When I was little, my grandmother spent hours in our kitchen, not in hers. She’d come through the door, grocery bags in hand, mumbling words I didn’t understand under her breath—I’d catch a snippet of my grandfather’s name and “Steelers,” before she pressed on a smile and asked me to unpack the groceries. I’d sit on one of our hard wooden chairs, my feet tucked under me, the way my mom hated—she swore it would ruin my knees when I grew up—and watch my grandmother mix things with her hands.
“There’s no need for those fancy machines,” Bubbe would say. “Why waste money on that when you have two good mixers right here?” She’d hold up her hands covered in flour and eggs, ground beef, or olive oil and herbs. Her dark curls bounced off her forehead in protest of the oven, which simply added to the Florida heat.
“You know, Sussie,” she said once, in the middle of making my favorite dinner, “your mom makes the best mandel bread I’ve ever had— perfectly double baked, like the best biscotti with those mini chocolate chips. It’s amazing since she’s a shiksa.” I listened to the word slip out of her mouth, sounding nothing like the English I was raised to speak. Bubbe’s words were always peppered with Yiddish phrases, passed on from her parents who immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe. I didn’t know much about my great-grandparents, just that they moved from Lithuania to Pittsburgh before the Holocaust, never learned English, and taught Bubbe to cook.
“Shiksa?” I asked, barely able to see over the counter top, much less help my grandmother with any of the preparation.
“That just means she’s not Jewish,” she added. I knew that. My mom took us to church every Sunday morning—my brother and I had to get dressed up and sit through mass while my dad stayed home and slept in late. He always had breakfast ready by the time we got home. All the kids at church said it was weird that my brother and I weren’t baptized and had to go to church anyway. I told my mom that once, and all she said was that we would be baptized soon.
I watched as my grandmother prepared my favorite dish, aptly referred to as “little meatballs” due to the size of the main soup ingredient. She rolled small balls out of ground beef and plopped them into a large pot with cut up carrots and celery. “Why don’t you bring a chair over here and help me?” Her dark eyes watched as I pulled one of the table chairs over to the counter and crawled on top. “Look, Grandma,” I laughed, “I’m taller than you, now.”
“Don’t worry about that, kitzile, you’ll be taller than me soon.” Kitzile was another one of her Yiddish words—a pet name that I never quite understood. “Now make yourself useful and roll some meatballs. We have a lot of people to feed tonight and this is only the main course. We still have to make deviled eggs and some dips for appetizers and baklava for dessert.”
I stood there rolling meatballs about the size a golf ball to go in the soup. The kitchen already smelled like garlic and sweet onions, and we’d barely started cooking. I watched as my grandmother gathered ingredients for the baklava, pulling the fresh handmade filo dough from the fridge, and pistachios, walnuts, and honey from the pantry.
“Don’t you need a recipe?” I asked. “My mom always has a
“Kitzile, recipes aren’t the important part of cooking. Flavor is. Fun
is. Not the directions. We get enough people telling us what to do in our lives; we don’t need it in the kitchen, too.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of our history and our people,” my grandmother shared, pouring honey and pistachios onto the pastry. “Remember, Jewish people have had our share of hard times, and sometimes it feels like they just get harder,” her voice was low, almost a whisper. Even as a child, I knew I was missing something, but couldn’t figure out what. She paused to give me a quick smile, “But, sure, we’ll go with teachers.”