By Elliott B. Oppenheim
What is the meaning of food in our culture?
Bubbie’s lunch invitation just after Passover emphasizing explicitly just us was uncharacteristic.
Bubbie, my mom, was the consummate Polish woman of mystery. That Friday afternoon she wore her colorful babushka hair covering. Resplendent in the gold, dangly, Star of David earrings I gave her to commemorate my medical school graduation, a gold necklace with silhouettes of her four grandchildren, and a gold charm bracelet crowded with life mementos, she kissed me as I entered her kitchen.
Rachala Zacharacsjz blessed the world a few days after World War I ended. At our lunch she wore her Hadassah cooking apron with chickens pictured running around a barn yard with Dinner! at the top and a foreboding ax graphic. She was dramatic. Bubbie, the u pronounced as in up, was what we all, by then, called her at eighty-six.
Living alone in her post-war clapboard bungalow north of Los Angeles since my father died a decade before, she was in physical decline, and she’d stopped her daily walking the three miles around her lake because of pain.
She lighted a match and melted the bottoms of the Shabbat candles, inserting them into the precious silver candlesticks her family had salvaged from their shtetl, then the ghetto in Lodz, an area ravaged by the Nazis. A lifelong smoker who prevaricated to everyone about quitting, the cancer munched her body but not her spirit. Still, irrepressibly, Pall Mall smoke plumed into the chicken soup steam wafting over her stove. Cooking was her forte and food defined her; it defined us.
“Everything you like, Kussi. Chalah. Brisket, white fish — you can have both.” At her hem I learned to cook, and wound up as the sous chef in her catering business until I left for college. Such a team!
“People pay a fortune for potato skins as appetizers these days. We scavenged them from garbage piles and lived on them. Dried peas and cats and dogs from the street were a banquet.” Bubbie’s scars from two world wars never fully healed.
“It’s time to talk,” she revealed. “Today is special.” Characteristically, my mother expressed her feelings, her self, with food, not recollections; there were few intimacies. “To make it go further, my mother, your Bubbie, kneaded sawdust into pumpernickel dough.” She sighed. “Pumpernickel? Better as putty to fill holes in our walls,” she joked, but it was not really a joke, soothing pain with humor, with irony, as is our Jewish way.
The Zacharacsjz family were Jewish diamonds, salvaged from Silesia’s coal fields; the ghetto was an unspeakable Hitlerian sewer. “After Kristallnacht we left and God led us to Istanbul,” she said. “We packed potatoes and pumpernickel bread, and chalah. The chalah, warm, just out of the oven, I held it on my chest as we rode, buried beneath coal in an ox cart to the train station on the way to Zagreb, then Dubrovnik. I turned twenty-one on that journey.”
Transfixed by her words, with my soup spoon I cut into a floating kneidel and dipped
tucked into her chicken soup as she recounted. “Twelve of us, ten children, my parents, in a coal freighter, entombed in the hold with the coal. Endless days in secret darkness across the Mediterranean. No food at all, just water, until we made it to the Straits of Gibraltar, where we breathed the Atlantic Ocean. Freedom. Fresh air. America’s hope.”
The memory was too lacerating and she returned to food. “Latkes, lots of fresh garlic…”
In Brooklyn she met and married a red-haired, freckled American army officer, Leopold Goldberg, a handsome Polish refugee, a lawyer in the Justice Department, my father. In America, unable to forget the atrocities in Poland, it was almost impossible for my mother to express herself, her inner self. She showed love with her cooking. She winced.
“Pain, Bubbie?” I rubbed her shoulders and hugged her.
Nodding, she kissed me and patted my yarmulke. “We’re almost ready.”
Her TV blared. Bubbie watched baseball as she set out lunch. “Hang on, Chaim’ele. I want to talk, but let’s see if Randy Johnson’s gonna strike out this guy.” As American as… chopped liver, she was an inveterate, lifelong Yankees fan. No one, with the exception of Bubbie, gets to shorten my name but she was my mother. I was powerless with her.
Whenever we got together, food was our common tongue, our mutually agreed upon dodge to evade unpleasant topics like the Holocaust. I muted the TV.
“Leave the picture, Kussi. I don’t feel so alone when the TV’s on. We hid for so long and had to be silent.”
Our lives annealed, fused, as we cooked together in my childhood: kreplech, blintzes rich with ricotta cheese and butter, and we made Shabbat chalah together, and chopped liver, and beet borscht.
