Thursday, May 15, 2008

In Memory's Kitchen

Note: The following is adapted from an article I wrote for the Temple Beth Abraham newsletter.

It is amazing how often we don’t write or pass down the stories of our personal heritage. Records of our own family histories, traditions and food ways are in danger of being lost.

For example, my son recently interviewed his grandmother about what she did on the home front during WWII. Grandpa’s exploits in the Army were well known by the family, but Grandma’s participation in the Manhattan Project came as a surprise to him.

My grandfather, Poppa, was a magical story teller. He made his adventures of escaping from Russia and making a living during the Roaring Twenties come alive. Certainly my sisters and I knew his stories as well as we knew the plot of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It was a shock to realize my own children couldn’t hear the echoes of his presence in my life in their memories and recall these stories, despite my very carefully telling each of them about Poppa when they were young. I was grateful for the school assignment that prompted my teen-aged son’s questioning and a chance to tell him once again about our past.

But it is in the kitchen that many of us now wish we had taken the time to ask questions, jot down some notes or even just pay attention to what was going on. Most of our grandmothers cooked without written recipes what they had learned from their mothers or mothers-in-law, dishes of their homelands tempered by local availability, the fashions of their time, religious observances and economic situations as much as family likes and dislikes. For many it seems that somehow that cycle was broken in our generation or our mothers and these dishes remain memories too elusive to taste again.

To be honest, Anna, my mother’s mother, was not one of those cooks whose cooking would elicit Proust-like reveries. But Grandma had her specialties. My sisters and I, all accomplished cooks, still are trying to figure out what made Anna’s stuffed cabbage, cheese blintzes and a few of her other dishes that were the constants of our childhood so tasty.

My grandmother passed away before I realized I was running out of time to record her recipes, but I was lucky, I inherited the recipe cards of another Jewish grandma, my husband’s Aunt Lee. Aunt Lee was married to my mother-in-law’s older brother, so she seemed to bridge a generational gap for me. She was knowledgeable about food, having worked in her father-in-law’s fish store, and was deservedly well-known for her cooking. She also seemed to write everything down. She passed away a few days short of her 90th birthday.

Here is a recipe for her chopped herring she gave me a few years before she died. It is an old-fashioned recipe and I wondered if it would still have any appeal. I served it at a Jewish holiday dinner and was amazed how much praise and attention it received, especially from those who had grown up in East Coast or Midwest Jewish households. The herring, they said, tasted just like something their own grandmother had made.

Aunt Lee’s Chopped Herring Salad
Serves 4 as a first course or 8 as an appetizer

1 12-ounce jar of herring in wine sauce (Sometimes called marinated or pickled herring. Do not substitute herring in cream sauce.)
6 eggs, hard boiled and peeled
2 medium-sized, tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled and cored
2 small onions, peeled
2-3 tablespoons vinegar or to taste
1-2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
3 tablespoons of unseasoned bread crumbs or matzo meal, more or less, as needed

Drain herring, reserving liquid.
Chop herring in to very small pieces, being careful not to reduce to a pulp. Set aside.
Chop eggs in to very small pieces being careful not to reduce to a paste. Set aside.
Chop or grate apples and onions. Set aside.
Combine herring, eggs, apples and onions in a bowl. Mix well. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved herring liquid. Add the lesser amounts of vinegar and sugar. Taste and adjust, adding more herring liquid, vinegar and sugar as needed.
Stir in the bread or matzo crumbs, adding more if needed to bind the salad. Serve on top of lettuce as a first course or with crackers or matzo as an appetizer or snack.

Variation: Using a food processor, process all ingredients to a smooth paste before adding reserved liquid, vinegar, sugar and bread crumbs. Serve as a spread rather than a salad.


Deborah Dowd said...

It is so important to pass down these recipes and I worry that this culinary tradition is being lost with so many people relying on fast food and takeout.

FJKramer said...

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase "oral history" when you ask your family about these taste memories.