Like any complexity, food is loaded. Smell and taste evoke a stream of long-buried associations, sometimes comforting, endearing and occasionally painful. This is its wonder, its draw, its hold on all of us who keep coming back to the kitchen. Food is a way to hold onto your culture, your country, a source of pride and when you’re “different,” like I was growing up– a city roots family in a very small country town– a source of distinction, for better or worse. And so I have a gift for you today, with recipes from my roots and a little short story that you should totally feel free to skip (recipes follow below) if you’re not into that sort of thing. Make the recipes! They’re worth it.
A Food Tale
Grandpa came to America when he was thirteen. Despite living most of his life here by the time I was born, he maintained his accent, diction and all of his ways from pre-Israel-Israel and Romania where he’d spent a lot of time. He cooked dinner for the family every night after his work at the tobacco store. Food was important to him. Meals were like symphonies with a slow-cooked brisket in thick juicy sauce or a stuffed, roasted chicken with olives in the first chair, but with a supporting cast of characters that could each solo on its own melody. Beet salads, carrot salads with walnuts and raisins, noodle and potato puddings, roasted vegetables, candied cashews, mini meatballs in different sauces with herbs, thick black breads and sweet desserts. I would sometimes think Grandpa was invulnerable as he tasted his meatloaf by sticking his fingers in the bowl of raw meat and licking it or sucking on the spoon of his mix for beef sausages. Most nights, dinner was just Grandpa and me because my parents worked late and my sister was always out with friends. Grandpa would serve his feast, make sure I ate until I was beyond full. He’d put me to bed and like clockwork, would go out to the bar afterward to drink off the day.
One ambitious night when I was eleven I asked him if we could go to a restaurant for a change, expecting a fit of rage in response. We never went out to eat. Surprisingly, Grandpa said yes. He told me to get into the car while he got ready and we could go to TGIFriday’s, a respectable chain at a respectable distance for a man who really should not have been allowed to drive. Cataracts blurred his vision and every movement of his was slow and deliberate as if he moved in a world with thicker air.
I waited in the passenger seat of the old, used Cadillac, entertaining visions of juicy burgers with lettuce or maybe pasta in a huge pile with decorative parsley flakes. The car smelled like Grandpa, an imposing mixture of the smooth blue leather seats combined with his musky cologne, the wooden beads that lined the driver’s seat for his back and a hint of the spearmint gum he always chewed. I usually opened the windows as soon as he started the car. When Grandpa got in, he put a picnic basket in the back seat.
“What are you doing, Grandpa?”
“You want to spend money on someone else’s food? Is mine not good enough?
“It’s not that, Grandpa. It’s just that…sometimes a change is..”
“Change, nothing,” he yelled as we pulled out of the driveway, signal clicking in the background. “You want we should go to a restaurant, we will go to a restaurant, but you should still have what to eat, not some fast food junk.”
I knew Grandpa wouldn’t turn around. We were already hugging the right shoulder of the road and accelerating to our cruising speed of a solid fifteen miles per hour, blinker still on.
Talking to Grandpa was like talking to the genie who grants you three wishes, but unless your wishes are specific you get some horrible, haunted house mirror version of your wish. Wish for money and you’ll be turned into a Colombian drug lord, wish for time and you’re locked up in a Russian gulag for a life sentence. Wish for a night out and you get this.
Some of the other families in our town, the ones who were newer like us, would often go to the singular McDonalds in town and never order a thing. I used to sit there all day with my grandmother and her friends and watch them play mahjong, while eating their homemade perogies and salads. After Management’s signs about their policies went unacknowledged enough times, the ladies won their war of attrition and were tolerated, often even welcomed and looked after by the people who cleaned.
When we got to Friday’s, the hostess innocently led us to a seat in the middle of the restaurant. Strike one.
“Excuse me, young lady. Do you mind if we sit in a corner by the window?” Grandpa asks.
“Sure, Sir,” she answered cheerfully, “How’s this?”
Grandpa flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Fine, thank you.” Always the ladies man.
