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Kugel Capers

Kugel Capers

I nearly lost a friendship over the recipe for my Nana's kugel--the sweet noodle pudding that can be served on its own or taken up a notch if served with a dollop of sour cream. My friend and I got into an argument about sharing the recipe. She insisted that my grandmother would want the world to know how to make her kugel. In other words, spread the wealth. My thinking was (and I might add, still is), that private ownership of Nana's recipe is like a shared secret between us and it's not bad for my ego either. When I'm invited to a potluck or communal gathering, and I present Nana's kugel, the accolades come flying, reminding me of why I keep the recipe under wraps.

My Nana came by her craft honestly. Her parents owned a kosher restaurant, "Cohen's," originally in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, then in Philadelphia. My great-grandfather was the front man, commandeering the restaurant while sipping a glezel tai (a glass of tea)--placing a sugar cube in his mouth, pouring some tea into a saucer and sipping it. He was known for his "attitude" towards the customers, but they put up with his antics because they loved my great-grandmother--and her cooking. Since everything had to be made fresh, she was busy in the kitchen until three AM and then up again at six AM to continue cooking. My Nana had the same patience and stamina as her mother when it came to food preparation, particularly around the holidays--standing on her feet for hours until nearly 90, taking meticulous care--never compromising on the integrity of her food. Why? Because when it comes to Jews and food, as Tevye would say, it's all about "tradition." This brings me to the greater significance of why I hold my Nana's kugel recipe close to the vest. In the past few years, I've had a cooking crisis. Maybe crisis is too strong a word. The situation is, I don't eat meat and most of the traditional Jewish holiday foods my grandmother made are meat dishes. Brisket, prakes (stuffed cabbage), sweet and sour meatballs, hot borscht with top rib, chopped liver, and meat knishes to name a few. To explain the deeper implications of this problem, I am the only girl in my immediate family, and the only one with a "traditionally" Jewish home. One day the responsibility of holiday dinners will fall to me. I have two daughters and they love to cook, but they are vegetarians too and they plan to one day raise their children as vegetarians. What will be lost to us is the connection to many of our family's Jewish or more accurately, Ashkenazic foods; cultural ties to our Eastern European roots. Like the brass candlesticks my great-grandmother brought rolled up in her best dress from Minsk to America, these foods are small vestiges of that former life. Being a vegetarian for so long, I hadn't thought about the fact that meat is such a huge part of Jewish tradition. It wasn't until the Rabashkin Agriprocessors scandal broke that I began thinking about the incongruity between being a vegetarian and being Jewish. Kosher meat was being threatened because of unethical labor practices. The question was, should kosher meat being produced in a plant that is treating its workers unethically, still be considered kosher? It was the big Jewish story of 2008 and I had little to no connection to it, except that I secretly hoped it would encourage people to eat less meat--to treat meat as a luxury item as it once was--or to give it up altogether. My reasons for being a vegetarian span from humanitarian, to health consciousness, to it simply being the right thing to do for the environment. The process of raising animals for food wastes resources. It takes 16 lbs. of grain and over 2000 gallons of water to produce one lb. of meat. The process of raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases--the leading cause of global climate change--than all the world's transportation combined. So by being a non-meat eater, I have taken steps to lower my carbon footprint. (Of course I know that by eliminating dairy from my diet, I would lower it even more, but one step at a time.) Removing meat from our diet is one of the best things I've done for my family and myself. As vegetarians we eat well--literally and figuratively. When I stopped eating red meat over 22 years ago, people would ask:  How do you know what to cook? Aren't you concerned that you might not be getting enough protein? Before society became so health conscious and being a vegetarian was trendy, people would also ask if I missed eating meat. I don't. But I did have a moment of weakness once. My mother's brisket is a culinary masterpiece, thin and moist from being cooked in its own juices with carrots and celery to enhance the flavor. I can't remember the taste of it, but I can remember the delight in its taste. A few years ago as I was taking the brisket out of the oven for our Passover seder meal, I was tempted to taste it. After all, as Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore's Dilemma, humans are hardwired to be enticed by salt, sugar and fat. I reached down and began to pluck a small morsel out of the pan, but as soon as I thought about what it was in its former state, I lost all desire for it and have never looked back. There are those who argue that humans were meant to be vegetarians--that is was the Biblical ideal: plants and fruits were the only foods on the menu in the Garden of Eden. There have even been prominent Jewish religious leaders who have advocated for vegetarianism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a highly respected Jewish spiritual leader in the twentieth century, and a favorite among Jewish environmentalists, wrote on the topic of vegetarianism in a pamphlet entitled, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace. Rav Kook said that permission to eat meat was only a temporary one and that a merciful God would never institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals.He also believed that the laws of kashrut were intended to raise our consciousness about what we're eating and to make us more aware of the sanctity of life. Learning of the various Jewish sources in support of a vegetarian diet has led me to no longer despair over the loss of some of my family's food traditions.

Just as my ancestors needed to adapt and create new traditions when they made their journey to America, I can establish new traditions too like veggie lasagna as a traditional Shabbat meal. And while I can't recreate brisket, I can make stuffed cabbage with soy crumbles, mock chopped liver with (green beans or peas) to simulate the texture and taste of the real thing, sweet and sour meatless meatballs, and vegetarian kishka (stuffed intestines) with the recipe from the back of the Manischevitz Tam-Tam cracker box. This was a staple in my Nana's cooking repertoire because even for a meat eater, the idea of eating entrails was too much to bear. My parents have essentially reduced their red meat intake to a few traditional holiday dishes. My mother has been very sensitive to our family's dietary needs. For our Passover seder, she makes a chicken-less version of her matzoh ball soup and a meatless version of her hot borscht. I'm fortunate to have had many things passed down to me from my matriarchs including my great-grandmother's cast iron, seasoned, blintz pans. This Shavuot I'm going to dust them off and besides Nana's coveted kugel, I plan to master her blintzes and perfect her potato, rice, and kasha knishes - flaky puffs of goodness - which brought one to a whole new level of gastronomic pleasure. There is one thing that still plagues me, though. Nana's kugel recipe is on a file card in her handwriting. Some of the measurements are unclear calling for a pinch of this or a dash of that. Some of the instructions and ingredients are actually missing. The first few times I made it, the liquid overflowed and it never solidified properly. Come to think of it, all of Nana's recipes are a bit vague. And when I recently asked my mother for Nana's knish recipe, she said there was no written record of it--no recipe. She made it from memory, which leads me to wonder: is it possible that my grandmother wanted to keep her recipes a secret... even from me?

Originally posted on A Life in Many Small Parts...Blog

Published: 5/14/2010

Categories: Jewish Life, Food and Recipes
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