Celebrating daughters on the 7th night of Chanukah
Top ten (prose) posts of 2011

Recapturing a family tradition

Roast goose with knedliky.

Many years ago, when my grandparents Isaac and Alice ("Eppie" and "Lali") were still living, their children hired an oral historian to take down their life stories. We have hours of recorded audio (and also a beautiful hardbound transcript, which sets out their stories in print accompanied by photographs.) It's an incredible treasure.

One of the questions the oral historian asked had to do with memories of holidays and food. It's a resonant subject: what do you remember being cooked, in your household, as the major holidays rolled around? For me that list would include the cornish hens and honeyed carrots we used to eat at Lali and Eppie's house at Rosh Hashanah, my mother's kreplach (and her blintzes for break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur) -- and her mango mousse (and also cornbread dressing) at Thanksgiving -- and her "chicken Leslie" with artichoke hearts and mushrooms at Pesach.

When the oral historian interviewed them, my grandfather recounted all sorts of culinary holiday memories from Russia. Even outside the oral history context, he used to love to tell stories. About cheder, about accompanying a fellow villager to the market to sell eggs, about learning Latin in gymnasium. And, yes, about food; he was the cook in their family, and food always comes with stories. So he had plenty of stories to tell when the oral historian came to call.

My grandmother, much to my surprise, told the oral historian about eating roast goose (and sometimes carp with a sweet sauce) on Christmas Eve, alongside their tree decked with chocolates wrapped in colored foil. This was in Prague in the 1920s, well before the second World War changed the face of Europe (and drove my grandparents, and their young daughter, to flee in 1939.) My grandfather told endless stories about his smalltown Russian Jewish upbringing; my grandmother was more reticent in general, and didn't talk much (to me, anyway) about growing up as a "kind of Reform" Jew in Prague. The oral history offers me tantalizing glimpses; I wish now that I had asked more questions while she was alive.

This winter, Saveur magazine, to which Ethan and I have subscribed for years, offered a recipe (designed to be prepared on Christmas Eve) for roast goose with chestnut stuffing. "Goose," I said; "I think that's what my grandmother said she used to eat on Christmas Eve as a girl in Prague!" I couldn't resist the prospect of trying to walk, just a little bit, in her culinary footsteps.

So we ordered a goose from Guido's, though we gulped a bit when we discovered how much a 12-lb goose cost. (I suppose the expense just makes the whole thing seem more Dickensian.) Ethan prepared it according to Saveur's recipe. We decided to go Czech with our side dishes, in homage to my grandmother's childhood memories, so we made made zely -- red cabbage spiced with carroway seeds; we also flavored ours with cider vinegar, allspice, and juniper berries -- and knedliky, the Czech bread dumplings my grandfather used to make which were a major part of my childhood foodscape. I helped Ethan form the knedliky, which we boiled wrapped in cheesecloth and then sliced, as is customary, with string.

And on December 24th, after lighting Chanukah candles, we sat down for a festive meal with my in-laws and some close friends of ours (and their kids). Drew, predictably, didn't eat a bite of goose (right now he's emphatically not interested in foods he doesn't already know) -- but we did, and it was delicious, dark and full of flavor. The wild-rice stuffing was fantastic. The knedliky reminded me of childhood. The zely reminded me of visiting Prague. And despite the one broken goblet, and the occasional toddler scuffles over sharing toys, it was a lovely evening -- and while this was probably a far less formal Christmas Eve dinner than the ones my Czech grandmother remembered, it was a wonderful way for me to remember her.