Many of my fondest childhood memories of the ‘60s and ‘70s involve my grandmother’s food. Visiting my Nana, aunt, uncle and cousins meant eating foods we didn’t have at home and stuffing ourselves silly with chopped liver, chicken soup and melt -in-your-mouth kosher meat. When “The Ed Sullivan Show” ended, we’d always leave with some of Nana’s homemade rugelach, though never enough! That’s when the scheming commenced. My brother and I could never share these mouthwatering treats, so we’d creep downstairs before bedtime without the other’s knowledge to eat some rugelach while trying to make it look like none were taken. That only worked for so long. Soon it was obvious the rugelach were disappearing and neither of us would ever own up to it. To this day nothing’s ever matched their traditional crescent shape, sweet yet dry pastry outside with sugar, cinnamon, nuts and raisins inside. Sadly, Nana kept all her recipes in her head, never writing them down for future generations.
Who doesn’t have a childhood memory involving Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine? How many of us dipped our pinkies into the glass of sweet wine to count the plagues with the wine never making it past our fingers onto the plate? This next cautionary tale comes courtesy of a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. She recalls Passover being a time when she’d let her tween-aged son have a sip or two of that ubiquitous bottle of Manischewitz. One afternoon, following the Seder the night before, my friend returned home to find a half-finished bottle of the Manischewitz atop the blaring television set––her very happy 10-year-old having drunk it like juice. Suffice it to say this speechless mom realized immediately that she hadn’t specified that the drinking of Manischewitz was only allowed with adult supervision!
On holidays, not just Passover, Andrea Renskoff recalls her grandmother’s sister making her own gefilte fish, “mixing in finely chopped carrots that brought a sweet aroma to the broth they were cooked in. The fish melted on my tongue like the most tender of matzo balls. Auntie served them in shallow china soup bowls that had designs of pinecones on them. The table was topped with a white cloth embroidered with flowers and, on top of that, a sheet of clear heavy plastic that crunched as the dishes and silverware were maneuvered throughout the meal. Later, when that generation got too old to cook and the recipes were not passed down, we switched to Manischewitz [gefilte fish] in a jar and I missed those beautiful flecks of bright orange that made the blah beige of the fish so appealing.”
When Rita Tateel’s mother made gefilte fish from scratch, Rita tried to leave the house because of the smell and all the fish heads around. “To this day I cannot eat fish with heads still on! I also ate tongue as a kid until one day I saw my mom slicing up a whole tongue and I realized what it was! I haven’t eaten tongue since and in general I can’t eat anything that looks like on the plate what it looked like when it was alive!”
Julie Kessler recalls her grandmother making gefilte fish on the back porch, grinding the pike outside along with the horseradish to accompany it. When pike got too expensive, they switched to chicken but it looked exactly the same. The new name for that beloved dish, chicken fish! Kessler adds that her husband, who still has to leave the house whenever she cooks liver, adores stuffed derma, “mystery meat” Kessler’s never tried.
What’s an article about Jewish food without mentioning latkes? Self-proclaimed foodie, Sheri Lesser says, “Basically my grandma used to have me grate the potatoes and then she would make the latkes for me. However, after eating four of them as a small child and her saying ‘Do you want one more?’ so she could finish up the rest of the batter, I said yes. However, that last one was as big as the frying pan. In my family you didn’t take food unless you ate it and there was no way I could eat that huge potato pancake on top of what I’d already eaten. I got very upset and my grandma felt bad for me and didn’t make me eat it.” Lesser says her grandma was the one who cooked all the Jewish food in her family and she loved it all. In fact, her grandmother was always trying to fatten her up because she was a pretty skinny kid.
“My mom makes really good matzo balls,” says Jamie Gold. Because of that she’ll only order them at just one other place in Manhattan, a little Greek diner, where the matzo balls come close to the delectable taste and consistency of her mom’s. As a child, Jamie spent many of the holidays at other people’s houses whose matzo balls were never up to snuff. In fact, one family they frequented most often made disgusting ones. Jamie’s mom, who’s quite modest about her matzo ball brilliance and averse to offending, offered to bring them to all those gatherings. That proved quite popular. So much so that the hostess’s two young sons suggested a matzo ball eating contest. However, the downside of that meant that anyone wanting a second serving of the famous matzo balls had to scramble before the boys downed them all.
Judy Nisenbaum Weilbacher’s (step) grandma, aka Tante Yetkah “was an amazing culinary force. After fleeing Austria, before arriving in the U.S., she ran a boarding house in Cuba for a couple of years. She took great pride in never serving the same meal twice in any month. My favorite memory of her culinary talents was that she made multiple batches of matzo balls in varying densities to please everyone at holiday meals.”
As a little girl, Lee Grinsztein, whose family came from Argentina, would only eat matzo ball soup with Parmesan cheese. “My mom would add Parmesan cheese on my food or lemon juice on my vegetables so I would eat them. We’d have to put the Parmesan cheese on top of the soup when it was boiling hot so it would melt and would be cheesy and gooey. An Italian style matzo ball soup!” Lee recalls that at the holidays everyone would try it too and it became a new tradition. “I still have it that way when I’m feeling nostalgic.”
My cousin Shelley Chanler told me that many years ago at Rosh Hashanah our Nana made her sponge cake, rugelah and, as an extra treat, apple strudel. She rarely made strudel because it was a difficult recipe getting the dough so thin and slicing the apples so thin as well. For safekeeping, Nana stored the baked goods in her bedroom. When Shelley was asked to bring the desserts down, she lifted off the foil covering the strudel but it was gone, not a crumb left! The culprit? Arlen, Shelley’s very poorly trained dog.
What stands out from all these meaningful recollections is how food, great memories and our Jewish culture are so inextricably connected. And how food articles and empty stomachs don’t mix. Neither do dogs and strudel!
Ronna Mandel is a a contributing writer for JLife. You can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com.