Since joining Facebook, I’ve signed into a few of its many groups. One of the most rewarding is People Who Went to Catskill Bungalow Colonies, started by Trudy Gewirtzman Malmut, now 10,000 members strong and growing fast. On April 28, another member of the group, Jan Shapiro-Shandler posted, “I have been holding onto this cookbook which belonged to my mother for many years… I just took it out to look at the recipes and realized that it was to benefit Monticello Hospital… Thought I would share some pages and see if anyone recognizes any names. Also if anybody needs a recipe for blintzes or knaidlach it’s all in here. Just let me know.”
It was magical to gaze up to the top of the page and see a recipe that had long disappeared from my childhood memories. In all these years, I never researched it or thought I would see the old recipe anywhere, but the one that Jan posted from the cookbook sounded so familiar.
Gone with my mother went her handmade kishke and the original recipe. Vaguely, the Yiddish term helzel comes to mind, but I knew the delicacy, known at restaurants as stuffed derma, as the familiar kishka. You know, the traditional side course served with gravy at any Jewish life-cycle event long ago.
As a child in the 1950s and early ’60s, a day or more before the approaching Thanksgiving dinner, my mother would position me comfortably in the living room of our apartment to sit and stuff the casings, which were actual cow’s intestines. That was before the ban on the use of the animals’ innards for consumption.
The yearly adventure started with a trip to the local kosher butcher shop to purchase the fat along with the obscene casings. The scene of the butcher proudly showing my mother the goods, his bloody apron covering a protruding belly, remains with me. With my olfactory glands on overdrive, the smell of the raw, slimy, well, guts still permeates.
In my mind’s eye, I’m back at our second-floor apartment with my mother standing in front of me, quickly sewing the ends with clean white thread, before turning the casings inside out for me to stuff. Methodically pushing and kneading, I squished and squiggled the ingredients down, rotating one hand after the other.
The mixture was plumped, in a fashion reminiscent of the maneuvering of an inchworm. It went down and down until the fatty glob my mother prepared from the fat and Farina made its way to the stitched bottom. That was when my mother, the kitchen maven, checked to approve that the casing was evenly filled, before giving it her seal of approval.
I do remember the Farina… my mother would pour in just the right amount, not too much at one time, not too little, but I always thought it was weird since Farina was a breakfast dish. Next, she would add the flour, spices and whatever else, which I didn’t recall before seeing the recipe Jan posted. Finally, she would clasp it and sew the other end shut. In the pot it went to boil. My mouth is watering with the thought of the delectable taste of what would ultimately emerge from the oven.
My mother’s meals always consisted of course after generous course. Our Thanksgiving dinner would routinely start with half a grapefruit, a maraschino cherry lovingly placed in the middle. Anyone with a sweet tooth like mine would add a coating of sugar. My cheeks pucker with the memory of sucking off the sugar and getting a bit of the bitter-tasting citrus juice from the fruit. Next, she served the chicken soup with lucshen kugel (noodle pudding).
To this day, whenever I make the kugel, a vivid memory of my mother pops up. She is sneering at the thought of my aunt, in a quest to save money, preparing the batter with fewer eggs and expecting it to turn out as good as hers.
Confidently, my mother added the specified five well-beaten eggs to a cooked package of fine egg noodles. Then, she would shitn arain, meaning pour in without measuring, the vegetable oil (about a 1/3 of a cup), and sprinkle in white pepper to taste, with the option to add salt, as needed. After a sprinkling of crumb topping, she would run a long knife through to etch large squares for serving before baking it for one hour at 400 degrees.
After the appetizers, routinely followed by soup, came the main course with all the sides, including salad and the much-anticipated kishke. The freshly made delicacy finally appeared on the plate. My only regret is that by then, I was so full, even with my limited intake of nibbles from all the other courses, that I didn’t have enough room in my belly to enjoy more of the yummy kishke.
The appetizer would vary, depending on the occasion or holiday we were celebrating. One favorite was always the chopped liver, which required broiling of the liver for koshering on the open flame. Next, my mother would mix the liver with freshly rendered chicken fat, the fat purchased from the same trusted kosher butcher shop as the kishke makings. Chopped up hard-boiled eggs and spices were added before being served in place of the grapefruit.
Additional bountiful courses would continue to flow, always starting with chicken soup for the holidays. When I was a child, and noodles were unavailable for Passover, the kugel was substituted with the battle for the perfectly textured, not too hard, not too soft version of just right knaidlach (matzoh balls).
Aside from the Thanksgiving kishke, every Jewish holiday throughout the seasons had a homemade treat as well. Let’s begin with the head of the year and name that holiday: kreplach, teiglach, hand-ground latkes, hamantaschen, meat-stuffed potato knishes, cheese and berry blintzes, to name a few. I could go on and on, but I’m starting to drool.
I feel as though my mother could have written the book. How about you?
By Sharon Mark Cohen