The winter holidays always hold a special place in our hearts. When the world turns in on itself and the nights grow long, we find ourselves turning to one another for company and comfort. We gather around fireplaces to tell stories, around the table to laugh and break bread, and in the kitchen to pass on the ability to put love into every dish.
I remember cooking with my mother every year for Chanukah. Regardless of other dishes, there were always two staples that were guaranteed a spot on the holiday table: a brisket (my Babu’s recipe) and tzimmus (my super-bubbie’s recipe). I watched, and helped my mother make these dishes for over 20 years. It was always such a wonderful day. We would wake up early and start cooking and be in the kitchen the whole day. We would laugh and sing and talk, and she would tell me stories about the women that came before. My father would always come in at some point, say how amazing the brisket smelled, and then tell the story of how his mother taught my mother this recipe because my father loved it so much. I can almost smell the kitchen as I write this.
My mother hated the idea of people spending any holiday alone, so our house was always filled to the rafters with friends. My brother Sam would bring over all of the “out-of-town” students (those who couldn’t afford to go home for every holiday) who he knew through Hillel and my parents invited friends they had known since the ’60’s and ’70’s. There would be at least 15 to 20 people at our house for every “feast”. The days where we cooked together are some of my favorite memories of her.
Soon after my mother passed away, I moved overseas. I could only bring the things I could carry with me, and the rest was put into storage until I could afford to have it shipped. In the end, I moved back to America before that could happen. While going through my belongings in storage, I found that my family cookbooks had accidentally been thrown away. Pages and pages of recipes that three generations of my ancestors had collected and written (it started with my great-grandmother who came here in 1910). It was devastating; like losing my mother all over again.
Not all is lost though; this year, I have recovered the tzimmus and brisket recipes by calling on my memories of making them with her. My mother would only use the recipes as a guide, calling her method the “G and G method of cooking”; by Guess and by God. She would say “it might taste a little different every time, but it always tastes amazing,” and her booming laugh would fill the room.
In 2020, however, with the world turning in on itself, we find that we can no longer turn to one another in the ways we always have. This crisis/pandemic has forced us to remain apart when we most often join together. So now we must let necessity be the mother of invention, and find new ways to gather, new methods/mediums for telling stories, new means to making holiday memories.
This year, I hope others will join me in making a family recipe cookbook as a way to bring our families together. Here is an amazing way to capture your family history and traditions and pass them on to the next generation. It is a simple project that you can build on every holiday or holiday season. All you need is an notebook or journal and decorating materials (colored pencils, paint, etc.). Call grandma on Skype or Zoom and ask her about her top five favorite dishes to make for the holidays and the stories behind them. Ask for pictures of her in the kitchen to put with the stories! Email Nonna and ask how she came to be in possession of her recipes and what her “kitchen-secrets” are. Face-Time grandpa and ask why he makes what he makes for the holidays. Just because we cannot be in the same kitchen as our loved ones, doesn’t mean we can’t have them in spirit, in the dishes we make, and the stories we tell and hear.
My mother has passed away, as have all of my grandparents, so there are no more big family gatherings where the table groans with food, and belts are preemptively loosened. Now my husband and I are talking about starting a family, and I want to make a new family recipe book that contains all of the history, love, and “kitchen-magic” that my ancestors have given to me. I will be starting my new recipe book this holiday season so that when our child makes their own home they will have me, and bits of their ancestors, in the kitchen with them.
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