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.
On holidays, not just Passover, my grandmother’s sister would be making her own gefilte fish, mixing in finely chopped carrots that brought a sweet aroma to the broth they were cooked in. The fish would melt 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 my mother made gefilte fish from scratch, I would try 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!
I can also recall my 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!
What’s an article about Jewish food without mentioning latkes? In my family, 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.
My cousin 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? Our 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 contributing writer for KIDDISH.