With the rest of the patrons eating their pasta bowls and lime chicken, Grandpa unpacked his basket with pride. He laid out his homemade appetizers of caviar in salads made of cheese, anchovies, olives and vegetables. He spooned it onto our plates and began to eat with abandon. He chewed loudly, sometimes choking on our main course of beef sausages or the little bones in the fish salads. His hacking cough would stop my heart.
The waitress came by ready to kneel enthusiastically beside us and go over the menu. When she saw the basket and our food already set out the struggle to keep her composure asserted itself in the muscles of her face and her slowly attenuating smile. She wasn’t accustomed to being a teacher and authority figure. The dissonance between humanity and corporate policy was not yet in the purview of her life experiences. Mustering her best “normal” voice she said, “Sir, you can’t bring your own food into the restaurant.” Grandpa, ignorant of the atmosphere he created, became indignant immediately and started screaming with bits of brown kasha varnishkas clinging to his chin.
“I’m 82 years old and lived through the war! Do you really want to kick a veteran out?!”
The manager came out, clean cut, although sweating, and tried to remove us.
“Headquarters won’t allow non-company food in the building. We don’t have a license for it, Sir.”
Grandpa wouldn’t budge.
“Sir, please.” The manager looked at his watch and fiddled with a walkie-talkie he had in his pocket, probably for communicating with the hostess for seating.
“Sir, I’m calling Security. You can either order with us, leave on your own, or you’ll be escorted out.” Impatience crept into his voice.
“Please just give in, Grandpa,” I thought with enough urgency that maybe I could will his capitulation. Some people laughed and whispered, while others gave dirty looks. The red in my face spread in spurts down my neck and across my body like an old faucet finding the strength to carry its load from the depths of a well. I learned in that moment some of the many ways you can feel shame. Shame about your family, your culture, yourself. You could die a thousand deaths without anyone else noticing it.
“Eat!” Grandpa commanded, looking at my full plate. He pulled out dessert, cataif, with a sweet stuffing of almonds and caramel vanilla and his version of curried helbeh, a semolina orange marmalade cake with coconut drizzled with syrup and almonds. I was too mortified to eat under the dim, stained glass chandeliers that strove to temper the bright reflection of the sun off the salted, snowy parking lot outside.
“Grandpa, can I buy a Sprite?” I asked quietly. A compromise, like Grandma’s friends buying a coffee.
“What’s the matter with you?” A familiar refrain. “You want to buy an American Sprite?” his voice boomed back, prompting more stares. “Always giving in, you.”
Grandpa talked in black and white. Facts. This caused me to hear him in inferences, understanding perfectly what he said and intuiting, often wrongly, what he meant. Here’s what the above conversation sounded like in my ears:
“Grandpa, can I buy a Sprite?” (We can compromise. There’s a way out of this. You’re embarrassing.)
“What’s the matter with you? (What’s the matter with you?) You want to buy and American Sprite? (American is bad. You want something American. You’re bad.)” Always giving in, you.” (You’re a coward).
The waiters were ignoring us so I walked to the soda fountain myself. I kept my head down to avoid eye contact, filled my cup at the fountain with my back to the dining area and repeated my long walk of shame back to our table. When we were ready to leave, I’d leave my pocket change for the Sprite. When Grandpa was good and full, he began packing up the containers, throwing a disapproving glance through his cataracts at me and my full plate. As he was doing so, two security guards came up behind him.
“Sir, you’ll have to come with us.”
Preserving his dignity he got up without a fight, but then he started to protest. They dragged him out, restraining his flailing arms.
Grandpa was something once. He had gained wealth and power by opening a factory on Flower Street near Bistrita and a tannery on Leca Street, on the other side of Bistrita River in Romania. The production process was rudimentary at first. He would gather bird residues and oak barks using them as tannin at first. Then his primitive factory evolved in the decades to come into a glorious complex when, after years of experimenting with different ingredients he finally developed a chromium leather tanning process, producing for the first time, black and colored leather. With this process he beat out all his competitors who, until this time could only offer regular leather that would wither upon contact with water and did not vary in color. Grandpa’s leather was soft and durable, smooth and of the highest quality. During the Second World War, “Lefsky Enterprises- Romania’s First Chromium Processed Fine Leather Factory and Systematic Tannery” was the only factory in the country supplying the army with leather manufactured goods and soles, producing boots, harnesses and furred goods.
