I wish I could describe meals at my grandparents homes but I cannot. My father’s mother must have been quite the cook based upon my father’s love of all foods Jewish. He was a true gourmand, ignoring anything that smacked of commercial cooking in favor of my mother’s always made from scratch delicacies. But my Bubbie (would I have called her that? I assume so since her husband, my grandfather, was always Zayda) died before I was born and all she left me to remember her by was her name. But that’s another story. We all know that in those bygone days men didn’t cook. No Bubbie meant no nostalgic meals. Period.
My mother’s mother is etched in my memories as an ancient woman in a wheelchair. She died before my fifth birthday and never made a meal for me. I didn’t know that the bent over old lady was a mere 62 when she died. But, according to my mother, her cooking skills were famous, especially in the tiny hamlet of Parksville NY where she ran a small hotel which, also according to my mother, killed her. She was everything at the hotel, chief cow milker, butter maker, shopper, cook and guest services manager. So, famous cook or not, she never cooked for her grandchildren.
My mother, on the other hand, was always cooking for her grandchildren. Often, on Friday nights when our children were very young, my mother and father would deliver complete Shabbat meals. These would always include one of her delectable appetizers, notably meatballs, and outstanding soup, and a main course with two sides. All that was left to me was to warm, serve and clean up. I felt that that was enough. Raising 4 kids was a joy but it did require energy and any help was always appreciated.
And so, as time flew by, in a flash I was the grandmother. What would those kids remember of my kitchen skills? I could easily be a “takeout” Bubbie who picked up meals at the nearest kosher market. And I confess, at times that has been descriptive of me. But, largely, when the kids are coming for a meal, I want to invest it with love, creativity, and, of course, Yiddishkeit. I try to cater to their needs and eating styles. So we have a true vegetarian, non fish eating. She’s my biggest challenge since her tastes run to meals I’m not accustomed to preparing. Rice and beans. Spicy creations. I always fail her I’m sad to say! We also have two fish eating vegetarians. That’s easier. Some kind of fish keeps them happy. And then there are the rest, 11 more who love my meatballs, crave my chicken soup and dig in with gusto to my kugels. Those kids will always remember a meal at, not Bubbie’s, but Ro’s. Yes. Their grandmother the cook is Ro. And I’m happy to give them these memories of which I was deprived.
Today, when the man and I went out to lunch at a local NJ eatery known as Jerusalem, I started to think about this concept of Jewish food. I ordered sushi. It’s beyond a doubt that neither grandmother of mine would have a clue as to what sushi was. And, for sure, they would have thought me insane to eat raw fish. Totally raw! Not smoked like lox or herring or whitefish. Raw! They would have both had plenty to say about their granddaughter who actually loved raw fish. And they wouldn’t have believed that sushi, now somewhat passe already, has been blessed by many b’nai mitzvah and brides and grooms.
My husband opted for some iteration of pizza. Margarita I think. The bubbies would have never heard the word. Pizza? Margarita? They probably would have shrugged at one another, wondering if we were still Jewish. Or had we begun eating tref? Gevalt!
Jewish food, especially kosher Jewish food, has transitioned from what we inherited from our forebears in the old countries, be they Eastern Europe or Northern Africa, or other culinary centers, to international manifestations of cooking Jewish. Ashkenazim learned about other modes of cooking from the miracle of the Jewish State. Hence, my children and grandchildren think of chumus as Jewish, rightfully so! As a kid I never knew from chumus or the myriad eggplant creations. I never had a kebab either.
But now, when we eat out (our Jewish euphemism for dining in a restaurant) the food is truly international. And so, on our restaurant today’s lunch menu, there were numerous Italian inspired dishes, creamy soups, redolent of early Americana, the aforementioned Japanese, Chinese dishes minus the pork, and of course a bit of Thai. Nary a kugel or gefilte fish.
In Israel, as in America, it’s often a challenge to find a true kosher restaurant serving old fashioned Jewish food. Chefs are always on the lookout for something trendy, something new, something memorable. Like, say, cauliflower! B’tayavon!