Any of my most cherished holiday memories are associated with food. My parents came from very different backgrounds – my mother was raised Christian, and my father was raised Jewish – and so, for me, the holidays have always been a mixture of celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, and we make food that incorporates the best of both traditions.
Luckily I got to learn the foundations of Jewish cooking from a great teacher, my Grandma Bette, my dad’s mother. So many of my cooking memories as a child involve her in one way or another. Whether she was teaching me how to shape a matzo ball or letting me know my apple pie was overspiced, Grandma always had an opinion about my cooking. Her recipes were classics from her culture, carried down from generation to generation. She would handwrite her recipes on whatever paper she could find, and many have been stained with ingredients over the years. She passed away five years ago, and now I hold her recipes even closer to me, like little mementos that remind me of her each time I cook.
Grandma was born and raised in a small Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. When she was a young girl, the people in her community didn’t have a lot of money, and many of their family members still hadn’t moved to America, so neighbors would celebrate the holidays together. Each family prepared special holiday dishes for the occasion. During this time my grandma gathered some of her favorite holiday recipes: liver, brisket, latkes, challah and more.
My grandma had such a passion for food.
Whether it was indulging when we went out to eat or spending full days cooking in her kitchen, nothing else gave her the same happiness. For as long as I can remember, every holiday it was Grandma, my mom and me in the kitchen. When Grandma came over to cook, she always strategically placed me on the counter so I wasn’t quite close enough to touch the stove. When I would inch my way over to see what she was up to, she would scold me and threaten to finish cooking without me, which would have been the worst punishment. Today, my favorite part of the holiday season is still decorating cookies with my family at the kitchen table or preparing dishes for holiday dinners for my loved ones to enjoy.
When I cooked with Grandma, my jobs were always tedious and simple, but as a kid, I just loved being included. When we made latkes, I was tasked with sitting in a chair and shaping the shredded potatoes into little balls. When we made matzo balls, my job was to sit there and form the dough into little balls. Before long, I was convinced that Jewish cooking was based around making all food into little balls – a notion my grandma quickly dismissed with her famous sass.
For the days and nights of Hanukkah, we would make different treats to celebrate the holidays. Often my sisters and I would overindulge in those little coin-shaped pieces of chocolate, called gelt, leaving behind piles of golden wrappers in our wake. Sometimes we would convince Grandma to bake with us and make mandelbrot, known as mandel bread in English-speaking countries, which is similar to biscotti. Other than eating treats and spinning the dreidel again and again, singing over the menorah as it was lit each evening is what really made Hanukkah feel special.
These days, we light the menorah after dinner, usually as the sun is setting. We turn out all the lights in the room so the menorah is the only thing illuminated. The blessing was our favorite part. The end of the blessing translates to “light the lights of Hanukkah,” and so before we sang the blessing, my father would ask us girls, “Who’s ready to light the lights?” My sister would respond “y-ight the y-ights!” Her inability to pronounce the letter “L” as a child created a tradition for our family; we still refer to the blessing as “y-ight the y-ights” today.
When I was 7 years old, my family, including Grandma, moved from the Chicago area to a town outside of Sacramento, California. We drove a southern route, 2,854 miles from Chicago to Sacramento, for about two weeks in our RV; it was late December, and my parents thought it would be a fun adventure for our family to travel across the country together.
Grandma didn’t love the idea of trekking across the country in a motor home and decided to fly and meet us in California. My family celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas in the RV that year, at a campground in New Mexico. I remember watching cartoons in Spanish before singing the blessing and lighting the menorah. This was one of the only holiday seasons we celebrated without Grandma.
My father’s family had never celebrated Christmas until my parents were married. After my oldest sister was born, my dad’s family started celebrating both holidays as a way to spend more time together.
Grandma went big for Christmas. She would playfully argue with my sisters and me that she loved the holiday more than we girls did. On Christmas morning, Mom or Grandma would make matzo brei – or matzy and eggs, as we call it. Matzy and eggs is typically scrambled eggs made with broken up pieces of matzo. Some people make it sweet with cinnamon, sugar and vanilla, but we make it savory, served with salsa or giardiniera.
Grandma also loved getting Chinese food for dinner on Christmas Day because, as she would say, “that’s what Jews do on Christmas.” In reality, I think that going out for Chinese food was something that connected her to her granddaughters and to Chicago.
My family lived in the suburbs of Chicago until I was 7, and I can clearly recall spending days in the city with Grandma. We would go shopping, play on Navy Pier or grab a meal; our favorite place was the Chinese restaurant on the first floor of Grandma’s apartment building. We would stuff our faces with General Tso’s chicken, rice and Grandma’s favorite, egg foo young, and fight over who got the best fortune cookie fortune.
Today, in her memory, I have combined my family's recipe for matzy and eggs with egg foo young – two of Grandma's favorite holiday meals – for a new Christmas tradition.
When we ate matzy and eggs, Grandma always liked to have everyone sit around the table together and eat; even if you weren’t in the mood for it, everyone had to take at least a few bites before opening presents. And you could always spot Grandma’s gifts right away. She wrapped all of our presents in blue and silver paper or quirky Hanukkah wrapping paper so you knew it was from her. But our favorite part of opening presents was watching Grandma unwrap her gifts. She was always so enthusiastic and would brag about her favorite gifts for days, so it became a bit of a competition to see who could get her the best gift. For a while, nothing could beat her “Oy to the World” holiday sweater.
One year, my parents effectively ended the competition: They bought her a record player – which now sits in my living room – and a recovered record of my late grandpa singing a song he had written for Grandma and then sung on the radio. For Grandma, the record and record player brought my grandpa back into her life. For me, the record player will forever connect us. It became our vessel for entertainment while cooking in her kitchen. We listened to our favorite records on it, bonding over our shared love for Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. And now it’s my way to play music for dinner guests and feel like Grandma’s here with me.
My grandma passed away five years ago, but I still can feel her with us on the big days in our lives: the holidays, my sister’s wedding day and even in day-to-day moments when I hear a bit of her sass coming through in my sisters (or myself). After her passing, it became difficult for my family to celebrate the holidays. It’s hard to recreate the special texture of her matzo balls. And we all feel a sting of pain at Passover because no one can quite rock the napkin-on-the-head look quite like Grandma. (During Passover, the woman of the house says the blessing and must cover her head, and many women, like Grandma, use dinner napkins.)
Last year I got the opportunity to travel to Israel. I was excited to travel to a new place, but it was the prospect of learning more about my culture and feeling a closer connection to Grandma that sold me on the trip. The experience was an extreme culture shock in many ways, but the one familiar thing was the food and its importance in Israel. My favorite places were the markets filled with incredible fruits, vegetables, seasonings, grains and, of course, the array of baked goods. Seeing the treats my grandmother loved and being in the country she always wanted to visit made me feel much more connected to her.
My trip to Israel also reignited my love for Jewish food. Seeing how many of the dishes were traditionally made inspired me to give my grandma’s recipes new life and add some of my own personality, as well. Instead of classic apple fritters, today I make apple fritter coffeecake in a Bundt pan. I also put a spin on kugel, a traditional egg noodle and pudding dish that can be made sweet or savory, by balling up the ingredients and frying them as you would Italian arancini.
Developing these personal takes on foods that connect me to my grandma and my family has been a very special experience, and I look forward to sharing these dishes – and the history of what inspired them – with loved ones for years to come.