Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming to America with Poppy Seed Cookies

Lina & sweet Izzy, circa 1914
Where my mom was raised, in the tiny apartment on South 2nd Street in  Brooklyn, the kitchen served as culinary school for mastering the art of our heirloom family recipes.  She had a permanent front row seat in the classroom in her mother’s kitchen because her bed, a cot really, was located next to the stove.  That kitchen was the first place in America where our culinary family history was carried forward, one recipe at a time.

There were no notes, no recipe cards, but there was a teacher and a willing pupil, usually covered in flour, speaking Romanian mixed with Yiddish at first, and then finally English.  Undoubtedly some information was lost in translation, but each recipe has survived well over 150 years looking remarkably the same. 

But those heirloom recipes had a long journey to get to where they are today. 

Leaving behind family, friends and their home, four of a dozen siblings crossed the European continent on foot one hundred and ten years ago.  During the great emigration from Moldavia in Romania in 1899-1900 they sought freedom from the overwhelming oppression of merely being Jews. Carrying only a few possessions that included precious woodworking and dressmaking tools, a couple of family heirlooms and photos, they walked alongside thousands of other Jews to Hamburg.  Almost accidental Americans, they had an opportunity to emigrate to a host of countries, but because a distant cousin in the United States offered sponsorship, they finally boarded a ship sailing to New York Harbor. 

Arriving in America, the siblings honored their new home by swiftly assimilating.  Moise became Moses.  Rosa became Rose.  Marim became Mary and Lienor became Lina.  Moses became a successful carpenter and with his new young wife, raised two boys in Manhattan, whose educations would never have come to pass in their old homeland because in Romania the law didn’t allow Jews to attend school or pursue higher education. 
Rose and Mary opened a dressmaking business in New York that specialized in copying couture.  They were enormously popular and specialized in creating one-of-kind wedding dresses.  Lina, the youngest sister, married a man who had emigrated from the same region of Romania.   Lina and sweet Izzy, as he was known, made their home in Brooklyn where they raised my mother and her brother. 

Lina and Izzy’s was the place where friends and family gathered for Shabbat dinner.  Lina spent the entire day cleaning, cooking and baking and followed the admirable European method of preparation – where every single morsel of food was used.  Chicken parts would turn into savory broth.  Extra vegetables and herbs would go into the soup pot.  A leftover potato might be the beginning of a knish.  The dried fruit would be split into portions for both tzimmes and strudel.  Chicken fat would be used to make gribenes (fried chicken skin).  Nothing was wasted or allowed to be wasted.  Food was expensive and precious and even after decades of living in America they never forgot what it felt like to be hungry. 

Because I lost my mom nearly at the beginning of my mentoring, I had only a partial concept of how to prepare those recipes.  Fortunately while she was alive, my mother, who was a gifted letter writer, often wrote down those top-dog secret recipes for distant cousins though she never saved copies.  And years later with a simple twist of fate when I was researching our ancestry, I was able to locate some of those distant cousins and reclaim some of the recipes that were almost lost to me.

I never met my grandmother, and I had very little time with my mother; finding my distant cousins who actually ate dinner in my grandmother’s kitchen and could tell me family stories was like finding a treasured heirloom hidden in the attic, long forgotten. 

I can still see one very special cousin, sitting across from me the day we met more than fifteen years ago, painstakingly writing down the poppy seed cookie recipe on a card for me.  From memory, she spoke aloud in a soft voice recalling the ingredients and preparation, carefully documenting all of it. 

I don't need the card these days to make the cookies, but I have it safely tucked away as a reminder to continue archiving all those recipes for the next generation.  Sometimes when I make the poppy seed cookies I imagine my grandmother standing in her mother's kitchen, over a hundred years ago in old Romania, carefully memorizing exactly the same movements I am doing.  Perhaps not exactly, since I can't help myself - this recipe is modified just a bit for a little extra kick, and can be prepared gluten free.
Culinary ancestry; it's almost better than 100 year old photographs.
Lina’s Poppy Seed Cookies
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ¾ heaping cup of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 heaping tablespoons poppy seeds
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups of almond flour
  • 1 cup regular or gluten free flour (add pinch xanthan gum for gluten free)
Preheat oven to 375.
Mix flour, baking powder in one bowl.  Set aside.  In larger bowl mix  egg, oil, sugar, poppy seeds, lemon zest and almond flavoring.  Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well. Pinch off small pieces and roll into balls (add a little more almond flour if necessary) about a half inch big.  Place on silpat lined cookie sheets.  Flatten with your hand or use the back of a spoon.  Let set for about 30 minutes.  Bake 8 minutes and rotate cookie sheets.  Bake about 8 minutes more or until lightly brown.  Cool.  Makes several dozen cookies.

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