I was recently given a gift of an out of print cookbook called The Molly Goldberg Cookbook. When I first saw it I was amused and when I opened it up, I immediately saw a cabbage recipe I wanted to make. Score! Here was a cookbook that had that “Through The Looking Glass” aspect to it. These were recipes long forgotten, mysterious in their 1950-ness, soon to be resurrected by me!
I had a faint notion of who Molly Goldberg was; however, despite the constant ‘jokes’ in my house about my age I was actually too young to have seen The Goldbergs on TV. It still amazes me that I saw Amos n’ Andy. The premise of this prototype for all subsequent sit-coms was the lives of Jewish immigrants, usually featuring a solvable family or friend-related problem. Molly, in her infinite “Jewish Mama” wisdom would involve herself in these neighborhood and family dramas dispensing invaluable advice.
Upon closer inspection of the book, three things struck me. One, the book was arranged almost like a ‘wraparound’. That’s a reference to a strip show on TV that had interstitials. Molly had her ‘bits’ that introduced the story behind some of the recipes. These bits represented a microcosm of cultural idioms and the social challenges and changes that arose from the Diaspora. The other thing I noticed was that many of the recipes were ‘from hunger’. An expression meaning, well, lacking in taste or desirability. The third thing, which reminded me of something my dad said about brisket: that it killed more Jews than bullets. Some of the recipes were so BAD for you, its no wonder high cholesterol and constipation plagued my people.
I was recently roped I…I mean asked to participate in Canter’s
Chanters Chanukah Extravaganza at my Temple. When it was first
presented to me, I thought, ‘Great, our Canter is a cool guy and is
probably open to doing some improv or something with the kids. That’s
got to be why he’s asking me. This’ll be fun.”
But, no. He griped that the kids were positively incapable of
doing improv and that was why he prevailed on my services as well as
other Temple members who happened to be performers; to write and
perform small vignettes that would be done eight times, as eight groups
were led through the Temple. The motif was to be “You want to know what Chanukah is all about? I’ll tell you what Chanukah’s all about…”
Each group was to represent one aspect of the celebration. My
friend Amy Simon, writer and performer of the wonderful show Cheerios
in My Underpants, volunteered to create some sort of wrap-around to
feature ‘latkes’. She had the run of the Temple kitchen and would be
making real latkes to give to the kids. Her idea was to create a Bubbie
Dreidels were up for grabs so I decided to take a whack at it. I love games and this is a mindless game much like Yahtzee, only you win pennies or chocolate.
I took a walk with my grandson Isaac a few weeks ago. We went to see the ducks. He knows what ducks say as well as cows, goats, horses (with prompting), and chickens. He is two years old. His name, biblical and strong, may herald the beginning of a new era in baby naming. I have a second grandson, born in September. His name is, Leo Henry, very distinguished. Leo has a tough act to follow in Isaac, but I am sure he will hold his own.
It is pay back time, in a way, since my son, the younger of my two children, is the father of the animal whisperer, while his older sister the original tough act to follow is Leo’s mother.
Now, in my early sixties, I am happy I can keep up with Isaac and expect to hold my own with Leo, as well. Grandchildren arrive on the scene these days much later than in the past. We are a healthier “older generation.” We trek. We do Pilates, but do the children really have to wait so long to figure out who they want to be, to settle down, and to multiply?
For many years, from well before the empty nest until the birth of grandchildren, we have no one to take trick or treating and, at this time of year, for those of the Jewish persuasion, no one with whom to light candles and fry latkes.
My husband is on active duty in the US Army, and for our first holiday season together we were living in a little town called Sierra Vista, Arizona, which is adjacent to Fort Huachuca, where he was stationed. Since we had only been married since the previous January and we were just starting our life together, we couldn’t afford to go home to our beloved California and our families for the holidays, so we were toughing it out in Sierra Vista alone.
Being Jewish, no holiday season was complete for me without my mom’s fabulous potato latkes, and by Christmas Day (which also happened to be the last night of Hanukkah), I was feeling pretty down at the prospect of the holiday season passing without them. My husband, wanting to make me happy, suggested that we make them for Christmas dinner. Since he is Christian and had never had potato latkes before, I thought this would be a wonderful way to introduce him to a delicious new food and also to merge our holiday customs and traditions together, setting a precedent for the years of holidays to come. I enthusiastically agreed.
My friend KBell makes socks for a living. But it’s what comes out of her kitchen that’ll really knock your socks off – the world’s most perfect brisket.
That’s a boast, I know, that is bound to generate some heat. But what you have to know about Kbell’s brisket is two things: She’s ridiculously generous about sharing her recipe, which actually hails from her mother Selma Bell of Gloucester, Mass. And, for all I know, from Selma Bell’s mother, too. The Bells from Gloucester are like that, a tight-knit (so to speak) family. But the second and probably more important aspect of KBell’s brisket is that it’s pretty much fool-proof.