Then came what Grandpa always referred to cryptically as “The Event.” All I know of it was that his factory was burnt savagely to the ground by anti-Semitic forces, taking his brother and parents with it.
Grief-stricken and stoic, he arrived on the shores of America. My mother being too American for his tastes, especially in marrying my American father, and because he never had a son, Grandpa believed it fell to him to raise me and teach me the values that he believed a father should pass onto his granddaughter (makeshift son); strength, the ability to support oneself, the distinction between right and wrong and, when necessary, how to reconcile the blurry line between the two. He taught me never to be the one to apologize first and if I could, to avoid situations that might warrant an apology in the first place. He would always ask me, “Do you want to be a winner or a loser? A schlemiel or a schlimazel?” which I have come to realize is a judgment call depending on what kind of person you are and what constitutes winning.
I watched the mall security take him away, my Grandpatchka, and looked for the habit he had of pursing his lips and bringing them up to his nose so he could smell the sweaty scent of his mustache combined with remnants of his food. His shiny head reflected the light except where his still-black hair was gelled down on the sides and across his head in a sweeping comb-over.
He resisted arrest with the same robust and brutal spirit that had cost his parents their lives. I knew already that later that night Grandpa would recount this story with pride to his friends at the bar and say that he taught me something important.
Carrot, Walnut & Raisin Salad
This side comes together in about 10 minutes. It’s so easy and so delicious. I’ve had all the versions of it, but simple is my fave. When my grandma makes it for me, much to her pleasure I eat SO much of it. She gave me the recipe last night upon request. My favorite recipe of hers will always be Grandma’s meatballs with sweet potato, goat cheese and zhoug. I’ve also mastered the noodle kugel, but this is way quicker. I promise I’ll do a kugel for you soon.
- 1 bunch of carrots, shredded
- 1 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 tsp sugar, maybe less
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts (I sometimes use almonds)
- 1/4 cup raisins
Variations or Additions
- 2 diced apples or
- 1 cup crushed pineapple. If you opt for crushed pineapple don’t use lemon juice.
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and serve cold.
Semolina, Coconut, and Marmalade Cake w/ Almonds
This cake is actually an adaptation of two recipes from Jerusalem: Helbeh and Semolina Marmalade cake. It’s the Semolina cake prepared in Helbeh form. It’s a serious keeper and so authentically Middle Eastern, which is why I chose this dish. It reminds me very much of my Torta de Santiago because of the almonds, which in turn reminds me of my family. I actually made myself a little ill just eating the batter, but the finished version was unreal. This is a cake that gets better with age. Cover with foil and store in the fridge for best results.
- 3/4 cup canola oil
- 1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- zest of one orange
- 1/2 cup apricot jam
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup shredded dried coconut
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1 cup semolina
- 2 tablespoons ground almonds
- 12 almonds for decoration
- 2 tsps baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1tbsp orange juice
Greek yogurt, olive oil, candied oranges
Preheat oven to 350F.
Mix together the wet ingredients: oil, fruit juice, marmalade, eggs and zest. Then added the dry ingredients: sugar, coconut, semolina, almonds and baking powder. This should form a runny cake mixture.
Grease and line a tart pan (mine is 11inches) pour the filling in and bake for 45-60 minutes. In my pan it was done around 50 mins.
Check with a fork that the cake is cooked all the way through, if it is clean, it is.
Just before the cake is ready to come out, add the syrup ingredients to a pan, bring to the boil, remove from the heat and pour over the cake when they come out of the oven.
Remove the cake from the oven and score it with a very sharp knife in diagonal lines, parallel to each other 2 inches apart, in both directions. Put an almond in each diamond.
Pour syrup over the cake and let it absorb. Add more until most of the syrup is used up.
Leave to cool completely then slice and serve with yogurt and candied oranges.