Jewish Cooking: My How It’s Changed!

I will be the first to admit that my cooking isn’t what it used to be. My kids will probably say that my cooking never was what it should have been. When they come to visit, I still serve lasagna prepared in Stouffer’s kitchens. The meal is always greeted with the same sarcastic remark. “You must have been slaving in the kitchen all day.”

Bubbie’s cooking was something else. Delicious, plentiful and definitely not in Dr. Ornish’s heart healthy cookbook. My bubbie spent hours over the sink, over the counter and over the hot stove making sure that her menus would be greeted with the appropriate oohs and aahs they deserved. In her apron, worn over a cotton shmatta, she would clean feathers off the chicken she bought at the kosher market. Some in our neighborhood went directly the the shoichet (ritual slaughterer) to select a choice hen that was still clucking around the yard but Bubbie, a modern cook, preferred one that had already met its maker.

Bubbie was meticulous when it came to cleaning a chicken. She spent hours flicking it, making sure not to leave any feather ends behind. When she was satisfied that it was as clean as a baby who had just had a bath, she cut around the neck and wings. This formed what looked like a miniature chicken that she filled with the most delicious crumb stuffing imaginable. She called it “helzel”.

At the same time, she removed some of the skin and attached fat from the chicken and, along with onions, fried it until it produced schmaltz and gribbenas. Schmaltz is the Jewish version of butter used in a variety of dishes and gribbenas are similar in texture to the unkosher rinds sold today. Gribbenas, when made right, are crisp and delicious and everyone in our household fought over them.
We also fought over the immature eggs that Bubbie removed from the hen and cooked in the soup. The soup, rich and hearty, also contained locshen (noodles) or matzah balls (even when it was not Passover), onions and carrots.

Our dinners often began with a forshpeiz (appetizer) which sometimes included gehockteh layber (chopped liver) made with fried onions, hard boiled eggs, salt and schmaltz. Jews were undoubtedly the inventors of the 10 course meal with each course more delectable than the one before.

And it was never complete without a rich, scrumptious dessert. Apple strudel, honey cake, rugalach to name just a few delights were always served with hot tea. In my youth, there was no such thing as a tea bag. Tea leaves were placed in a small, round metal strainer which was dunked in a cup of boiling water. We kids were sometimes permitted to drink this beverage but were allowed only one quick dunk, after which some sugar and lots of milk were added. We felt very grown up as we sipped the concoction.

Bubbie, of course, never had the option of buying Stouffer’s frozen lasagna but I’m certain, if she had, she would have turned up her nose and said, “To serve a dish like this, it would be a shonda (shame) in front of the neighbors.” Personally, I don’t worry about what the neighbors think. I have the feeling they are as indebted to the Stouffer folks as I am.

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