While flipping channels recently, I stumbled accross a show called “Feed Me Bubbe” and I became tranfixed by this diminutive Jewish grandmother, her outdated but oddly familiar looking kitchen and the traditional recipes she was preparing. Production values aside, Bubbe showed me a glimpse of my own culinary roots. More than any other room in your home, your kitchen is most revealing about your ethnicity. Open someone’s fridge or pantry and you’ll get a pretty good sense of their heritage. Food and cooking is the thread that connects us to our ancestry, recipes are the family heirlooms that get passed down from generation to generation and, unlike pieces of china or crystal, they never get broken, discarded or sold in a garage sale. Food is a lasting legacy and a unique snapshot of our family history.
Most of my ancestors were Eastern Europe Jews and the recipes and dishes I gravitate to were passed down to me by my mother. When you look around my kitchen and see these telltale clues, it’s like finding the trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to my Jewish roots.
A staple in all Hungarian kitchens is paprika. It’s made from a specific variety of dried chili pepper commonly found in Hungary and Spain and you can get either sweet paprika or hot paprika, depending on your taste. I grew up pronouncing it “POP-rick-uh” and many people give me the stink eye when they hear me use that word. The more American pronunciation is “pap-REEK-uh” but that never feels right rolling off my tongue. I honetsly cannot remember a time when I did not have a tin of paprika exactly like this in my kitchen. Sure, there are probably other varieties of paprika that taste better, but the design and colors of this tin say “home” to me. There are dishes I’ve written about here in this blog, like Chicken Paprikash, that are based on this flavorful spice.
I know, this looks bad…believe me, I know. But another standard ingredient in Jewish cooking is rendered chicken fat, also called schmaltz. My mother had a jar of chicken fat in our fridge growing up and so did my grandmother. Ever since leaving home for college, I’ve kept a jar of chicken fat in my fridge. It is incredibly bad for you, so I don’t use it frequently, but some preparations absolutely require it. You really can’t make traditional Jewish chopped liver without it. You can buy schmaltz, but why bother? It’s so easy to make. To make schmaltz, start with a whole chicken. Find all the pockets of fat around the neck area and thighs and remove them. You can also render the fat from the skin. Cut all the skin and pieces of fat into small pieces and place them in a non-stick skillet. Cook them over low heat until the fat melts and you’re left with a pan full of melted, clear chicken fat and tiny, crispy pieces of goodness called gribenes. Those little chicken cracklings were the cooks treat when I was a child and my mother would sprinkle them with salt and share them with me as if they were tiny pieces of edible gold. Let the rendered fat cool slightly, then pour it into a jar and refridgerate it. It’ll keep forever. My best friend still talks about the honor of being granted a jar of chicken fat from my fridge when I moved.
Why is matzo such an exotic thing to everyone other than the people who have to eat it once a year? On a recent trip to visit my friend Craig in North Carolina, he was excited to tell me about the deal he got on a 3-box package of matzo that he planned to serve as crackers. C’mon, really? It’s just flour and water with a little salt. It’s the “bread of afflication”, not a tasty treat. However, no Jewish kitchen is complete without a container of matzo meal, which is basically matzo bread crumbs. Matzo meal is used prodigiously in the Jewish kitchen to bread any kind of fried or sauteed items. It’s used in place of bread crumbs in foods like meatballs and gefilte fish, which is a cold fish cake of sorts. I also keep breadcrumbs and panko crumbs in the house, but somehow I just wouldn’t feel right unless I opened the pantry and saw matzo meal smiling back at me.
These are a few of the standard items I keep in the house that would point to my family background. But periodically, I see something that just tickles my culinary funny bone and I pick it up on a whim. There is usually a picture of someone on the label that looks like an old relative, a familiar name or something that my non-Jewish husband cannot pronounce. For instance, I rencently bought a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, just because I remember it from my childhood. It actually tastes better than I remember. And on the same isle, I found this box of kosher table salt that I simply couldn’t resist. Can you pronounce this word? I’ll give you a hint. The “ch” sound is not the same as “child” or “chimp”…it’s a phlegmy gurgle that comes from the back of the throat. And this word appropriately means “extended family”. So, to all my mishpacha, far and wide, what’s in your kitchen that tells your family’s story?