Ways of Seeing: Holiday memories linked to food
“Dinner’s ready!” my Aunt Esther called, and all six of us — my two sisters, three cousins and I — raced down the long hallway into the kitchen, the pungent aroma of chicken soup whetting our appetites.
My mother’s older sister Esther lived in Bayonne, N.J. with my Uncle Abe and their three children: Marilyn, Ruthie and Alan. Growing up, we often took an afternoon drive to our cousins’ home. We went there for Thanksgiving dinner, the Passover seder and many Friday night Shabbos meals. They owned a duplex and lived on the second story in an apartment with several bedrooms, each entered off a narrow hallway that led from a cozy living room to the eat-in kitchen where we enjoyed our holiday meals.
The kitchen was just big enough for a rectangular table surrounded by tall cushioned chairs, yet small enough for Ruthie to reach into the refrigerator and retrieve the apple strudel while Alan cleared dinner dishes and placed them on the counter, each helping out while remaining seated.
Our holiday foods were prepared by Grandma Davidowitz, my uncle Abe’s Hungarian Jewish mother. My cousins called her Gram. She went to bed by 6 p.m. so she could rise in the wee hours of the morning, a habit that must have started back when she ran her own restaurant in Hungary. By the time I knew Gram, she almost never left her home. When we visited her apartment a few blocks from my cousins’ home, her welcoming smile blended love and the sadness of loss.
And although Gram did not join us for meals, her food certainly did. Uncle Abe picked up her dishes on his way home, and Aunt Esther rewarmed them.
After we said the blessing over a challah bread, Aunt Esther ladled out big bowls of Gram’s chicken soup with floating knadloch, or matzo balls. Following that was a familiar array of main course dishes.
We shared a stack of hearty potato latkes, whatever the season, along with squares of lukshen kugel, a noodle pie glued together with eggs, crispy on top and soft inside. My favorite indulgence was the kishka, a gleaming disk of salty crispiness, made mostly from bread crumbs, spices and schmalz, or chicken fat. A small salad in a carved glass bowl was passed around, and finally, a platter piled with chicken or beef prepared in a simple, tender fashion. It was basic, delicious Eastern European Jewish food.
After the meal we told stories and worked off the food by laughing a good deal and chasing each other up and down the long hallway a few times before returning to the table for dessert — Gram’s signature fruit-and-nut strudel and apple-blueberry pie sweetened only with fruit and orange juice. Dessert was accompanied by tiny cups of tea. After receiving our individual serving of hot water, we passed one tea bag around the table, eventually returning it to Aunt Esther, who got the final dunk. Each of us sweetened our cup with a centimeter cube of sugar.
In the old country, Aunt Esther told us, her parents held the sugar cube between their teeth and sipped tea through it. That sounded like fun, so Ruthie and I tried it once, but the tea dribbled out the sides of our mouths and made a mess in addition to starting yet another laughing fit.
I cherished the intimacy and predictability of our family meals, my connection to each of my relatives around the table. When we could convince our parents to let us spend the night with the cousins, we doubled or tripled up in all available beds, Ruthie and I taking turns tracing secret messages up and down each others’ arms until we fell asleep. During difficult times, the Bayonne cousins’ home became a retreat where we were securely embraced. There was love, pleasure and safety in that tiny apartment.
The world of my childhood seems light years away, yet it is still so vivid I can almost touch it. Successive layers of family and community traditions have unfolded since then. These days, we often celebrate holidays with friends from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, blending our customs in ways that enrich and broaden us all.
Opening our hearts to each others’ unique and wonderful stories is needed right now to build bridges of understanding across the many divides, stretching us beyond our personal borders to find joy in new places. To that end, I offer my story and welcome yours.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.
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