It is Sunday morning and Norm is making bagels in the kitchen and my daughter Shira is on her way to the Bronx Zoo, both part of the Sunday rituals that I grew up with. Plus it is my sister’s birthday. Happy Birthday Anita!
Last week I went to synagogue to say Yizkor, the prayer service for the departed, and afterwards heard a sermon about a poem written by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The poem was about faith, God, and the Jewish experience, and the rabbi who delivered the sermon referred to the contents of the poem as “a stew of memories.” I have been thinking of that sentence ever since. Naama, my supervisor, once told me that she can remember every outfit she wore from the time she was a child. I cannot say that I remember every meal but I can say that, for me, food evokes memories. The Bronx of the 1950s and 1960s was truly a melting pot. You could walk down the Grand Concourse and stop and have a kosher hot dog at the deli owned by two brothers from Poland, pizza from Mario’s, Italian ices from a cart on the street, and the two foods that we considered very American, lemon meringue pie from Sutter’s Bakery and ice cream at Krum’s. The apartment building we lived in was filled with people who spoke foreign languages, had heavy accents in English, and cooked the way they had in their homeland. We lived on the 4th floor and there was no elevator. I remember walking down each flight of stairs and registering the smells that would permeate those halls. People did not have much to share, so they sat around and shared their food and their recipes. My mother learned how to make Fanny’s recipe for tzimmis, Esther’s recipe for sweet potatoes, Ruth’s recipe for pineapple kugel, and Suralayeh’s recipe for baked spaghetti. As children, my sister and I sometimes complained because we preferred my mothers own recipes and were resistant to change. I didn’t understand why she would try new dishes when we were perfectly happy with the dishes that we knew and loved. As an adult and a mom I finally understand. She had lost her entire family in the war and this was my mother’s way of building new relationships, a way to find a common bond and draw others into her life so that she could create a “stew of memories” for my sister and me. What a wonderful legacy.
Here is a “stew” that I learned how to make from an Iraqi Jewish family that I met many years ago in Los Angeles. Place tabit in the oven before Shabbat begins on Friday evening and serve for lunch, a Sephardic alternative to cholent.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 chicken cut into eighths
3 cups water
1 1/2 tsps salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp paprika
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 large tomato, diced
2 cups rice, rinsed several times
1 can garbanzo beans
Saute onion in oil till golden. Add chicken and brown. Then add freshly diced tomato and sauté for several minutes. Place rice around chicken and add water, salt, pepper, paprika, garbanzo beans, and tomato paste. Stir gently. Bring to a boil, cover and lower heat and cook for abut 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place Tabit in oven overnight.
Note: If you are interested in seeing some old photos of the Bronx and the Grand Concourse go to http://www.nostalgictimewarp.com/bronx.html