Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When We Were Kids

There is a bakery near where I grew up that we frequented for everything from rye bread to corned beef sandwiches to cookies, to cinnamon rolls, to lox, and oh everything. When I was a kid this bakery made two of my absolute favorite sweets: homentaschen and macaroons.

Homentaschen is a sweet that is made for the Purim holiday. Most places make them like a cookie, but this place made them like a sweet bun with a filling. My favorite filling is poppy seed but they also made it with sweet farmer's cheese or plum butter or raspberry jam. I remember them being moist and sweet and there was so much poppy seed filling that you would have to be careful not to spill it. They only made these for one week out of the whole year so if you're not paying attention to the holidays you could miss it and have to wait another year. This happened to me several times and then something unexpected happened.

The bakers went on strike for better health benefits. These were older men had been with the bakery for years and years. Some of them worked with my grandfather at the bakery's first location. At this point the owners were the younger generation and they chose to let these guys go. I thought it was really sad at the time but my family took it much harder wondering where these guys will go and didn't everyone know that making European style bread is an art? I figured that any new employee would learn the recipe and in time have it down. The bakery is still doing good business in the area after all, but the facts are that the bread and the pastries and damn near everything doesn't taste the way it used to.

For a while I thought that it was my imagination playing tricks on me. I thought that my grandma planted the idea in my head not to like it as much because of the new bakers and that maybe things just taste better when we were kids. The latter is certainly possible, especially considering now that I haven't had any desire to get a slurpee at 7/11 in years and years. But really, baking is an art. The right recipe could get lost in time or people might not have the trained eye or even the interest in the texture and quality. The bakery could just be mass producing it with machines now and before the guys did everything by hand. Whatever the case may be, those homentaschen are gone and I will never taste them again.

The bakery still makes them and about two weeks ago my grandma told me she decided to take a chance on it.

"Avivitcha, I go Kaufman's you know for the homentaschen. I know you like. So we go me and you mama. I stay in car because my back so hurt. Before she go in I tell her, ok go buy one. We try and if we like we buy more. And you know whats happen? She buy eight! Eight for me eight for her! She's a crazy! I ask her are you crazy?"

"Well you know how mom buys. Were they good?" I was excited....

"Oh Avivtchka. No. Terrible vas. I no know how they selling this. Not vas homentaschen vas more like a challah with little bit jelly in middle. Terrible. If vas good I send you. I can't belief she buy me eight! We try but end up garbage. She buy me rolls but also garbage going."

This is a very serious insult to this bakery. My grandmother does not throw away food. When she was a child she was starving. The value of food is something entirely different to her then most of us. Once when I was little I saw her cry because she had some bread that grew mold. She kissed it before she put it in the garbage and I had to go ask my mom why she did that. For her to say she put rolls and sweets in the garbage was shocking.

I asked her if she knew how to make the homentaschen and she said that she didn't remember. I get this a lot. I think she might know how to do it but gets confused. She started telling me and then realized that she was talking about kolatchke, which is her favorite cookie. this type of homentaschen requires a yeast dough and it has to be sweet. I'm still searching for a recipe resembling this. Even if she remembers it's exhausting for her to be in the kitchen and it frustrates her that she has lost so much memory. When I asked her a few questions about it she gave up on the idea altogether.

"Avivtichka. You no have time spend in kitchen. You be stuck zhere. Your back will hurt like me and you no have time to go enjoy. You listen Grandma. You go paint nails. You do hair nice. Men no like when mess have hair. You look nice then you go out. Men take you out. You see."

My grandma and my mom are both on a rampage to get me out of the kitchen but they don't really know that I am trying to compile these recipes and hopefully have a proper family cookbook someday. Nearly every time I talk to my grandma on the phone I take notes so that I can pick her brain.

My mom recently inspired me as well. She took the time and paid ridiculous money to send me macaroons and a few other things from that old bakery. She figured that I would like them and that it would be a nice treat. truth be told, she didn't think the macaroons were that good and neither did I. Something went wrong; they were dry, tasteless and too small. I might just be a big critic since I grew up with this stuff but really if they taste just as good as the lousy Manishevitz macaroons in the jar then why bother going to a bakery? I told her that I would like to try making them myself. It should be easy but there are a ton of different recipes so it looks like this will be some trial and error. I have copied and pasted the email she sent me today regarding this idea:

Dear Aviva, I thought about our last conversation, and you said that you are going to make macaroons, Aviva if I had to do it again I would stay as far as possible from the kitchen because I should have been going to school and learning something that would help me in life, instead dad was sitting in the den room improving his mind, and I was baking and cleaning till midnight. Today it is different world, men help and , it should be a team effort. Now I look at myself, and I look at other women my age, they did not stay after work in the kitchen but went to the gym or had a facial, and they are still working and are not burned out like me. My advice to you take a bath pamper yourself forget about doing things from scratch . How did your co worker's like the macaroons? Today starts Passover, and I will not do anything special just a salad. I hope you are not going to be upset , but take care of yourself. Happy Passover, wish happy holiday to S. {roommate} LOVE MOM

I suppose this is exactly why people don't do it like they used to. Food is a hobby but not a necessity or a chore. My mom didn't heat up macaroni and cheese. She made everything like her kitchen was a restaurant and she did it all after a full day as a grocery store clerk. I can understand how she doesn't want me to live this way but I desperately don't want this knowledge to disappear like the homentaschen.

For any of you eating Manishevitz Gefilte Fish for your Passover Seder tonight, I am sorry for you. I would have skipped it an ordered pizza. Somewhere in my grandma's brain is a recipe for real gefilte fish and it is delicious. It takes two days to make and it is served with carrots on top and horseradish blended with chopped beets on the side. It's just fish balls made from pike and whitefish that are boiled and then baked. Whatever is in that Manishevitz jar claiming to be gefilte is foul and not worth one penny. The reason you have that on your table is because people forgot or lost the recipe or just don't want to try. It's such a shame.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny how the nature of cooking has changed so much in just a few generations.

    To your grandmother, cooking was a role in life that she was given. She wants you to spend your life out in the world and not in the kitchen like so much of hers was. But to her, cooking is something that takes all day with most everything made from scratch.

    To our generation, real cooking like that is uncommon. We sometimes get together in groups on weekends or holidays to cook big fancy meals, or we take cooking classes because we want to learn what all those things on the shelf at WholePayCheck should be used for. We give books of recipes as gifts. We shop at overpriced entirely organic specialty supermarkets as a sign of status.

    Cooking is a leisure activity to our generation. A connection to lost (or possibly mythical) past. But it's a past that if we try a little, we can literally taste a bit of today. I guess that's worth trying to record.