Friday, November 8, 2013

Deck the halls with lox and bagels....

Food, Family and Tradition

Lately I've been wondering about the origins of Food Snobbery. Genetic or environmental? I wonder if anyone's studied this? Hmmm. Something to explore in a future post, perhaps.

I've also been thinking a lot about the food in my household when I was growing up. Both my parents were excellent cooks, although I suspect my father taught my mother a thing or two after they were married. He was 22 years older than she, and he was a bachelor for many years before they met, and had traveled fairly extensively. His tastes were far more sophisticated than hers, but she was a quick study.

And they were from diverse food backgrounds, as well, my mother favoring the comforting food of her Pennsylvania Dutch family and my father bringing to our table the flavors of his travels and of his Eastern European, Jewish heritage.

There was no greater example of this blending of culinary traditions than our holiday meals. It quickly became a tradition in our home to include matzo kugel along with the ham at our Easter dinners (since Easter usually falls around Passover, this was highly least to my parents) and blintzes with our Christmas day brunch.

Making the home-made cheese blintzes became a Christmas Eve tradition at our house. While most families partook of their blintzes from a box in the frozen section, dad always made them from scratch, a labor intensive process that involved the entire family and took the better part of Christmas eve.

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 we were actually legal...). Sadly, the tradition died when dad passed away; it just wasn't the same without him standing at the stove, 3 perfectly seasoned skillets on the burners (no non-stick surfaces for dad, he was a purist), turning out crepes faster than we could fill and roll them.

The blintzes have since been replaced with two other Christmas classics: Chinese food and lox and bagels. All Jews know that the ONLY places open on Christmas day are Chinese restaurants. On Christmas Day, whether you're in New York or Boca, you are eating Chinese food and going to the movies. Well, we take a little twist on that and usually have Chinese food on Christmas eve (in deference to the more traditional Christmas dinner we enjoy later in the day). And lox and bagels on Christmas morning. As dad used to sing (off-key) while flipping crepes for blintzes, "Deck the halls with lox and bagels...fa la la la la...."

But our crazy, mixed-up food traditions weren't limited to holidays. 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 PA Dutch-country version of polenta; sliced, griddle-fried crispy and served with real maple syrup.

Mom was raised with simple, comfort foods, and the Pennsylvania Dutch influences were apparent in much of her family's fare. My grandmother was famous for her "sticky buns," "schnitz und knepp" (dumplings stewed with ham and dried apples), apple pies (the PA dutch are credited with inventing the 2-crust fruit pie as we now know it. Hey, if Alton Brown says so, it must be true). Edna's crust was home made. With lard. Flaky and tender, it had no equal.

Another favorite meal in my house was a classic Pennsylvania Dutch combination; pork roast, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. True comfort food. Mom would roast the pork on a rack in a roasting pan and, toward the end of its time in the oven, she would add the sauerkraut to the drippings in the pan. Another 1/2 hour in the oven while she mashed the potatoes with melted butter and hot milk.

And while the meal itself was a treat, we knew this dinner often promised an even greater treat: "fashnachts". Home made donuts made with mashed potato in the dough. We usually started lobbying for them about halfway through dinner, and mom usually relented. 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 30 years now (wow), and we lost mom in 2004. Even after ten years,  I miss her every day. But I am grateful for the many family traditions she continued or created. Some of which I can carry on...and others she took with her.  I hope, wherever she is, she's standing over a big Viking stove with a spoon in one hand and a martini in the other.

As we move into the holiday season, I contemplate the traditions that I have created for my own family...and wonder whether I have honored those of my mother and father.  I think I have.

But maybe now is a good time to start thinking about the culinary legacy we leave...the tastes and smells that will be remembered long after we're gone and that will always--instantly--evoke a memory of a bygone holiday or loved one.

And I wonder...what would my son or daughter write in this same space, 30 years from now?

1 comment:

chris said...

What a wonderful legacy. I love learning about different traditions. Thank you for sharing such happy memories.

Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.