The venerable Polish bar in Pittsburgh will close for good after Saturday night after nearly 32 years.
"I'm proud of you, Mom. You didn't try to stop me. Usually when I say I'm going to make a kugel, you tell me we don't need it." Ram sat at the kitchen table, chose a potato from the pile in front of him and began to peel it with practiced strokes.
I turned from the sink to smile at him. I finished washing the carrot and stalk of celery and put them in the pot with the turkey giblets. He was right. Usually I do say potato pudding's too heavy an addition to the holiday meal. I realized that this time I hadn't even thought it. Maybe because of the special effort he'd made to come for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, driving the turnpike across Pennsylvania with his pregnant wife. And he'd made it clear how much he was looking forward to our traditional dinner. I had floated the idea of a different menu in a phone call earlier in the week. "What about salmon for a change?" I said. "It's lighter and we wouldn't have to fuss so much."
"Are you kidding?" he said, "I've looked forward to turkey for months. When do I have turkey -- with just the two of us, and Rachel a vegetarian? And I never get a chance to make a kugel."
I didn't argue. As we'd turned away from red meat, turkey had become our holiday staple. In addition to Thanksgiving, we had it for Rosh Hashana and Passover. I was tired of the familiar menu. But Ram hadn't been home for a holiday in over a year. And he was our Mr. Nostalgia; tradition meant a lot to him. So, we'd do the whole thing. We'd start the meal with homemade challah and apple slices dipped in honey to ensure a sweet year. Chicken soup with matzo balls would follow. Then, the turkey and its accompaniments: gravy and stuffing made of rolls that had been ripped-up and left to dry for a few days. In recent years, I'd added lighter dishes -- a big green salad with vinaigrette dressing and steamed broccoli or zucchini.
In a way, I think, Ram missed our traditional exchange -- his insisting on a kugel and my pointing out that we certainly didn't need any more starches, or, if we did, that simple roast potatoes would do. But I guess I'd come to accept that homemade potato pudding was more than a favorite food to Ram. I'd even gone out a few days before to buy the 5 pounds of potatoes I knew he needed.
Kugel had been a speciality of Grandma Adeline, my husband's mother. Ram got to know her when we moved to Pittsburgh when he was 10. Before, we had lived far from relatives, mostly abroad, and visits with family were years apart. Having watched other children with their grandparents all their lives, Ram and his brother reveled in having their own. Grandma and Grandpa's house became a haven for Ram and his brother as they slowly found their way in the new country and culture. And the grandparents blossomed with the newfound pleasure of grandchildren. Grandpa was easy in his love, but Adeline could be prickly. "Get atta here!" she'd say, motioning away a grandson who surprised her with a hug and exclamation of "I love you, Grandma." But the boys learned to read her, knew the depth of feeling beneath the rough exterior.
Adeline's Friday night Shabbos dinners were the highlight of her week. She prided herself on making great quantities of the Hungarian-Jewish dishes she had learned from her mother: paprikash, goulash, stuffed cabbage, stuffed veal breast, breaded veal chops, roast chicken. These were main dishes -- at least two were prepared each week. They followed chopped liver and chicken soup with noodles in the Friday lineup. Last came dessert, which might be apple pie from the supermarket, bread pudding made from stale challah, or cherry Jell-O with banana slices topped with Cool Whip. Adeline spent all day on the meal -- getting up early to start the soup, having cleaned the chickens the night before. Friday nights she often came to the table in a housedress over a nightgown, not having taken time to dress. Each week, the boys stuffed themselves, imbibing food and love in equal measure. They ended the meal clutching their stomachs, groaning happily that they were about to burst.
Away from home at college, Ram was determined to make kugel himself. On visits, he watched and worked with Adeline, writing down her recipe. He tinkered with it, added more potatoes and an onion, experimented with oven times and temperatures. After Adeline died, three years after he graduated, making kugel took on additional meaning. The dish become Ram's tour de force. He made it for special occasions and for special people. He wooed his wife-to-be and her family with kugel, baking it in their kitchen one Rosh Hashana and serving it to their delighted guests. Ram had high standards. Each time he made kugel, he aimed for perfection -- a crisp, deeply browned crust, a moist creamy center. He fussed over and babied it, was merciless in his appraisal of the results. He was upset if a kugel fell short, if he judged it too dry or lacking salt. His audience was more forgiving. His father and grandfather, mad for kugel, appreciated any effort and happily dug in. His wife enjoyed having a traditional dish a vegetarian could consume.
That Rosh Hashana, Ram came to the table bearing his platter of kugel. I knew he had not been able to resist digging out samples as soon as it was out of the oven, tasting it and pressing hot chunks on a select few -- his brother, his grandpa. The rest he cut into rectangles. Unlike the meal's other dishes, placed on the table to be passed around, the kugel was personally served. Ram walked around the table, asked each person how much kugel he or she wanted, selected the perfect piece and placed it on the proffered plate. He grinned at the happy pronouncements -- "You've done it again, Ram!" "Delicious!" "A really good one!" Amazing amounts of kugel disappeared. The aficionados -- the three generations of males at the table -- ate at least three pieces. Rachel, a light eater, enjoyed two. At the end of the meal, the leftover pieces of kugel were carefully gathered and wrapped. Some reached the next night's dinner table; most were eaten, cold or briefly microwaved, throughout the day.
That year I knew Ram was happy. His work -- the peeling, the hand grating of potatoes and onion, the stirring and mixing, the consideration of the right amounts of flour, egg, salt and oil, the careful watch at the oven door -- had been worth it. Once again, we exclaimed in delight and stuffed ourselves at Rosh Hashana, held our bellies and complained that we'd eaten too much when done.
Ram's Secret Kugel Recipe
A few years ago, I asked Ram for his recipe for kugel. It had an ingredient that I hadn't seen before. "Paprika in kugel? Did Grandma put paprika in kugel?"
"No," he said. "But I always put in a pinch. To honor Grandma and her style of cooking."
-- Elizabeth Boltson Gordon
- 5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
- 2 medium onions
- 2 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Dash paprika (optional)
- 4 eggs
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 4 tablespoons canola oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees.Peel and grate potatoes, preferably by hand.
Drain almost all the liquid from the potatoes using a ladle or strainer.
Grate onions (can use food processor) and add to potatoes.
Add salt, pepper and paprika. Mix should taste slightly salty when raw.
Lightly beat eggs and stir into mixture. Add flour and stir into mixture.
Pour oil into a 13-by-9-inch pan and place pan in preheated oven. When oil is hot, take out pan, remove half of the hot oil (about 2 tablespoons) and stir into kugel mixture. Pour kugel mixture into pan and place in oven. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and cook until top is golden brown, about 31/2 hours.
Cut into 3-inch squares and serve. Enjoy in good health!
-- Adeline Mallinger Gordon and Ram Gordon
Elizabeth Boltson Gordon is a writer in Point Breeze: firstname.lastname@example.org.