Thursday, August 7, 2008

All About My Grandmother (and food and love and whatever else pops into my head)...

Today, I was at Kaufman's Deli with a friend of mine and our children when somehow the subject of kasha (buckwheat groats) came up. Oh, I know: my friend was ordering a kasha knish and I wondered aloud if she had ever heard of a dish my grandmother used to call 'Seashells and Kasha', my friend having grown up in a Polish home. She had not. I related to the best of my memory what was in it and how it was made (toasted kasha - which my family always called kashi, like the organic cereal - sauteed onion, an egg beaten into it and those little seashell-shaped pasta shells) and I asked the grandmotherly-like person who was checking my friend out at the counter if she had ever heard of it. She hadn't, but likely would have if I had called it by it's common name, kasha varnishkes. My friend remarked that she would have loved to have met my grandmother, and, boy, would she have adored her. It doesn't take much fo me to wax rhapsodic about my grandmother and for some reason, she's been on my mind more than usual lately. To me, she was truly perfect in every way, except that she was not with me for life.

My grandmother was the youngest of six, the daughter of Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia. Her father was a trunk maker and her mother was a wonderful seamstress according to her daughter, creating beautiful lampshades. As I said, she was the youngest and the only one born in this country, both of which, I think, helped to infuse her with a lifelong spirit of optimism and vitality. If there was one person I admired growing up, it was my grandmother. I was equally devoted to my grandfather, her husband, but how I felt about him was different. He was quiet and mild and content by comparison, always a sweet smile on his face (that is until dementia took hold when I was fourteen); my grandmother, in contrast, always had a funny story, was a dynamo, a flirt with her neighborhood butcher, lit up from within with a contagious lust for life. I have come to understand in retrospect how her indomitable spirit doused my mother's, through no fault of her own. I don't think that my grandmother, who was so natural at winning people over, ever really understood her middle child's quiet resentment. My mother certainly loved my grandmother, but it was complicated. I think that my grandmother was a constant reminder to my mother of what she didn't have, namely, social ease and, far more significantly, a happy, stable marriage. My mother aligned herself more with my grandfather, with whom she enjoyed an uncomplicated, easy commeraderie.

Anyway, my grandmother. I think that she probably taught me more (of the sort of stuff I want to retain, that is) than anyone. She was a feminist without the word, through her confident, unapologetic nature and she had no shame about her voluptuous figure. She treated everyone she was speaking with as the most important person in the room, that is unless that person said something offensive, at which time she would politely remove herself from the conversation. She was exceedingly warm and friendly but also the tough daughter of immigrants: I was by her side when she was almost mugged near Sheridan Road, and she fought her would-be purse snatcher with two furiously protective fists until he ran away. (It was the first and only time I ever heard her say a curse word, which was more shocking to me than that whole potential mugging thing.) She loved to cook, sew, make preserves, all the stuff that the new generation of DIY enthusiasts have embraced and her own daughters rejected as too retro, too "Old World." I think that my love of cooking and my new enthusiasm for pickling and canning stems in some small part from a desire to keep her alive through me, even if her physical body has left. Every time I hang clothes to dry on my laundry line or make jam on my stove in the punishing heat of the summer, it's a way of communing with and connecting with my grandmother again.

I have a photo of my grandmother sitting at her dining room table, her sweet look-alike sister Mary by her side, both with huge smiles on their faces. I wonder who took the photo. Anyway, I look over this photo nearly every time I cook dinner for my own family and it fills me with warmth. [As I said, I am also someone who loves to cook and I long ago rejected (not that I ever accepted it) the notion that cooking for yourself and others is un-feminist somehow.] Her food, though I loved it as a child, is not the kind of food I would eat today. Partly through her example yet again, I have a love of animals and so I am vegan. Food is very deep, though, and it creates lifelong habits and cravings within us; it also helps us to connect with our heritage, our ancestors. To this day, I can remember the smell of the hot oil in her kitchen, cooking the potato pancakes (fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside) and I can see the little cells of fat floating on the surface of her chicken soup. Clearly, this created an imprint.

When I became a vegetarian at fifteen part of what hurt was my grandmother feeling like I was rejecting her when I would no longer eat the brisket. It was something I had to do, though my grandmother loved to remind me how much I used to love meat. I just couldn't do it anymore, though, and I think that she finally understood it was about me being honest about what my spirit needed. About a dozen years later, I became vegan, thus excising some of the last connections to her food, which was so much a part of her. To me, though, my convictions were a higher calling. I would keep her spirit alive in different ways. I was content to leave it at that.

Not too long ago, though, I got a cookbook by a Brooklyn-based, proudly Jewish chef named Isa Chandra Moskowitz (and co-author Terry Hope Romero) of much acclaim called Vegan With a Vengeance. In its pages are vegan renditions of kugel, knishes, and that beloved Jewish powerhouse, matzoh ball soup. My heart lifted when I saw this recipe: it had been communicated to me that vegan matzoh balls were an quixotic fantasy, that they couldn't be achieved without the leavening action of eggs. Okay, then, I would just content myself with memories of her matzoh balls. Light, fluffy but dense, my grandmothers matzoh balls came to personify her to me in some strange way: they were just the right combination of yielding and strong, that perfect union. My other grandmother (a.k.a, my Mean Grandmother) made matzoh balls too, but they were like her to me: tough, flavorless, hard little balls of anger. When I saw the recipe in Vegan With a Vengeance, my heart lifted that I might be able to experience this little memory of my grandmother again.

It is a painstaking recipe, obviously written by someone who also wanted to create the perfect vegan matzoh ball (which, by the way, is brought into existence with the distinctly non-Jewish addition of silken tofu, but the Jews love Chinese food, right?, and I am not a purist) and worked really hard to achieve it. There are many steps and it takes quite a bit of time, but the recipe does create a more than acceptable vegan facsimile of the classic matzoh ball. The first time I took a bite, it was like Proust's madeleine to me, something that sent me instantly back through the years to my grandmother's cheerful, busy kitchen, sitting at her table with one foot hooked between the other, a spoon in hand, and, most important, my grandmother sitting across from me with her generous smile, easy laugh and impossibly soft, powdered skin. I am so grateful to these vegan chefs for giving me more immediate access to my memories again. The matzoh balls are not quite as perfect as my grandmother's - nothing could be - but they are all I need for them to be.

Ah. I could talk about my grandmother for days on end.

Shalom, everyone.

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