Hold the brisket, cut back the kugel.

New cuisine, but still a day of faith, family

Posted: September 19, 2012

A brisket the size of Kansas and laced with fat was always lying in a thick gravy. At my grandmother's house, that hefty brisket was synonymous with Rosh Hashanah, just like the weighty matzo balls that never quite floated in Gertrude Goldberg's chicken soup.

My sister and I found ingenious ways to dispose of both the brisket and the matzo balls that involved sleight of hand - and napkins. Never mind the details.

The gefilte fish was made from live carp kept in Grandmom's bathtub until the moment came for cooking. It also ended up in my napkin.

At my grandparents' holiday table, jammed into their tiny apartment above the fruit store on Venango Street that claimed and framed their days, we always worried that the table itself would collapse from the sheer weight of the holiday food.

Absolutely nothing on it would have passed muster with today's food police. It was the food of an Eastern European past that lived in Grandmom and Grandpop Goldberg's present, and it was an offering of love, memory, and their clinging to the known. Despite their struggle to assimilate in other ways, traditional food was sanctified in Gertrude Goldberg's tiny kitchen.

So the noodle kugel was dense, fortified with sour cream, butter, dozens of eggs and plump raisins. No vegetable was ever served without some adornment that robbed it of any nutritional value.

And oh, the tzimmes, a dish easier remembered than defined. Carrots drenched in honey cohabited with sweetened sweet potatoes and pineapple. It was as rich as any dessert, and we kids ate it in unseemly haste.

We also devoured Grandmom Goldberg's teiglach, a blend of almonds and cherries that dripped syrup and made our hands terminally sticky.

As the years went by and my grandparents grew too weary to serve up that gargantuan feast, my own parents took over. The dining room in our house in Wynnefield was larger than the one on Venango Street. Once their reign over the holiday meal was over, Joseph and Gertrude themselves seemed somehow smaller. And soon, they were both gone.

An era, and a menu, had ended.

My mother, a fabled balabusta (homemaker), was part of a newly emerging breed of midcentury American Jewish hostess. The Eastern European influences of the generation before hers faded away, and there was a definite tilt toward somewhat less lethal, more Americanized foods.

Brisket was still the main course, but it was leavened with a beautifully browned and crisped roast chicken and a carrot pudding. And Mom's matzo balls absolutely floated on the surface of a golden chicken soup, minus the globules of fat in Grandmom's.

Dessert in Wynnefield was often a rather pristine honey cake - sweet, but barely so, and laced with slivered almonds.

We didn't stagger away from that Rosh Hashanah table or collapse into a dazed post-meal stupor from the excesses.

When Mom became a widow and sadly sold the Wynnefield house, then settled into a small Center City apartment, I took over Rosh Hashanah as "my" holiday. It was time.

Initially, I stuck to Mom's menu. It was familiar. It was wonderful. And our three daughters clamored for that carrot pudding and honey cake.

As the circle grew to include their three husbands, however, and as the American obsession with food and health enveloped us, Rosh Hashanah came under siege.

One daughter had gone vegetarian. Another was a chronic dieter. And Nancy, the youngest, had married a man who was the family's first food snob. Smart, funny, sweet Michael was a gourmand. And his penchant for bold, innovative cuisine extended to Rosh Hashanah.

As seven grandchildren joined the clan, things got truly wild. These adored young ones included hearty eaters, finicky eaters, fickle eaters, and Carly, who ate one food only: pasta.

The food police by now had spoiled everything with their rants about fats, carbs, and the wretched excesses of the overweight American.

Grandmom Goldberg would not be pleased to know that these days, I rigorously skim the chicken soup, stint on the fat in the matzo balls, and serve vegetarian alternatives with weird ingredients like soy for the true believers.

Michael, the foodie, sometimes takes over the kitchen to prepare his, dare I say it, Rosh Hashanah Algerian Swiss Chard Bestels, something like turnover from a recipe he seized like pirate's booty from Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Kitchen cookbook.

The gefilte fish comes out of a jar, not a bathtub, and is "doctored" with onions and carrots, one of my dear late mother's laborsaving legacies.

The brisket has yielded to a pristine chicken recipe, and if there's a kugel, it's created with lots of reduced-fat ingredients.

In the dance of the generations, and in the long, long odyssey from a small village in Russia to the New Jersey suburbs, so much has changed. But one thing has stayed absolutely the same.

Every Rosh Hashanah, we gather as family - flawed, noisy, imperfect.

Every year, we dip sliced apples into honey as we hope for a sweet new year.

And each Rosh Hashanah, we recite the blessing over the round challah, the symbol of life. Our daughters sing the blessing, slightly off-key but with gusto.

Then we drink the sweet wine and offer the toast that matters most:

L'chaim. To life.

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