SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – I am reasonably sure that I was the only kid who ever brought peanut butter and jelly on matzoh sandwiches to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School. Pickles, too, were no stranger to my lunchbox – big, stinky, garlicky kosher pickles that we used to fish out of a funky wooden barrel at the deli. Wrapped in plastic, they would make their way into my school lunches, leaking brine and vinegar into school sandwiches made soggy, no matter how many layers of Saran wrap encased them.
Children in our family did not teethe on zwieback rusks. We all cut our gummy baby teeth on pickled herring. It was chewy, and soothing, and nutritious, after all. Pickled herring was the go-to comfort food for our entire family. At the first sign of trouble, trauma, or emergencies of any kind (real or imagined), out would come the herring on a special blue and white plate, a bone-china one of my relatives had brought over from Germany.
I can recall wading in a shallow tidal pool with my grandfather one summer morning, turbulent Atlantic waves crashing over a rocky breakwater, when I scooped up the most beautiful blue fish I’d ever seen into my little net. It was glistening blue like the outer sea, silvery on the belly, slender and narrow, thrashing as I pulled it from the brine. “It’s a herring!” crowed my grandfather. “That’s one we can eat!”
But somewhat to his disappointment, I released it immediately. It was far too beautiful for me to consider killing it, like a fast-moving electric blue arrow of a fish. I could not equate this graceful living thing with the grey fish fillets choked by onions in a jar. I wanted it to live. It took me a couple of months to get back to eating herring after that; and even then, I had to be tempted by my Aunt Rivka’s chopped herring, on an irresistibly fresh poppy seed bagel.
Showing early promise as a prize-winning baker in my suburban Brownie troop, my maiden aunt took an interest in me, bringing her big handwritten cookbook with her each time she came to visit from her city apartment. Aunt Rivka (my elderly great-aunt, actually) kept it as a living journal, writing out the recipes she could recall from the OId Country as special occasions brought them to mind. It was a simple loose-leaf binder, filled with yellowing lined paper covered by her spidery scrawl. These recipes were often annotated with the names of long-gone relatives I’d never met, whose names were rarely spoken aloud; although occasionally mentioned quietly after a funeral, as part of the recitation of our ancestors “lost in the war.”
I knew better than to ask about them directly. However, I found that I would learn a bit about each of these long-lost women every time my aunt and I would prepare one of the recipes together – which seemed to be her primary purpose in travelling to the suburbs as she grew older, and bus travel from the city became more laborious for her. Despite her growing confusion and the creaking pain of arthritis, Rivka was determined that I should learn these recipes, and learn them well, as her chosen spiritual inheritor and memory-keeper.
As I had already received recognition as a baker (and had the Scouting merit badge to prove it), we started with challah. The braiding of the bread was of tremendous importance to my spinster great-aunt. A challah could take many forms; but her ultimate favorite was the “crown bread.” As an ostensibly Catholic schoolgirl, the significance was lost on me, but I did understand that we would typically start to make the special round loaves every Indian summer, once the weather had cooled, so I sensed this challah had something to do with the coming of fall. Around this time, we’d also bake lekach, the fragrant honey-cake, in which Rivka’s special secret ingredient was strongly-brewed coffee. The hand-written recipes in the old notebook were often greasy from shortening, and took on fresh layers of flour with my use of them; and I accidentally splashed the lekach recipe with the coffee. But Rivka never seemed to mind.
I studied cooking under my great-aunt’s tutelage well into my teenage years. With each treasured family recipe came a story; sometimes about a person, often about an event or a particular place. I memorized the recipes (and most of the stories) by rote. Rivka moved into a distant nursing home, and we rarely saw her. Once my grandparents’ faithful maid Dora (from the Old Country) had passed on, and this shortly after the passing of my grandmother, I became the cook of choice for family events, because I was the only person young enough to physically be able to do the catering who had any idea of the ingredients and techniques involved.
As I left home at 17, and then went on to college, I lost touch with my Aunt Rivka. When she passed away during my junior year, I did not find out about it until a couple of weeks after the fact. Dead and buried without my knowledge, my first question about her passing was the whereabouts of that food-spattered, well-worn cookbook.
Nobody knew. “She didn’t leave much,” I was told. “The nursing home disposed of her personal effects.” The cookbook was gone. I cried for hours, bitter tears. But over time, as I digested my sense of grief and pondered my aunt’s legacy, I came to realize that Rivka’s recipes were alive and well, and living in me.
Tspora Brenner is a writer and music producer.