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Eastern European Jews Meet Western Foods

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As a twenty-something journalist living in Chicago, my daily rush consists of commuting, interviewing, writing and sometimes remembering to eat.

Despite the madness, I have a side hobby. I love collecting recipes, and one of my most cherished possessions is a huge cookbook I’ve been compiling over the past year. In fact, some friends poke fun that I bake to de-stress.

While I’m constantly searching for new recipes and drooling over the Food Network, I often forget the best recipes may be tucked away in my mother’s kitchen. Only around the holidays do I pause and smell the matzo balls.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed chef and Food Network star Gale Gand, a fellow Jew, for a story I wrote for the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal.com.

Gand is a north suburban native. She’s also executive pastry chef and a partner at a famous Chicago restaurant, Tru. Some might remember when she hosted the Food Network’s show, “Sweet Dreams.”

When we talked, she mentioned her new show, “The Heirloom Recipe Project,” scheduled to air on PBS Oct. 1. On the show, grandparents will teach their grandchildren a family heirloom recipe, and each week the show will have a different focus on cultural cuisine, Gand said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to make sure this stuff gets passed on because it is this sort of ethereal art form,” Gand said. “It’s hard to record.”

Gand gave an example of one story she encountered: After several failed attempts, a young woman asked her grandmother to show her how to make her babka recipe. As she took out her measuring cup for flour, the grandmother asked what it was. It was then that the young woman discovered her grandmother had been using a Jewish Yahrzeit glass to measure the flour.

“It’s like storytelling,” Gand said. “There’s an art form there that can only be passed down, person to person.”

Gand said it’s “crowded” in her kitchen; all of her relatives are in there with her.

Gand’s story got me thinking about my own family, and what recipes might be lost because my grandparents already passed away.

The dish racks in my parents’ home are filled with depression era plates, cups and silverware that we take out only for Passover. My Russian grandmother, Eda, on my dad’s side, lugged beautiful candlesticks on the boat to Ellis Island, and then on to Chicago.

Much like Gand’s story, Eda failed to write down all of her recipes, which spurred my mother to scoot Eda over to her house for demonstrations.

“She just knew them,” my mother said.

Eda didn’t use measuring cups.

“I would watch Eda scoop three handfuls of this and two pinches of that, and would write down, ‘three handfuls of this and two pinches of that,’” she said. “After all of the handfuls and pinches, voila—the best Russian beet borscht you’ve ever tasted!”

It became a little more complicated with Eda’s chicken soup, when she would measure two soup bowls of water for every pound of chicken. Every time my mother makes the soup, she complains it’s not as good as Eda’s; she says it’s missing one major ingredient, schmaltz—Yiddish for chicken fat.

In my grandparents’ day, fat was of little concern.

“Eda never skinned the chicken or skimmed the fat,” my mother said. “That soup was the real thing.”

My mother and I thumbed through her mother’s cookbook, unraveling another thread of stories.

My grandmother, Bubbe Debbie, kept a carefully organized, leather-bound book with recipes cut out from magazines dating back to World War II. The recipes reflected food rationing of items such as meat and sugar. Intermingled were American recipes, and European delicacies from her mother. She included magazine pictures depicting luxurious kitchens of the 1940s with happy housewives in aprons serving their families. This recipe book provides a fascinating window into that era.

On a less gourmet and schmaltzier note, my mother, and her mother before her, considered crusty rye bread spread with a thin layer of rendered, cold chicken fat a fine after-school snack. Her mother kept a jar of schmaltz in the fridge at all times.

“Don’t dare forget rubbing the ‘kanuble’ around the crust,” my mother said. “Kanuble” is Yiddish for garlic.

It gets worse.

My mother told me my that grandmother made “grivenes,” or what she referred to as “Jewish popcorn.” This so-called popcorn is fat kernels that burn off from chicken skin.

I suddenly imagined myself as a descendent of the family in that commercial where the father and children each have a stick of butter in their baked potatoes.

My mother and I discussed several other family favorites such as Eda’s challah and fried matzah recipes, as well as Debbie’s cholent recipe—akin to a slow-cooked dish that one might make in a crock-pot. It heats for about 24 hours so that Orthodox women can turn on the oven before Shabbat and have a feast when the holiday arrives.

The piece de resistance was my mother’s tongue recipe. As a child, she claims, I refused her tongue dinner. I couldn’t recall—I must have blocked that memory out. I vow to this day that I will never put bovine tongue on my tongue.

I learned about many funny quirks in my family’s culinary history, and I’m grateful that we have captured some treasured recipes on paper.

My mother had one take-away message: The key to authentic, Jewish cuisine is SCHMALTZ.

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