A few weeks ago, at a book signing in Detroit, a woman in her forties came up to me. “My mother is a phenomenal cook,” she said. “We have videotaped her, and I have copied her recipes, but I don’t want to share them.” Then, as if to further pique my interest, she said, “If you tasted her blintzes, you would know what I am talking about.” She paused. “Maybe one day we’ll come to Washington to your kitchen and show you how wonderfully my mother cooks.” A little later, just to taunt me, she brought her mother, an elderly Hungarian immigrant, over to meet me. Her mother smiled.
It was a funny moment, but the daughter was making a crucial point: She felt her mother’s cooking made her family different from other families, and she wanted to protect that difference. Like many Jewish women, she was also superstitious. K’naina hora—even recipes should stay in the family.
There’s a good argument for those kinds of traditions, too. I believe that children not only need but crave repetitive traditional foods to reinforce the folkways of their household. The question of traditions and how we impart them to our children is especially on the mind at this time of year, with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah right around the corner. We’re all busy, and it can be time-consuming to put a meal on the table, but if someone lives on a steady diet of take-out dishes, no matter how healthful, then take-out dishes are what their memories will contain. One young woman told me that she had perhaps three homemade meals in her home per year. What memories will she have, and what traditions will she transmit to her own children?
The encounter in Detroit recalled another book tour of mine, five years ago, when I made a stop in Brookline, Mass., at the home of Myra Kraft, a childhood friend, and her husband, Robert, the owner of the New England Patriots and a sponsor of the Israeli Football League. The Krafts had organized a get-together of about 35 people, mostly mothers and daughters, for a cooking demonstration.
Because many more people attended than Myra had originally planned, not everyone fit in the Krafts’ kitchen. With the help of the video team from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play, many of the Krafts’ guests watched me on closed-circuit television throughout the house as I cooked newfangled Jewish food, like fish with ginger and scallions and wafer-thin chocolate macaroons, both recipes that appeared in my book New American Cooking. After the demonstration of these modern foods, we discussed the transmission of recipes from one generation to the next and the importance of traditional food in making memories for children.
“Foods at different holidays are very important for children to remember,” said Myra, whom I first met years ago at a meeting of the New England Federation of Temple Youth in Hartford, Conn. Two dishes that she says her grandkids love to eat are her brisket and her tsimmes, made of sweet potatoes and carrots and topped with a potato crust. She serves her tsimmes for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. I serve mine for Hanukkah.
Her brisket is first cooked, then the vegetables are added, and then it is sealed and cooked again in a golden potato crust. She got this recipe from her Russian forebears, who originally settled in Worcester, Mass. Like many of us, Myra is busy—she is a leader of the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Jewish Federation, to name two organizations—and she sometimes cooks her dishes ahead of time and freezes them, to ensure she’ll have them whenever she needs them.
For the Krafts and other families, these recipes bind the family. There are jokes made about them, and love transmitted through them. They are what make family folklore and what helps to differentiate one family from the next.
Annette Lerner, of Chevy Chase, Md., agrees. “Once I got a phone call from my grandson Jonathan, who was at NYU,” said Annette, who represents a new type of grandmother, one who exercises, sculpts, and cooks. “ ‘Nana,’ he said. ‘I want your chicken soup.’ When I told him that he could get better soup from the Second Avenue Deli, located around the corner from his dorm, he said, ‘But it is not your chicken soup.’ ” So, Annette dutifully made chicken soup, packed it in dried ice, and sent it to New York, where her grandson put it in his dorm refrigerator. “That was the most expensive chicken soup he ever ate,” she said.
For Annette and her husband, Ted, owners of the Washington Nationals, Jewish traditions are such an important part of their lives that they will not go to ballgames on Friday nights. “Ted is rather observant,” she said. “We always have Friday-night dinner at home. When the children are in D.C., they always come to our house for Friday.”
Not only does Annette serve kosher food at home, but her butcher sends kosher meat to the president’s suite at Nationals Park, to be cooked there and served to guests. Annette is known for her apple cake and mandelbrot, which she brings to guests at the Nationals games. “These foods are ‘Grandma love,’ ” she said, adding that her apple cake is “a very, very old recipe from Russia” that her mother used when she started baking in Northern Virginia. “She measured by eggshells instead of cups. I updated the apple cake by adding the nuts, chopping the apples more, and I make the layers fancier. We have been making that cake for over 75 years, and it is still the family favorite.”
BEEF TSIMMES WITH POTATO KUGEL TOPPING
Adapted from The Way We Cook, by Sheryl Julian & Julie Riven
For the Brisket:
1 6-pound double brisket of beef
2 quarts of water, or more as needed
½ teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup honey
1 cup pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice
1. Put the meat in a large flame-proof casserole and add enough of the water to cover it. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 ½ hours.
2. During the last 15 minutes of simmering time, set the oven at 300 degrees. Transfer the meat and liquid to a large roasting pan. Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, apricots, honey, pineapple, and orange juices. Sprinkle with salt, cover with foil, shiny-side down, and transfer the pan to the oven.
3. Cook for 4 ½ to 5 hours, adding more water to the pan, ¼ cup at a time, if the mixture seems dry, until the meat is very tender.
4. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Cover, refrigerate overnight, and skim the fat from the cooking liquid.
5. Cut the meat on the diagonal into thin slices. Arrange the meat, vegetables, and cooking liquid in a large roasting pan and set aside while you prepare the kugel.
For the Potato Kugel:
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
2 medium Spanish onions, grated
2 russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and grated
2-3 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
2/3 cup matzo meal
1 ½ cups cold water
1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Combine the eggs, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. With a wooden spoon, stir the mixture for 1 minute. Stir in the onions, potatoes, chicken fat or oil, matzo meal, and water. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour, or until it thickens. The mixture may seem watery, but it will thicken as it sits.
2. Spoon the potato mixture in mounds over the meat in the roasting pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until the kugel topping is golden brown and the meat and vegetables are hot.
Yields: 10-12 servings
GRANDMA LILL’S APPLE CAKE
Adapted from Annette Lerner
4 medium baking apples, such as McIntosh or Cortland
2 ¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts or raisins (optional)
4 large eggs
3 cups all purpose or pastry flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
7 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a spring-form pan or a bundt pan and dust with flour. Set aside.
2. Core, peel, and cut the apples into ¼-inch slivers in a bowl. Mix ¼ cup of the sugar, the cinnamon, walnuts and/or raisins, and sprinkle over the apples. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and eggs together until creamy. In a separate bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
4. Gently stir in 1/3 of the dry mixture to the sugar/eggs and then add ½ of the oil. Continue alternating until all ingredients are used. Add the orange juice and the vanilla.
5. Pour a layer of batter into the pan then top with a layer of apples. Repeat, creating layers, until all the ingredients are used. Finish with a thin layer of apple slivers.
6. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be sure not to underbake. When the cake has cooled, sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve.
Yields: 12 servings