“I loved cooking for our family,” she said. “Remember how we cooked together?”
“Oh, Bubbie. Strudel!” Memories flooded as I recalled squishing chalah dough or chopped liver between my little fingers, and I choked up. “Our Levittown kitchen smelled wonderful. The cinnamon and cloves, za’atar and allspice, and the butter and garlic!” Together we laughed, “Ḥalushkas!”
“And more cinnamon and sugar!” Bubbie exclaimed, and giggled from deep in her soul in the way I imagined she had chortled as a ghetto child, when she could still laugh out loud before the war.
Ḥalushkas is a Yiddish onomatopoeia for delicious, but it’s more than that. It encompasses the richness of life itself: brisket gravy running down your cheeks; a hearty potato soup; a noodle kugel, Passover prunes with sweet grapes or cherry wine. Ḥalushkas includes life’s profound sorrows, joys, and truths from birth unto death.
Bubbie and I often punctuated splendid gratifying moments by exclaiming “Ḥalushkas!” and laughing.
“So much of my childhood was cooking with you,” I observed, remembering her cooking library in Yiddish and Hungarian. That Friday I found the wooden box I decoupaged with our family pictures in sixth grade. Prompted by the box in my hands, I stumbled back through our decades.
“Kishka!” she exclaimed. “Don’t forget our kishka!”
“All that kishka for the synagogue Oneg Shabbats. I remember stuffing endless intestines with that spicy meat.”
“Why are you crying, Bubbie?”
“Red beet borscht. I just thought about blood running in the streets when we left, what the Nazis did to us. But then I think of rich sour cream and sweet beet borscht.”
I arrived in 1947 as the embers at Auschwitz cooled. Eichmann, Mengele, the Nuremberg trials, and the Holocaust dominated my family’s nightly dinner table conversations. My life was singed by the fires and atrocities.
“Ah, yes. Sweet beet borscht, with sour cream, served cold,” I added. This was our singular banter.
“I taught you to make consommé from ox tails for the borscht stock. Then we’d reserve beet juices for Red Velvet cake — spurovdik, not to waste.”
My mother was Ashkenazi beautiful. She dyed her hair black, defined her life by food and wars, and that day she was luminescent.
Spurovdik, saving, was our way of life. I discovered in her refrigerator that afternoon a morsel of brisket two weeks old wrapped in plastic she’d been saving. A morsel here, a morsel there. Symbolically, behaviorally, instinctively, imprinted for all time, she tried to undo her deprivations of the Holocaust by saving morsels in her refrigerator: a piece of cream cheese, one mouthful of onion soup. She could never forget how they’d starved.
Bubbie was my lifelong soul doctor, often soothing my problems with her food. A half a cream puff could do wonders for a skinned knee, and as I got older, cherry kugel with melted butter, sprinkled with powdered sugar and dusted with cinnamon, was her prescription to meliorate a failing marriage.
Bubbie usually downplayed her family’s poverty, but that day she divulged, “I stuffed newspaper into my shoes to cover the holes. My feet were so cold in the rain and snow.”
“In Poland, Shabbat meant food,” she continued. “My father would find and kill a chicken and my mother, your bubbie, boiled it whole with carrots and garlic and paprika. Ḥalushkas! Twelve of us, we’d each get a small piece of chicken. It was so good — ḥalushkas! We sucked the bones and bits of sweet carrots and celery for a spoonful of chicken meat, maybe a potato. I was the only one in the family who would eat the chicken head and feet, but I didn’t care, I liked them. It was food. Survival. And then America.”
She paused, stopped a moment, and took a pain pill. She then eased and relaxed.
“Bubbie, it was a good idea not to operate. You don’t regret that?”
“I wanted good time with you and my grandchildren and it gave me that.” Then, diverting: “We made cream puffs! Remember when you came here for Rosh Hashana and we all made cream puffs?”
“That chocolate ganache was perfect, Bubbie,” I managed. From her recipe box we pulled out her note cards, each carefully written, some in pencil, some in pen. There were grease stains and cigarette ashes.
“And gefilte fish! For Shabbat! L’chaim!”
“Oh, Bubbie! Where you took a whole fish and put it into the meat grinder — head, bones, tail, and fins! Spurovdik!” I exclaimed.
“Ḥalushkas,” she replied, and we howled. I felt so close to her at that lunch. Something precious occurred between us that day.
“Kussi, I feel so relieved telling you all this, but… but now a secret. You know I have lots of secrets. I pride myself on the fact that no one — no one — ever knows what I am really thinking.”