The key is in the timing. If you’re serving the dish for Friday night, say, you need to make it on Thursday. That way, you refrigerate the meat overnight and can easily hack off the extra globs of fat in the morning and then thinly slice the beef against the grain and, voila – the perfect brisket is simply heated up 45 minutes before you serve it, au jus.
The first thing I ever stole was a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum. I lifted the small, red, white and blue rectangle out of the glass canister on the counter, wrapped my fist around it and shoved it in my pocket. My heart pounded against my chest with fear and excitement as I glanced around the store making sure no one had seen me. It was a rush. Taking it. Not getting caught. Pulling something off. Putting something over.
"Latkes are a kind of oil, into which small quantities of shredded potato have been infused." -- Jonathan Safran Foer
Latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are a traditional treat to eat at least once during the eight days of Hanukkah. The reason you eat latkes for Hanukkah is because they are fried in oil. Why oil? Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the second temple after a battle and along with the victory came the miracle in which mere drops of oil in an oil lamp lasted eight days. The "miracle" is much like a story about a fat man coming down a chimney with presents...
A real miracle would be to have perfectly crispy and not-so-greasy latkes. For years there has been a debate in my family. My mom and I spoke up in defense of shredding potatoes for latkes, and my papa insisted that grating lead to much crispier ones. It's all in the technique, as most recipes call for the same ingredients--eggs, flour or matzah meal, onions and potatoes. Last year I had some of the crispiest latkes ever and guess what? Papa was right. Grating does make them crispier. That and frying them in the just right amount of oil at just the right temperature of course.
I’m a California Jew. If one were to compare ethnicity in terms of packaging, we’d be ‘plain wrap’. Both my folks were Jewish, but Mom was an Atheist and Dad, well, he grew up in the little town of Chloride Arizona and Grandpa Harry was the Sheriff. Once, when I was a kid, I brought a stray cat into the house. Dad hated cats. The center of his face turned purple with rage. “You git that ornery varmint outta here!” Get the picture?
Then I met my salt of the earth, “Philly bro” husband who promised his father on his deathbed that he’d have his kids bar/bat mitzvah’d, what the fuck was I gonnna do?
I joined a neighborhood Temple. By the way, our house is literally straddled by Temples. Sephardic (the building and the inside is breathtakingly gorgeous) the Conservative and the Reform. Guess which one we chose? Also, it had a renowned Mommy and Me program.
When we attended the first Shabbat as a family, I was nervous. I wore a dress. That was me ‘towing the line’. I didn’t know what to expect. What I liked about our Temple was that it was modest. Still, I was worried my uncouth manners would make me an outcast OR get us kicked out.
As Chad and I were hurrying across the street to the Temple, I said “Now look, we’ve got to be really, uh, you know, polite.” “What’re you talkin’ about?” he said. “You’re the one with the sailor mouth.” It’s true. You hang around Comedians long enough….
Truthfully, Hanukkah makes me anxious. It’s one of those performance things. Not about making crispy incredible latkes or the homemade applesauce or the chorus of songs after the blessings. No, it’s the presents. Giving exactly the right gift meant you know exactly what the kid needs. A mom’s job, right? Um... Know who they are and you know what they want? Right? Um... Could we call it generalized mother present anxiety syndrome? Hanukah really ups the ante on the whole thing. I mean, Christmas, ok, one day. If you blow it – well, sayonara until next year, baby. But, Hanukah! Eight days! Every night! Really? I mean, who thought of that? Not the Maccabees when they decided they’d had enough of the Greeks.
I raise my hand in admission of guilt. You see, my husband and I disagreed over giving gifts. Him against me. How can you not give gifts to little kids? All those latke and Hanukah gelt (Hanukah chocolate coins) turned up at the lights, wishing for a little present just like the Playstation (I’m dated, I know) his friend, Avi, got last year. I won the argument. Over gifts. Kind of like winning a ticket to do all the dishes all the time.
For dinner on the first night of Hanukkah my mother always started with a romaine lettuce salad topped with scallions and Lawry's French Dressing. Then there was a brisket of beef with carrots and mushroom gravy. But the real stars of the meal were the latkes served with apple sauce and sour cream.
My mother's latke recipe was handed down from her mother: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, a little salt and pepper. She'd fry them in vegetable oil and serve them as soon as they were browned. So simple and yet the result was so soul-comforting: crispy on the outside, soft inside, with just the right amount of oil and salt. There are few dishes that are as satisfying as food and so emotionally evocative.
Like most kids, my sister, Barbara, and I waited eagerly at the table. As soon as the plate full of latkes was passed around, we emptied it. I kept count, because I didn't want her to have more than I did. They were that good. When my grandmother was in town, she and my mother made Hanukkah dinner together. Their relationship was competitive to say the least, so there was always considerable discussion about the right way to make the latkes: flour vs. matzo meal; onions or no onions. My grandmother liked to point out that she had given my mother her latkes recipe but my mom insisted that she hadn't remembered it correctly.