kitchen again! Otherwise I’ll have you whipped!”

Eliza dropped her head. In her African-accented speech, she whispered, “Yes, ma’am.”

Sobbing, Rosa ran to tell her husband about Eliza’s infraction. Mordecai grabbed her by the hands, without any affection, and said, “She’s a good servant and I’m not going to whup her or sell her over a cup of bacon grease. She’ll learn how to cook for us, and you’ll manage.”

Rosa pressed her hands to her throbbing temples and sobbed even harder. “How can I keep a Jewish house in such a place?”

After being threatened with punishment, Eliza no longer smiled in her mistress’ company, and she never asked another question. But the dishes began to turn out, and under further prodding and scolding, she could cook a meal for a Jewish table. When Rosa was satisfied, she ordered her servant to cook a Sabbath dinner. When she came into the kitchen, Rosa was startled to see a pair of dark-skinned hands braiding the Sabbath loaf, just as her mother had always done.

Rosa prayed once a week, when she lit the Sabbath candles. That night, she added a private prayer to the God she rarely addressed. She asked Him to protect the child quickening in her womb and to bring it to term, healthy and alive. As she prayed, she blinked back the tears. Before this pregnancy there had been two miscarriages and a stillbirth.

As she and Mordecai sat at the table, Rosa watched Eliza bring in the dishes, all of them kosher, all of them redolent of home in Germany, with increasing satisfaction. The Sabbath loaf. The carp in wine sauce. The stuffed breast of veal. The sponge cake. At the end of the meal Rosa smiled at Mordecai, feeling an unusual happiness. They lived in the wilderness of northern Georgia. But her child, once it was born, would grow up in a Jewish home.

Six months later, to her husband’s regret, Rosa bore a daughter. Three months after that, her servant Eliza bore a daughter, too.