We all come from somewhere. The past illuminates the path to the present and helps guide us to the future. Through family tales told at the dinner table along with the special ingredients from the recipes of our ancestral lands, we carry with us the knowledge and history of our our families. We tell the stories and cook the food, passing down traditions, customs and folklore that remind us who we are and where we came from. Recall this line from the Brothers Grimm, “And Hansel said to Gretel: Let us drop these breadcrumbs so that together we find our way home because losing our way would be the most cruel thing.” Indeed, remembering where we came from gives us a sense of grounding, foundation to build upon, a sense of who we are, a connection to those we love and the ability to connect to one another. Losing that would certainly be “the most cruel thing.”
For Congressman Jared Polis, following those breadcrumbs takes him on the journey his great-grandmother made from the Ukraine to America at the turn of the century. His partner, Marlon Reis, follows the trail of his great-grandmother from the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the US a few years later. For their two children, Caspian, 6, and Cora, 3, that journey begins in Boulder, Colorado.
In so many cultures—maybe all cultures—there is a way of recording history through food. For Congressman Polis’ family, that history was set to paper, probably for the first time, in 1974, when Eileen Weppner wrote The International Grandmothers’ Cookbook: Favorite Recipes of Grandmothers from Around the World. Though now out of print, the cookbook is a collection of recipes from the grandmothers of 1970s America who brought with them recipes from countries around the world. Each recipe comes from their own mothers and grandmothers in the “Old Country” and provides for their families a morsel of the past to pass along to future generations.
The book’s chapter on Jewish food features Congressman Polis’ great-grandmother Rae Keller’s recipes. On these pages are the recipes for a sweet noodle kugel, a schav borscht (a Russian/Ukrainian sorrel soup) and a flourless nut cake for Passover (using ground hazelnuts). The cookbook’s foreword was written by Susan Polis Schutz, the congressman’s mother.
Continuing the Polis culinary tradition and developing her own, the congressman’s grandmother, June Polis, left her mark with recipes she organized on a Rolodex, each recipe encased in plastic. Starting as a homemaker in the 1940s and up until she was a grandmother 40 years later, she kept these recipes with handwritten notes to leave behind the Polis legacy to be handed down to future generations. June recorded her recipes for rugelach (which she spelled rogoloch), an updated version of her mother’s nut cake and cheese blintzes. These are the dishes she prepared for her family and that Jared inherited.
Today, in the Polis-Reis household, the family prefers vegan foods, and they’ve tried to recreate some of their grandmothers’ recipes using vegan-only ingredients. Reis enjoys baking cookies and cupcakes with the kids, and while Polis likes to cook the most, he doesn’t have as much time in the kitchen as he’d like. When he does have the time, he tries out recipes from The New Jewish Table, a cookbook written by chef Todd Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff Gray, owners of DC restaurant, Equinox.
What do the kids think about their dads’ cooking? Their son, Caspian, will try anything, but daughter Cora only likes fresh fruit and raw veggies right now. As Polis and Reis incorporate healthier choices into their home cooking, they are adapting, building on generations of culinary customs.
Probably no one in the Ukrainian shtetl that Great-Grandma Rae was born into could have guessed that her great-grandson would one day become a representative in the United States Congress, but thanks to her strong sense of family and tradition, the congressman and his family know that they are rooted in the traditions and memories that connect families all across America.
Maybe Passover isn’t the right time to be thinking about breadcrumbs. Or maybe it is. Although we have cleared our homes of literal breadcrumbs, we follow the symbolic crumbs each year when we retell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. As Rae Keller, June Polis and Susan Polis Schutz knew, telling your stories and passing along your food traditions is how we find our way home.
Top photo: The Polis-Reis family (From left: Caspian, Marlon Reis, Congressman Jared Polis, Cora) (All photos courtesy of Jared Polis)