We sat in her living room on the tattered sofa that I remembered napping on in my childhood. She breathed in, appeared to dream, to be pensive. “I bet you’re wondering why I wanted to have lunch with you alone.”
“Because you had these leftovers you wanted me to eat?” I loved making her laugh! “I am grateful you told me about Poland. Is there more?”
“More. Another secret,” she said, wrinkling her lips, which raised her left cheek.
I clung to her translucent nicotine-stained hands with her wedding rings and Dad’s gold Rolex wristwatch.
Dodging, she said: “I’ll remind you about brisket. You cook it low and slow. And salt. And garlic. Pashut, simple. And fresh Hungarian paprika.”
“That’s the secret? It’s always about brisket or kishkas, isn’t it, Bubbie?” We both laughed. “Or gefilte fish…”
“Rugalach! Butter. More butter!”
“An extra egg yolk for the best cookies,” I added, anticipating another cooking secret or more about Poland. But I sensed, since I knew her so well, that she was still veiling.
“Ḥalushkas,” she chortled, getting great joy out of our time travels. Then she paused, considering, and wrinkling her aged face. Her gray roots showed. She kindled another cigarette. I suffered, knowing that lung cancer devoured her as she inhaled. “Chicken soup with matzah balls,” she offered, coughing. “You remember the secret to matzah balls? No butter!” Tears on her cheeks, and more coughing.
“So tell me,” I coaxed, feeling how she danced around the truth. “What is it? It’s been years, decades, Bubbie.”
“Schmaltz. You have to use schmaltz instead of butter.” Like a professor she instructed. “When I boil a chicken, I drain off the liquid, chill it, and take off the schmaltz. Then add salt, and put that in with the matzah meal to make the kneidlech. Add pepper” — coughing — “and salt. Never substitute crackers for matzah meal. Same for chopped liver. Schmaltz.”
“Bubbie!” I became churlish as she delayed. She knew that I knew these cooking secrets.
“These macaroons are wonderful,” she said, raising a porcelain dessert plate that I remembered from my childhood. She nibbled a macaroon. “I used your bubbie’s recipe. Lots of marzipan.” Then, somberly: “Remember that restaurant built out over the water? In Seattle. When I had a couple of martinis?”
“You surprised me, Bubbie. You’re such a teetotaler.”
“When — ” She struggled, and then sobbed.
Holding her face, I kissed her cheeks. “I remember it well, Bubbie. It was after the escargot, just as I cut into the rack of lamb.” Again, I tried to be funny but she didn’t laugh this time.
“When I told you I was unsure about who was your sister’s father?”
“Yes, Bubbie, I just about choked.” I tried not to sound perturbed. “You were unsure. I said, ‘Bubbie, I’m thirty-five with a wife and two kids. What am I supposed to do with this now?’ But that was twenty-three years ago.”
“I didn’t know. But I did know. I lied,” she said, taking a spoonful of cooling chicken soup. That was all she could eat. “Are you ready for dessert?” she asked. Pinning her down was like snatching a sparrow in flight. My mother was such a confabulator. Any aspect of her life she didn’t like, she rewrote.
“Bubbie, I need to hear the truth now. I’ve been eating for starving kids in China my whole life. Enough food talk. Tell me the truth.”
“You tell me I am not dying but I know I am. I have to tell you something. I can’t go to my grave with this on my conscience.” I kissed away tears on her cheeks. “Kussi, you have been the best son.” We settled on her sofa. She smelled of boiled chicken and cigarettes. “A doctor and a lawyer. I have bragging rights at the hair salon.” She laughed, hugging me, then crying.
“Bubbie, you made me.”
She continued. “Both your and Ruthie’s father is a man named Charlie Ackermann. I was untrue to your father. I was.”
“What? To Daddy? To my father? Two of us? Two children?”
“It was the war. I lied.” She shook her head in shame, wringing her hands. Then, abruptly, she said: “Fertig gemacht.” Done. She drew away from her revelations and what came over her then was her facial expression I recognized. She’d snapped shut like the top of my recipe box. “Come. Let’s make the Shabbat meal, the cholent, together. Cherry kugel, Kussi, with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, just the way you like it. Ḥalushkas.” She raised her eyebrows, with urgency, pointing to her wall clock, saying, “Oy vey, it’s time for candle-lighting. I have to light the candles.” And with that, our tour back in her time ended. Her truth lunch was our final ḥalushkas together.