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The Personal Essay: Tsipi’s Tzimmes

SEPTEMBER 14, 2017 – As the leaves began to color crimson and yellow, and slowly spin to the ground in late summer breezes on the golden days, and the nip of autumn could be felt in the passing clouds and creeping, deeper-purple shadows of ever-earlier evenings, I could be certain of one of Aunt Rivka’s visits.

Rivka wasn’t actually my aunt, of course. She was just a distant, elderly relative, a wrinkled woman like a dried-out apple. She took a particular interest in me, primarily because I liked to cook. So she would bustle into our suburban home, a bit stiff and creaky after her long bus trip from the city, with her notebook full of recipes, her memories, and more than a few ghosts trailing behind her.

“Zippy!” she would call at the front door, as the taxi from the station let her off. “Zippy! Are you hungry?” I was never particularly hungry, growing up chubby in an over-stocked American kitchen, and I sometimes wondered why Rivka always asked. And I always felt weird, being called Zippy.

I was a young teenage freakster, much given to contemplative indulgence in the Grateful Dead and underground comics. I automatically associated being called Zippy with the cartoon character Zippy the Pinhead. So my cross-cultural retort would always be, “First I was making donuts, and now I’m on a bus!” We came from vastly different worlds. Neither of us really grokked the other’s cultural subtext, but we still managed to communicate. The path became clearer as we rattled the pots and pans.

People in our extended family often had two names. I had several identities assigned to me, early on. As a small child, I was under the impression that my Opa’s special nickname for me was “Oy Gevalt,” because he would bellow those words in greeting, chomping on his cigar as we would tumble chaotically into his very-ordered home.

Rivka never clearly articulated who the original Tspora was. Knowing better than to question it directly, I just came to understand that this was also somehow a name I had inherited along the way. I certainly preferred the softer “Tsipi” as a nickname, but Rivka truly enjoyed vocally sizzling that ‘z’, so it was Zippy the Pinhead she called for at the door every autumn.

Perhaps Tsipi was one of an innumerable bevy of cousins, or ever a much-younger sister. In any event, I could never ask Rivka about her directly. I knew two things about Tsipi: she never made it out of Europe, and she loved tzimmes. Perhaps it was the sibilance in the names, common and proper. But I learned to cook Tsipi’s tzimmes over the years, as Autumn brought Rivka to the door each autumn.

“It’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Rivka would intone each time we started this mystical preparation, mixing cultural metaphors as she went. We hand-cut the selected root vegetables – for Tsipi’s special tzimmes, the recipe called for yams, carrots, rutabagas and parsnips, all peeled and carefully cut into perfect circles.

“They’re coins! Golden coins!” Rivka always explained, in her annual narrative of tzimmes creation. We would assemble these round symbolic golden coins of magical root vegetables in concentric circles in a greased baking dish (“Use oil! Never butter! We don’t want to mix dairy,” Rivka would mysteriously mutter in her kashrut incantation.) She would dot these spirals with prunes, which she had carefully pre-softened in a potent blend of tap water and Manischewitz sweet concord.

Then pouring in a heady brew of orange juice, brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, and more than a little kosher wine, Rivka ritually anointed the casserole with this strong syrup. And each year, as she would carefully slide it into the hot oven, she would mutter quietly, “You know, Tsipi never had no golden coins. She never had much of anything. This was her dream, these coins. When there would be enough of everything, for everybody. When even a sweet carrot was special, for Tsipi. And she always saved a little bit, just for the one doll she had left. Always something for her doll.”

This incantation always left me flummoxed. “What was so special about carrots?” I’d think to myself. “They aren’t hard to get. They’re in every supermarket.” And then I’d consider the surfeit of expensive dolls lining my ample suburban bookshelves. “And one doll? Why in the world was she feeding carrots to her doll? Dolls don’t get hungry! And I don’t even know who Tsipi was,” continued my off-handed, unspoken thoughts.

I knew better to say these thoughts aloud, however. Instead, I would ritually end the great autumn tzimmes cooking ritual as Zippy the Pinhead, with a cartoon reference: “So, Rivka, you’re off the bus. How about we make some donuts?”

“December,” Rivka would systematically respond. “We’ll make donuts in December. Jelly donuts, in December.”

Tspora Roth is a writer, who is currently looking for a nice husband.

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