I have many happy childhood memories around food. There’s my father’s spaghetti sauce and chop suey and my mother’s cold pickled salmon and meatball soup. But I will always have the fondest memories of the food my Jewish grandmother made. My bubbie (Yiddish for “grandmother”) emigrated from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. She brought with her recipes of the foods of her culture and heritage. Every Friday evening, climbing the stairs to her apartment, I would be welcomed with the aromas of noodle kugel, chicken soup and apple babka. Upon entering her kitchen I was immediately embraced with the smells of brisket and potato knishes. And, of course, every good Jewish cook would have a pot of rendered chicken fat sitting on the stove.
Although I have not eaten those traditional ethnic foods for many decades, those first impressions of my bubbie cooking in the kitchen have been imprinted on my soul. I learned that cooking for one’s family is a loving and pleasurable experience and that the kitchen is the heart of the family home. I learned that cooking can be a magical experience where ingredients are transformed into something completely different and delectable. I learned that meals can be a joyful time when we not only feed our stomach but also our spirit. I learned that cooking is so much more than following a recipe—although following a recipe is a good way to get started. I learned that our personality comes through in the food that we cook and that when we apply all of our senses to cooking the results can be amazing. I learned that cooking is an enjoyable and creative experience that does not have to be difficult.
Even though I do not cook like my bubbie, I try to draw upon my Jewish roots. The traditional foods that she made represent my heritage and culture—something I do not want to lose. All cultures are, in one way or another, connected to nature. So, even though my grandmother cooked foods that I no longer find beneficial to my health, she cooked them in harmony with what was available to her at a particular season. And, that is what I try to do as I am creating new traditions for my children and future grandchildren. At the core of my cooking are fresh seasonal ingredients and I love to explore what each season’s harvest has in store for me. I eagerly anticipate the arrival of apples and pomegranates in the fall and love to recreate a healthier version of my grandmother’s apple cake.
We all have unique nutritional needs. The foods that our grandmothers cooked are not always the best choices for our health or lifestyle. When preparing a meal, I try to decide what flavors and textures of food I would like to eat. I can take a cultural preference, like a bowl of chicken soup with matzo balls, and figure out how to recreate the feelings that that food gave me. A desire for a bowl of hot chicken soup, which is very comforting and soothing, can be replaced by a bowl of millet sweet vegetable soup, which has the same effect on me. I choose to cook with a variety of foods that energize me, stimulate my mind, and are enriching to my soul--All the components that my grandmother used when cooking her food.
Cooking can become a very natural thing where every day is an opportunity to explore new ideas in the kitchen. I keep with me the memories of my grandmother and her cooking even as I try new things to make mealtime interesting and experiment with different foods, herbs and spices. Cooking was then and is now still an act of love.