Cooking for the Litvaks

My father and mother had a symbiotic relationship.  He loved her cooking and she loved to cook. Since he was a Litvak, even bearing the slightly altered spelling Litwak, as was she, the menus came with the bride.

Lest you think that she was a classic balabusta, anyone watching her zip through the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, in ink, would immediately know better. As a matter of fact she was, born over a century ago, college-educated (Brooklyn College at that), often quoted Keats and Shelley, and spoke more than rudimentary French, Spanish, and, of course, Yiddish. Hebrew was never her forte and after making aliyah at the age of 73, she remained in kitah alef forever. But she loved theater, opera and literature and managed to combine all of these passions with Hadassah and, of course, cooking.

Cooking came naturally. She was born to a self-taught professional cook, her mother Peshka. Peshka ran a small Catskills hotel where she milked the cows, made the butter, and did all the cooking for the guests, three meals a day. While her cooking had been legend to the older members of our family, when I was born in 1939, Peshka was already wheelchair bound and I never tasted her delicacies.

My mother, on the other hand, had learned from a master. I never remember a meal that was not simply fabulous. And almost all were traditional. My mother never opted for the fads that we know today. We had no kale or quinoa. Her only deviation from strict Ashkenazi cooking was an occasional spaghetti, usually topped with ketchup, hardly Italian at all. And while we did have tuna salad, no peanut butter ever crossed her threshold. And sliced white bread was held in contempt. Ice cream, though, was soon considered Litvakian, since we all loved it so much. Some of us still do.

A chicken in our house had more parts than today’s chicken, obviously an evolutionary process. There were eggs. Not eggs with shells for omelettes but yolks that were embedded in chicken bellies and were added to the soup. Nothing ever tasted as delicious and I often wonder whatever happened to those eggs since I haven’t seen one in at least 50 years. The chicken feet, which are unknown to present generations who obviously think chickens are footless fliers, were scalded, scrubbed and peeled and thrown into fricassee or soup. And of course the many organs which could be seen in the soup, things like pupiks (I think belly buttons but I’m really not sure), livers, which are now more likely to be pate than chopped, and necks, which always were put to some good use. My mother made delicious chicken soup and no powder ever entered her pot or pantry. Interestingly the Israeli cook can still find some of these items in her market. Not so the American.

Soups were actually her forte. My favorite was meat borscht. I had to educate my very own husband when we were married. He thought borscht came out of a jar and was mixed with sour cream and consumed chilled. Nonsense. It was hot, with fatty pieces of flanken floating in a sweet and sour ambrosia, speckled with whites of egg. Divine.

My mother made many many things which can still cause a pavlovian response in me when I merely think about them. Kreplach, Cheese blintzes. Sweet and sour pickled tongue. Chopped liver. Stuffed cabbage. No effort was ever too much for her. Meals were special. My father never wanted to eat out and neither did any of the rest of us.

Her cooking stopped abruptly after an encounter with a supermarket delivery boy on a bicycle on Rehov Sokolov in downtown Herzliya. Yes, she was jaywalking as so many elderly do on that busy street. The traffic lights are and were simply too far apart. She looked left and then right but he was cycling against the traffic so she missed him, but he didn’t miss her. One broken hip later and she was never the same. Surgery.,  Physical therapy. It was the beginning of the end. Her mind and body ceased and desisted together.

And for one thing I had waited too long. My mother made the most incredible meatballs. The kind where you just want to drown your challah in their juices, imbibe like a fine wine and feel like you’ve landed in heaven as the gravy drips down your chin, irresistible bite after bite. These were true Litvak meatballs and were absolutely her signature dish. So, too late, I asked her how she made the meatballs. I never did learn how. And although my kitchen is sometimes like a chemist’s lab, speculating on which ingredients made the gravy that I crave, I’ve never hit the jackpot and I know I never will. My mother’s magical meatballs are no more and the secret lies with her in the Herzliya Cemetery.

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of two. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.
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