Food Our Mothers Cooked

Somewhere around the beginning of last week, my friends–in person, by email, on Facebook, on Twitter–began talking about the upcoming High Holidays. Big Jewish holidays, we clean and we cook. (In fact, my house is never cleaner than the day before Rosh Hashanah and the day before Pesach.) In the earlier snippets I detected (and contributed to) an undercurrent of “overwhelmed-ness.” For my friends who are observant, this is the kind of year where Rosh Hashanah blends into Shabbat–which means lots and lots of food preparation, enough to last for three days. But even me, who considers herself an observant Jew, although an Orthodox Jew would argue that point, I was worrying about how I was going to manage to cook the brisket and make the matzoh balls, about whether I should just buy chicken stock and rugelach and not try to fit those items into my cooking schedule. Then there’s the added problem of the tricky food allergies and fussy palates running rampant in my family. (I mean, I have NEVER liked meat, though I am not a vegetarian; my husband is a carnivore; my son and his girlfriend are vegetarians and will eat only sustainably raised fish.)

So there I was pulling recipes out of my recipe box, though I don’t really need written instructions for any of this stuff. Some of them are in my mother’s beautiful script; others are on stained 3×5 cards or scraps of paper. I line them up on the counter, arrange them, rearrange them. Doesn’t matter. I know what I’m going to cook. It’s basically the same every year, basically what my mother or grandmother served on holidays. (And come to think of it, my grandmother’s Thanksgiving spread was about the same, substitute turkey for chicken.)

Then Ellen, a college roommate, who now lives in Jersusalem, and who has two older sisters, posted this on Facebook:Sweet memories, she said, familiar scents. But also, my friends around my age, those of us in the bulls eye of the Baby Boomer generation–most of us, our moms are dead. As are our dads, aunts, and uncles. We are the repository of all the Jewish recipes. And that’s an awesome responsibility (awesome here meaning “daunting,” not “totally cool”). Of course there are some fantastic Jewish cookbooks out there, like Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan. But, still, they’re not my mother’s recipes. When I’m cooking something, and I have a question, I can’t ask my mother. I have asked my 92-year-old Uncle Max about some of his mother’s recipes–and I do get answers. In fact, he even gives me measurements. However, when I try, they don’t work. I’m now on year three of attempting half-sour pickles in a crock; this year they grew mold in three days.

Truth be told, I’m actually a much better cook than my mom was. I’m sure I’m a better cook than my grandmother–my father’s mother who hosted most of the holidays. People talk about the smells we associate with our childhood. Her house smelled like roast chicken all year, every day. When I was really little, every Friday my Uncle Max would take my cousins and me and my sister to the shocket on Water Street, Worcester, MA’s Lower East Side, as it were. He’d pick out a chicken (my mother was modern: she ordered hers from the kosher butcher, who delivered everything wrapped in butcher paper, to the side door), and the ritual slaughterer took it into a booth. So we never saw the actual throat slitting. Nor am I sure at this point if the shocket plucked the chicken or if my grandmother did that. Uncle Max would also buy the red-veined “unborn” eggs, which I found kind of gross then and I believe they’re illegal to sell these days. My grandmother made lots of chicken soup. Lots.

Not being a lover of meat–in fact I did everything to avoid eating it–I can’t remember the taste of my grandmother’s brisket, or my mother’s. My husband says that mine was the best he ever ate, and I basically use my mom’s recipe, which involves covering a first-cut, fat side up, with lots of cut up veggies, thickened spiced-up canned tomatoes (or chili sauce), adding liquid for the last 2 hours (I now use micro-brewed beer; go figure), and just slow baking in a 325℉ oven for five or more hours total. The roasting pan I have is much more beautiful than anything my mom or grandmother used. (I bought it at Williams Sonoma.) I also use it to roast chicken, which can be a bit problematic when I’m serving both at the same dinner. I toss a coin. My husband said that today after a second brisket dinner that it was the best brisket he had ever had. Yay me!

One of my favorite things to make–because I know my aunt made it as well as my mother so the recipe had come down in my father’s family, or been picked up when they came to America (because I don’t think they had corn flakes in the shetl) is for noodle (luchen) kugle. Here goes:

1 lb of broad noodles       1/4 lb butter                  1 lb cottage cheese                                             4 eggs                                  1 cup sour cream          3/4 cup milk                                                  1/4 cup milk                       1/4 cup sugar                1/3 tsp cinnamon

topping: 1/3 cup crushed con flakes, 2 tbs sugar, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Cook noodles. Add butter and cottage cheese; slightly beat the eggs and add them; add remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture either into two 8×8 pans or into an 8×13. Sprinkle on the topping. Bake in the oven at 350℉ for 55 minutes. Hint: I always make about twice the amount of topping and add more sugar and cinnamon. Another hint: For all of us of Ashkenazai descent who are finding themselves lactose intolerant these days, I use Lactaid cottage cheese, sour cream and milk and switch out margarine for the butter, and it’s still delicious. And it looks great.

There’s actually a huge emotional significance to all this, to being the ones who make the holiday meals, almost all of us without our mothers at our sides. It means we’re old. Yup. I’m about the same age my grandmother was when I was little. Yes, in pictures she looks a lot older than I do now, but that’s because I have face creams, good makeup, and a great hair stylist. I know how to dress. I have great shoes. It also means that we’re the ones who are supposed to know stuff, and when we don’t, well, there’s Wikipedia, but that’s not much help when it comes to family memories. Some of us have daughters at our side helping out. Some of us sons. The kids, they come and eat. They love the food. But holiday traditions change, and so, I suppose, will the recipes.

Finally, these are the brass candlesticks that my mother’s grandmother brought with her from Shklov. They’re over 150 years old, I’m sure. One of the sticks also doesn’t fit so well into the bottom. The story is that all the girls in the family had a set, and every Friday before Shabbat they would take them apart to polish. On the Friday before they were to leave, they were in a hurry, and the pairs weren’t matched up correctly. So someplace I have a distant cousin with the lopsided mis-match to one of mine. Great story. I believe it’s true.

So, some things to think about. There’s the comment box below. Or Facebook. Or Twitter (@wordwhacker). Let me know what you’re thinking.

  • What are the smells you remember best? Are there certain odors or scents you associate with holiday food?
  • Do you have special recipes that have been handed down? If so, have you altered them at all?
  • And food. What other food did your mother cook?

By the way: I answer nearly every comment that is left on this blog.