Back in the day, for Jewish cooks, the most important ingredient in Hanukkah latkes was buckwheat.
In 1916, the New York Board of Health issued a concise 36 page recipe book aimed at Jewish American homemakers. Published bilingually in both Yiddish and English, “How to Cook for the Family” contained recipes for such “plain, substantial and wholesome” dishes as tomato soup, beef stew and cornstarch pudding. So far as we can tell, the book was a flop among its intended audience. When a reporter working on a story about it asked a couple of Yiddishe homemakers for their opinion, the women told her off.
Unlike Rachel Ray (whom I happen to enjoy watching), I am perversely attracted to drawn out, labor-intensive kitchen projects. Case in point: I will happily put aside a few hours to stretch my own strudel dough. I also bake bagels, a process that involves simmering the raw bagels in a water bath laced with malt barley syrup before they go into the oven. As a matter of principle, I stay away from sauces in jars and other convenience foods like boxed muffin mix which violate my sense of culinary fair play and generally taste lousy. But my kitchen principles, like the rest of my life, are shot through with contradictions.
Esther Kessler, my paternal grandmother, cooked with the precision of a diamond cutter, methodical, deliberate, and composed. Her hair professionally coiffed, a silk-scarf jauntily tied at the neck, she brought those same qualities to her personal style.
A gastronomic fixture of the Lower East Side for seventy-one years, the Essex Street Market faces a precarious future. Recently approved guidelines for the nearby Seward Park Urban Renewal Area development project include the possibility of demolishing the current market in favor of a larger, more modernized facility at a new, still undetermined, location. In the tug of war between developers and preservationists, outraged East Siders have mobilized to spare the Depression era structure.
One sure sign of spring in my Brooklyn neighborhood is the first sighting of the Mr. Softee truck. A hundred years ago, Jewish residents of the Lower East Side knew it was spring by the appearance of sorrel, or schav in Yiddish, on the neighborhood pushcarts. While the pushcarts are gone, nowadays you can find sorrel at city greenmarkets.