For thirty-five years, late November meant finding the strategy for hosting Thanksgiving dinner amidst the flurry of daily life as a working mom, wife and daughter. As I carried that mantle which had passed from my grandmother to my mother and to me, I knew that ultimately, I’d be letting go of it, as they had before me. I wanted to be graceful about the transition. My mom constantly bemoaned her stepping away from throwing the big events, even after they were too much for her physically. Eventually my parents died. My kids grew up. I retired from my job. Michael got sick and our last five years together were a rollercoaster of joyous and dark dips and rises. We got all of our last Thanksgivings under our belts, me happy to give Michael his favorite holiday, absent the conflicting feelings we had about the abuse heaped on the indigenous people who welcomed those who’d fled their countries, only to abscond with this new one. When Michael died in May, 2017, one of my first proclamations was that I was done hosting Thanksgiving, ready to pass my responsibilities to my daughter and son-in-law. I’m good with the decision. I did my share. But I’ve still hung on to my preparation notes, part of my historical record.
As the holiday approached this year, an onslaught of memories from my early Thanksgivings, when mom and grandma were in charge, inundated my daily thoughts. Most of the memories were fragrant with the aromas of the dishes which showed up annually, concoctions with their roots in Eastern Europe rather than American traditions. My current assignments include sweet potato pies, cole slaw and cranberry-mandarin orange relish. I can make those with no recipes and blindfolded. But those tasty treats weren’t what I was smelling. I was envisioning my grandmother walking into our apartment with her pink Corningware bowl, full of gefilte fish with a carrot slice across the top. I was visualizing the dark gray oven pans, the ones with lids which when removed, released the fragrance of my mom’s spicy chicken fricassee, a concoction of chicken wings, tiny peppery meatballs and little tender morsels of tangy chicken livers. We dipped slices of eggy challah into the peppery gravy in the bottom of the pan. I realized that for my family, my ultimate absence will mean the disappearance of those old recipes, brought over the ocean by my grandmother in 1920, a steerage passenger on the Rotterdam, illiterate, speaking no English, yet ready to start a new life in a new country. Fifty years after her arrival she finally became a U.S. citizen, taking her test orally as she’d never learned to read.
It’s not like I didn’t have plenty of things to do this past week. I had doctor appointments, swimming, writing, a broken car and a new puppy to train. Although our family members who’ve been part of decades of Thanksgivings are still unable to join us because of Covid issues, I have houseguests and friends converging on my space this week. Regardless of all that, I couldn’t stop feeling an urge to prepare one of the recipes that defined so much of my life. How much more time do I have when I’m able to do the challenging physical work of cooking old school? No one gets to know the answer to that question. I finally decided to make the family recipe for apple strudel. A dense dessert, not too sweet, with a fruity mixture of fresh apples, raisins and dried cherries, mixed with sugar and cinnamon, its trick is in the dough. The maximum thickness is 1/4 inch, which is then smeared with jam, spread with the fruit and rolled so it’s multi-layered. My mother’s instructions are hilarious. “Mix eggs, oil, sugar, orange juice and baking powder. Add flour until the dough feels right.” A daunting task. I decided to go for it. I kept adding flour to the wet ingredients until I got a texture that I could knead with my hands without getting bits of dough stuck to my fingers.
Next, I retrieved my mom’s old hand-held chopper from that kitchen drawer with the odds and ends. Her ancient wooden mixing bowl is always visible in my kitchen. I started chopping fruit.
When I completed preparing the strudel filling, I rolled out dough, sprinkling it with flour so it wouldn’t fall apart or get stuck to the waxed paper I was using on top of my cutting board. I got enough for five separate rolls. Getting them lifted onto greased cookie sheets without them tearing open is another tricky procedure.
My mom’s loose instructions allow for a varied oven temperature and no particular baking time. “Until the dough turns a nice golden brown color.” Ha. I slid the cookie sheets into the oven and hoped that with frequent checking, everything would turn out reasonably well. About an hour later, I pulled them all out and set one aside for taste testing. Fortunately, the flavor was familiar and quite delicious. A simple dessert, with a peasant mystique that harkens back to another time. I felt so pleased and satisfied.
Life recipes are precious bits of family history. Introducing them to those who never tasted the rich dishes of the now deceased matriarchs is a gift to me as well as from me. The afternoon’s effort is a nod to the past and the future. The sweetness of tomorrow’s dessert helps allay the sadness about all those empty places at our table. I’ll pass these recipes on to my kids and hope that when they take my spot they’ll hear the echoes of those voices from the beyond, mine included. Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate.