Every Saturday of my childhood, I went to Bubby’s house for lunch after services. Since Bubby was strictly Orthodox, she would not cook on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, so everything had to be prepared in advance of sundown on Friday. Foods simmered on top of the stove or in the oven overnight. Consequently, the heavenly aroma of chicken soup, brisket, and stuffed cabbage permeated the house and filtered all the way out the front door, beckoning visitors and tempting passersby.
By my late teens I became interested in cooking myself, but realized that I had no idea how to make her standards. The summer of 1971, Bubby fell gravely ill with shingles. Every day I would go to St. Luke’s Hospital to spoon-feed her, as she didn’t want to eat. Perhaps she feared that the food would not be kosher, or maybe she just didn’t feel well enough. Or maybe, she was just used to her own cooking, which was fabulous. (Bubby was such a good cook that the visiting cantor who stayed with her during the High Holidays told me years later that he blamed her specifically for his huge weight gain. He couldn’t resist her challah, strudel, mandel breit, lockshen, etc. I understood; nobody could.)
Somehow I must have known that I might never get the chance to ask her questions again, so one day as I was helping her with her lunch I asked, “Bubby, will you give me your recipes?”
“I don’t have them written down.”
“You can dictate them to me. I’ll write everything down. ”
“Only if you write in Yiddish.”
“But I don’t know Yiddish.”
“You have to do it in Yiddish.”
“Bubby, if you were so interested in having me learn Yiddish, why didn’t you teach me? Why did you only speak it when you didn’t want me to understand? Bubby, I’m going to live in Israel. I speak, read, and write Hebrew!” (The “speak” may have been a bit of an exaggeration at the time, but, hey, we were talking about food here.)
“Yiddish or nothing.”
Needless to say, I got the “nothing.”
I have now spent virtually every Friday of my adult life attempting to replicate her challah. Several years ago, when my dad was still alive, he was with us for dinner. Whether a Shabbat or holiday I can’t remember, but the meal did feature challah. After we had completed the blessings over the wine and the bread, my father startled me by saying, “This challah is better than Bubby’s.”
I doubt that was true, but will take that compliment with me to the grave.
As for all her other scrumptious dishes, I have never attempted to make egg noodles (hers were like silk), and I can’t stuff a cabbage leaf to save my life. My brisket with tzimmes, however, is identical to hers. When it comes to the desserts, I have never tried to duplicate the strudel since, in the attempt, I would end up the size of a house (remember Cantor Albert). Mandel breit is a once-a-year experiment and, while not bad, it’s just not Bubby’s.
In large part due to my failure to ask questions when I had the chance, today I ask lots of them. Slowly, I am gathering stories and recipes from my own relatives to publish a family memoir.
The moral of this story is to ask questions while your elders are alive and healthy. Get as many stories from them as you can. Write down the recipes and try them out, preferably with their source. And remember to share both.
And, if they expect you to learn the language of your ancestors, find out sooner rather than later.