Friday, September 26, 2008

Food, Family and Tradition

This is a piece I wrote that was published in a local women's magazine a few years ago. Enjoy!
The holiday season is when we bring our family traditions to the table. With my mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch background and my father’s Eastern European, Jewish heritage, there were no limitations to what might be served at our holiday table. To say our seasonal celebrations were “eclectic” would truly be an understatement.

On Christmas Eve, while our friends and neighbors were at church (and our Jewish neighbors were eating Chinese food) we listened to Christmas music and helped my father make blintzes to be served at Christmas breakfast..

While many Jewish families purchased blintzes pre-made at the deli – or frozen in a box – dad always made them from scratch, a labor intensive process that involved the entire family and took the better part of Christmas Eve. Dad sang Christmas carols off key, butchering the lyrics nearly as badly as the melody while my sister and I begged him to please, stop singing. One of his favorites, I remember, was “Deck the Halls with Lox and Bagels.”

Dad made the crepes, flipping them onto our cloth-covered dining room table for my sister and me to fill with a sweet cottage cheese mixture that mom mixed in a big, stainless steel bowl. I remember clumsily rolling my first blintz at the age of 7 or 8. They weren’t very pretty, but they sure tasted good.

As we got older we continued the tradition, later adding Champagne or cocktails as my sister and I became of age (actually, I believe it was a few years before). The tradition died when dad passed away – it just wasn't the same without him standing at the stove, three perfectly seasoned cast iron skillets on the burners, turning out crepes faster than we could fill and roll them. We continue to honor his Jewish heritage at our Christmas breakfast, however, by substituting lox and bagels for the blintzes.

Our “blended” food traditions transcended holiday meals. On the weekends – when breakfast was an event, not just a meal eaten to start the day – my sister and I were as apt to request "matzo brei" (an egg and matzo dish that resembles French toast, and is sometimes called "fried matzo") as we were to request cornmeal mush – the Pennsylvania Dutch version of polenta; sliced, griddle-fried crispy and golden yellow, and served with real maple syrup.

Mom was raised with simple comfort foods, and her Pennsylvania Dutch roots were apparent in many of her family's meals. My grandmother was known for her pecan cinnamon rolls, which she called "sticky buns," and a dish called "schnitz und knepp" (the “k” is pronounced and the dish is a stew of dumplings, ham and dried apples).

But she was most famous for her pies. I recently learned that the Pennsylvania Dutch are credited with having invented the two-crust fruit pie as we now know it. Edna's crust was homemade, with lard. Flaky and tender, it had no equal.

Another favorite meal in our house was a classic Pennsylvania Dutch combination; pork roast, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and applesauce. True comfort food. And while the meal itself was a treat, we knew this particular dinner often promised an even greater treat: fashnachts – homemade donuts made with mashed potato in the dough.

The trick, we quickly learned, was to begin lobbying for them about halfway through dinner…and mom almost always gave in. Rolling the dough, cutting the little circles and watching them turn golden brown in the frying pan is one of my fondest childhood memories. Sometimes we sprinkled them with powdered sugar or sugar and cinnamon, but I liked them best plain, still warm, dunked in a glass of cold milk.

Dad's been gone for 20 years now, and we lost mom two summers ago. I still mourn her loss and the many family traditions she continued or created. Some of which I can carry on, and many others that were lost with her.

This year, as I helped my sister plan the menu her first Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that the holidays are the perfect time to think about the legacy we leave. Memories of families gathered at table. Our legacies are of love, of food, and of recipes scribbled on yellowed index cards. In the end, these are the things that will be remembered long after we're gone. They are the glue that holds families together.

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Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.