In my second year of university, Trish, my childhood buddy, and I set out on a road trip from our hometown of Calgary to Toronto where we were studying. We stuffed all our belongings into my second hand blue Mazda GLC and embarked on a four- day adventure that included a stop over in Moose- Jaw to dine with Grandma Bea. As we approached the outskirts of the sleepy little town, I prepared Trish for the repast Gram would fix; boiled chicken, cream of wheat, salad with carrot shavings and slightly under baked honey cake for dessert. All these years hence, Trish remains baffled as to how I was able to predict the menu so precisely and why on earth my Grandmother thought Cream of Wheat was appetizing dinner food.
My Grandma Bea was an exceptionally bright and talented woman, but not an exceptionally good cook. She did, however, turn out some signature dishes that I crave to this day. I love to flip through my recipe box of yellowed recipe cards embellished with her perfect penmanship. Every Rosh Hashanah, without fail, I make her honey cake recipe and, like her, under bake it as well.
When I think of my other Granny, Eva, jam cake comes immediately to mind and I salivate when I think of the kasha verenikas that her sister, my Aunty Gertie, used to prepare when we would pop by for a visit. Every time I walk by the white radish pale and lonely on a store shelf, I recall how my Dad would slice one thinly on a plate, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and drizzle olive oil on top. His Baba taught him how to make the otherwise bland vegetable into a Romanian delicacy and both the preparation and the eating of the ghost white radish brought him great delight.
When Michel and I married, we faced the challenge of integrating our diverse cultural backgrounds, his, Sephardic and my Ashkenasic, into our lifestyle as well as our pallets. Michel’s first taste of sweet gefilte fish, a specialty of my friend’s Polish mother, provoked a coughing fit so violent that he had to excuse himself from the dining table. My initial encounter with a brown egg from the traditional Sephardic dafina; a stew served on Shabbat, had me convinced that something went terribly wrong in the pot. Ironically both dishes have become a part of our traditional Friday night dinners and Saturday afternoon lunches. The fact that all three of our kids have developed a taste for both Eastern European and North African cooking is evidence that one family can successfully blend two cultures and end up eating the best from both worlds.
Michel’s cousin Claire, one of the best cooks I know, has intuitively and creatively used food to keep tradition and reinforce family relationships. After cleaning the kitchen for Pesach, she hurries to make strawberry jam to hand deliver to family and friends and she has made the same fava bean dish on the day of the Passover seder for years. While she claims her food rituals border on the obsessive, as a recipient of her compulsion, I’m grateful for living in proximity to Claire’s Jerusalem kitchen and learning the ingredients for success in both meal planning and custom preservation.
Israel offers a plethora of gourmet goodies to satisfy my hunger pangs when they strike, but nothing comes close to rescuing me from a ting of homesickness like a stack of Aunt Jamimah mix buttermilk pancakes drenched in Canadian maple syrup. If I’m in a particularly bad way, I simply pull out the kitchen Aid mixer and whip up a batch of mandelbroit, a dry cookie recipe that has found its place in the repertoires of three generations of family bakers, albeit with some slight variation. When I’m feeling lonely, forming two long logs of dough just like my Mom does and my Granny always did, provides just the right amount of consolation I need to feel a whole lot better.
I’m not only busy trying to inject some middle eastern flavor into my culinary habits these days, but I’m also occupied creating a recipe box that I hope will find its way into the kitchens and rituals of my children and then, in succession, on to theirs. The colorfully painted little cardboard box will house those special recipes from both sides of the family; a little bit of this and that, a mish mash of brown eggs, the spicy and the sweet and without doubt, the box top from a package of cream of wheat.