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The Personal Essay: The kugel of your dreams

OCTOBER 5, 2017 – I never saw anyone in our family set foot in a synagogue. But for that matter, I didn’t exactly observe my grandparents going to church, either.

I went to church. It was mandatory. On certain school days at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (or “Our Lady of Perpetual Motion,” as we schoolyard wags secretly called it), church attendance was rigorously enforced.

The nuns would clip paper doilies to the tops of our heads with black plastic barrettes, and off we’d march, two by two with the other girls from other grades, heading into Mass for whatever holy day of obligation was under observance.

I enjoyed any opportunity to get out of the classroom, and found the echoing Latin-chanted holiday services exotic; but I never questioned the process. Daydreaming, I watched the altar boys swirl golden incense censers in great fragrant arcs, sending blue smoke signals drifting heavenwards, beyond the stained glass and painted clouds. It was better than math class, at any rate.

Thus, Yom Kippur was a complete non sequitur for a Catholic schoolgirl. I didn’t know what it actually was, much less comprehend any deeper meaning. It seemed like a serious abstraction. I knew it wasn’t a fun holiday. I asked my mom about it, once or twice. “It’s like Good Friday,” she’d say, tight-lipped, and quickly change the subject. I understood not to ask too many questions.

So I don’t know for sure how Yom Kippur itself was observed (or not) in my grandparents’ home, that Victorian museum of a house ruled by strict European traditions and the dark shadows of untold secrets.

I do know about an important annual culinary event, pre-and post-Yom Kippur, which held vast significance in our extended family circle. As with so many landmark food occasions, our stoic, Yiddish-muttering housemaid Dora was the center of the action, her tiny bird-like frame flitting about my grandmother’s yellow and white kitchen, her wrinkled hands expertly wielding magic that only she could manifest.

“It’s the kugel of your dreams!” my grandmother would whisper, as Dora would commence the artful process of making lokshen noodles by hand. Looking back, I now understand that this process took place the day before Yom Kippur. Dora and my grandmother would spend the entire day sweating in the kitchen, orchestrating an ornate milchik feast. Dish after dish was pre-prepared, and then wrapped in impenetrable layers of crinkling aluminium foil, until the big old rattling Philco fridge was full of heavy silver bricks, all crammed in sideways.

Dora’s kugel commanded the biggest of the prized Pyrex baking dishes. The basic building block was fresh lokshen (in itself, a prized delicacy). Starting with freshly beaten eggs, a little melted butter, pinches of salt, and special soft flour cranked through an ancient hand-held sifter (which was my trusted job), Dora would pool the golden liquid into the fluffy wheaten mountains, pull the dough by hand, and then roll it out ever-so-thinly onto a flour-dusted marble board with her rolling pin. Her old strop-sharpened knife would snip-snap long diamond-edged rhombus ribbons of noodles out of the flattened dough, which she’d drop strand by strand into gently bubbling boiling salty water in the big tin pot.

On most other occasions, at different times of year, the lokshen noodles would be served simple and fresh, al dente even; in chicken soup, or tossed with creamery butter and poppy seeds, or (best of all), topped with a selection of wild mushrooms (painstakingly gathered by Dora from who-knows-where in the nearby woods) braised in sour cream and garlic, with a light dusting of finely chopped parsley, drifting like fresh-tasting green snow over the top of the mushroom mountains. Lokshen was always a treat. I never once saw Dora open a packet of plastic-wrapped dry noodles from the supermarket. I don’t think it was in her old-country culinary vocabulary.

But on the day before the strange holiday that nobody liked to talk about, the kugel of our dreams would slowly take form. Like an obscure middle-European lasagne, Dora would deftly layer rivers of melted butter, and her fresh lokshen laid lengthwise; alternated with plump wine-soaked raisins spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, frothy beaten eggs, sour cream, dollops of honey, and quark or thin-curd cottage cheese that came from the old-world deli wrapped in soggy white paper, tied with string.

Sometimes, in a nod to the New World, Dora would wink at me and stream some maple syrup (out of a brown ceramic jug) between the many layers. Into the sizzling oven it would slide, accompanied by many other dishes, rising loaves of challah, and sweet cakes.

And then, we wouldn’t eat it. We only ever had cold leftovers for lunch on those days of feverish preparation. The dream kugel would cool on the counter-top, shrouded in foil like everything else from the kitchen that day, and find its way into the Philco. My mother would take me home in the afternoon, and my part in the ritual would be done.

I’m guessing my grandparents fasted, that evening and the next day. Perhaps my parents did, but it wasn’t a topic open for discussion. For me, it was always just an ordinary school day, with homework and peanut butter sandwiches and kickball at recess.

But after sunset fell, that following day, the whole extended clan would re-converge from many directions, stomachs audibly rumbling, around my grandparents’ lace-laid table for the strange evening break-fast meal. Dora would busy herself in the kitchen.

With the polished silverware gleaming by candlelight, the wine would be poured, toasts made, and then in would march tiny Dora, all 4-foot something of her standing proud in her best starched apron, beaming as she bore the lovingly rewarmed kugel of all our dreams to the bosom of the family.

Tspora Roth is a writer who knows how to cook. Email her at cornmother@outlook.com.

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