Teacher and author, And the Bridge Is Love among other books
No matter what I serve for Rosh Hashanah dinner, my cooking is spiced with memories of my Bobbe’s holiday dinners over sixty years ago.
While I prepare for my family in my commodious kitchen, Cuisinart at the ready, I picture Bobbe’s kitchen in the two-flat in Detroit. In a space little larger than my bathroom, a small porcelain sink on legs, a four-burner gas stove with one oven and the Kelvinator with its motor on top, humming away, and only the card-table-sized breakfast table for preparation space, Bobbe turned out memorable meals for her six sons, their wives, their children and any friends and relatives who might have no other place to celebrate.
Zaidie’s job was to bring up from the basement the boards that ultimately extended the dining room table into the living room almost to the windows at the front of the house. Every male beyond bar mitzvah age said kiddush with Zaidie’s homemade Concord grape wine at Bobbe’s table.
By the time we finally got to the food, half the babies were sleeping cross-wise on both of the twin beds in Bobbe’s room, the toddlers sprawled at their mothers’ feet under the table. Finally, finally the parade from the kitchen began, Bobbe in the lead, the daughters-in-law elbowing their way behind her.
We started with Bobbe’s home-canned pickles, crunchy, salty old dills; her own gefilte fish, black with pepper and hand-grated horseradish so potent that on Pesach we called it the eleventh plague. For a change, the chatter ceased while we gasped and sputtered over the fiery combination. Only the home-baked challah could help quench the fire. And there was chopped liver, too, glistening with schmaltz, so diners could have their choice, or as most chose to do, have both.
The parade out of the tiny kitchen continued with chicken soup, golden coins of fat shining among the knaidlach, one or two apiece depending on our announced wishes. What to say about those matzah balls? They were ethereally light, floating in a broth that is still my measure of what lowly chicken soup can aspire to.
By this time, even the teenagers had begun to fall away, escaping to our aunt’s flat upstairs while our parents drank more of Zaidie’s sweet, heady wine and sang and pounded the table with their forks to the beat of each familiar tune. Tender roast chicken came next, each plate apportioned according to individual desire: polka (the drumstick), the side, the breast, the fliegel (wing). And adorning the plate, carrot tsimmes spiced with cinnamon and infused with honey, mashed potato kugel sporting browned onions and more schmaltz, apple sauce made from local apples and, as a concession to health, canned green peas. And more challah to sop up the succulent juices the chicken generously provided.
At last, the table cleared by the women, Bobbe’s dense cinnamon striped-sponge cake appeared, accompanied by “compote,” a mélange of prunes, apricots and raisins, cooked to a fare-the-well, the fruit almost dissolving in its sticky sauce. Only the hardiest remained at table now, finishing Zaidie’s wine.
We all lived close-by. I remember walking home with my parents and my brothers, sated, sleepy, young enough to believe my Bobbe was a magician who had only to wave her magic wand to make miracles appear from that tiny kitchen.
Top photo: Faye’s Bobbe, Bracha Stollman, holds cousin Jacob in her lap in this 1920s photo of the author’s grandparents, their six sons and their families. At the far left are Faye’s parents.