My Baba’s house smelled like borscht and boiled cabbage for holopchi, traditional dishes from the “old country.” Scents that made me cry tears of pain as I peeled away the onion layers. Her recipes were like an unfinished story with the ending not written. A smidgen of this. A stone of beets. Two glazls of schmaltz. A pennyweight of salt. A pottle of water. A bisl of this or that. “What’s a bisl?” I asked my mother one day.
“It’s just like a smidgen,” she stated.
Ah… the allusive smidgen. Okay, not helpful. So, I studied my baba’s smidgens, pinches and bisls over and over again to make sure I got it right. But we all knew that Baba instinctively knew just how much to add. Years later, in my effort to perfect the bisl, my adult logical brain led me to search the internet for a definition. The first site I stumbled on said that a bisl is the same as a smidgen. Even Grandma Google didn’t know.
“So what is a glazl?” I challenged as I continued to try to break this mysterious code.
By my second or third inquiry, my mother would always break out in song. “I love you, a bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck. A hug around the neck and a barrel and a heap. A barrel and a heap and I'm talkin' in my sleep…”
“Okay then, I’ll just write down ‘some’,” I responded rolling my eyes as she pranced around the kitchen in a frilly apron like Doris Day. “Do you want me to figure out the recipe or not?” I asked in between her prances.
She just smiled and continued to sing, “I love you, a bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck though you make my heart a wreck, make my heart a wreck and you make my life a mess. Make my life a mess, yes a mess of happiness…” She had such a beautiful voice. Except when she and my baba would sing the traditional Russian folk song Ochi Chernye, trying to mimic the deep guttural voice of The Red Army Choir, which she often did on those borscht and holopchi days. She also would tell me that borscht would put hair on my chest and cure hangovers. I never did figure out if a glazl was a real thing or something my baba made up. I shrugged it off because it really didn’t matter. To eleven-year-old me, I found both borscht and holopchi kind of disgusting and my hands smelled like onions for days after helping to make them. And, given that a hairy chest did not seem appealing, I would likely never eat either.
One delicacy that she often prepared was the varenyky, made from a recipe straight from the old country. A recipe so hidden that you must only speak Ukrainian while making it to guard its secrecy. And apparently you must use the tiny fingers of a reluctant young girl to pinch the edges so tight they don’t open while boiling. Also referred to as the pyrohy, pyroshay or pierogi depending on what region you came from but all equally as delicious. A small half-moon shaped dough pocket that was stuffed with cheese. Or with potato. And for the adventurous, some were stuffed with mushrooms. Boiled and served with a side of swear-at-the-grandchildren-in-Ukrainian as well as some sour cream. Or, if you want to dive deeper into the tradition, they were fried in butter with chopped onions. Because it used simple frugal ingredients, it was a staple in my baba’s home and the recipe she used seem to make enough to feed a whole village. I learned the recipe but never did perfect them.
The knish, Yiddish for a delicious small round baked pastry also stuffed with a filling of potato or cheese, was another delicacy my baba would serve. A classic, yet adaptable, Ashkenazi Jewish comfort food. It could be served as a snack, an appetizer, a side dish or as the main dairy meal. The knish recipe was a source of contention. Both my mother and I firmly stood by my recipe versus my baba’s. The process was the same though. Use the entire kitchen table to roll out the dough. Stretch. Roll. Stuff. Pull. More rolling. More pulling. The more stretching, the flakier the crust. It was a form of art. By the time we were done, we had flour not only on our faces, but in our hair.
I wish I was more meticulous at documenting these family recipes when I was younger. Years later, I searched the internet for a familiar borscht recipe. My frustration evident after nearly an hour of searching for the perfect one, my husband volunteered to comb through old torn-up family cookbooks.
“What about this one?” he asked.
“How about this one?” he asked pointing to another recipe from his mother’s cookbook. I shook my head so violently it nearly fell off.
Looking at me with one eyebrow raised, “And why not?”
I rolled my eyes and grunted, “Because it doesn’t call for a glazl of something.”
“What’s the heck is a glazl?” he asked.
“I think it is similar to a bisl. Or maybe a smidgen,” I said trying to echo the best interpretation of my mother. But I stopped short of breaking into song. Once again, however, I yearned for those precise family recipes.
One that I managed to write down and memorize was her recipe for cheese latkes. The word “latke” is Yiddish for pancake with Slavic (Ukrainian/Russian) origins meaning small fried pancake. These were perfect for Chanukah because they contained cheese and were fried in oil to commemorate Judith, a Jewish heroine who apparently saved her whole town by cutting the bad guy’s head off after she served him wine and cheese. The cheese latke, said to be the original latke served during Chanukah, has Sephardic Jewish origins. And somewhere down the line, a small amount of Moroccan blood entered the genetic code of our family.
In our house, cheese latkes were a regular staple. Good for when you were feeling down, great for a light lunch, ideal for a kosher dairy meal. And so easy to make. Ricotta cheese, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder. And a smidgen of salt that I could never perfect. Butter was substituted for oil for frying to make them less greasy, and even more delicious. I found myself making cheese latkes during all my pregnancies, like some unconscious need to pass the recipe on to the next generation. Possibly to get it ingrained in the DNA of my children. And each time, the memories flooded in, as I bit into the first warm cheese latke right from the frying pan. Each time, I closed my eyes I could easily see my baba, long white hair pulled back, thick cat-eye glasses, standing in front of the stove wiping her hands on her always-present apron. Each time I listen for the sounds of my mother flitting around the kitchen amusing me with her beautiful voice. Sights and sounds that now only live in my memory.
It wasn’t until later, that the cheese latke morphed into a traditional potato latke in Eastern Europe, probably due to the availability and cheapness of potatoes. And now, it is a sought-after delicacy during every Jewish holiday in our home, as well as Thanksgiving. I learned this the first Thanksgiving after the passing of my mother, when my oldest child scanned the dinner table and demanded latkes with his turkey. The pouty face he made when he realized he had to wait one more month until Chanukah for his favorite delicacy was sad, even at thirty years old. It dawned on me then that perhaps somehow some of that Jewish tradition did indeed absorb into his DNA and he missed his baba too. Then and there I vowed to ensure that every holiday gathering would include a potato latke because to us, it symbolized family and the traditions we neglected to write down.
Lisa Brodsky holds a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Minnesota and works in public health. She was born in Canada and has lived in Minnesota for 30 years. She is completing her AFA in Creative Writing at Normandale Community College and was the 2nd place winner in the 2022 Patsy Lea Core Awards for poetry. In addition to writing, Lisa enjoys painting, photography, raising her Shetland Sheepdogs and hanging out with her four sons.
Lisa has numerous published poems that appear in several literary journals including Otherwise Engaged Vol 9, 2022 and The Mocking Owl Roost.