December 18, 2003
Delicious Link to the Past
Year after year I would walk up the pathway to Grandma Gussie's apartment, passing her kitchen window on the way to the door. I would hear the clanging of spoons, chopping of potatoes and vegetables or the tea kettle whistling on her tiny stove. My senses filled with the aromas of cooking delights as I entered the door and announced myself. Grandma would come from the kitchen, always wiping her hands on her apron. She would motion for me to sit down on her plastic-covered couch as she took a seat in her orange recliner. (It was a horrible sitting experience: the plastic-covered couches made a squeaky noise when you moved, and if it was a hot day, your legs would stick.)
On this particular day the aromas that filled Grandma's home were especially strong -- it was cold outside, and the windows were closed.
"What are you cooking for me today?" I asked.
"Potato latkes" she announced. "Come, today I show you how." (English, was of course, Grandma's second language. She did learn to read and write in English, but it was still sometimes hard for her to think of certain words.)
Other families might only eat latkes during Chanukah. But Grandma made latkes whenever someone asked. Her latkes were always golden brown on the outside, and served with applesauce, sour cream, a sprinkle of sugar -- or whatever your tastebuds called for.
This recipe had been in her family for many generations. And now it was my turn to learn how to make this dish, so that I could become an expert just like her and one day pass it on to my children or grandchildren.
As I followed Grandma into the kitchen, she held out an apron for me, and with loving hands she tied the strings in a perfect bow. We stood in her kitchen -- only big enough for two people -- and I learned that she had not written the recipe down exactly. A spoonful of this, a couple of pinches of that -- and then we would taste. If it wasn't to her liking she would purse her lips together and concentrate as she added a few more pinches of one ingredient or another. Finally, when the batter was to her liking, she prepared to teach me the proper way of frying.
Grandma Gussie was a woman of opinion. When I asked her how she was feeling, she didn't say, "Fine, darling, and how are you today?" Instead, Grandma told me exactly how she was feeling. I received a rundown of how her legs and feet were today, and questions of why I didn't come and visit more often. (When I grow old I hope I remember that a young person cannot relate to the tales of arthritis or the swelling of feet from eating too much salt the day before.)
Grandma also had no problem reporting her opinions or political advice. This was a woman who had lived through religious persecution in Europe, seen the Statue of Liberty coming through Ellis Island, two World Wars, the Great Depression and life as an immigrant in the United States. Somehow through all this, Grandma and my Grandpa Abe put their three children through school and always had a warm and inviting home for family, friends and any person or animal in need.
In the tiny kitchen my Grandma and I giggled and laughed out loud as she told me stories about her life. Grandma Gussie was the youngest of 19 children -- five of these were adopted. In the city of Vilna, which was then part of Poland, my family owned the largest grocery store, and if there was a child that had no place to go my Great-Grandma Ethel (whom I am named after) would take them in.
My grandparents barely made a living. Grandpa sold shirts with slight defects from a pushcart in the streets of Manhattan. It was honest work and a specific corner served as his storefront. Of course his corner also belonged to one of the Mafia families and he paid them a nice fee for "protection from others that might want his corner."
As a boy, my father was always getting into mischief. One story that sticks out in my head is the time their refrigerator was making a loud noise. Dad was a teenager, and as teens go they always know more than their parents. Hiring a repairman was too expensive, so dad said he could fix it. Dad and his friends, George and Max, spent an entire day taking the fridge apart. When Grandma came to check on him she found the fridge turned around, every part in its glory on her kitchen floor. Yiddish and English spewed from her mouth as she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"I'll fix it, I'll fix it Ma, you'll see," he said.
Dad fixed it all right. By the end of the evening the fridge was put back together with a few "unneeded" extra parts on the floor, the loud noise had finally stopped as did the refrigerator, and yes, the repairman did indeed come over the next day to reassemble the "Icebox."
My dad also loved to torment his little sister, Marion. His favorite was putting on my Grandpa's suit jacket that was worn for Shabbat. Dad put the jacket on backward and hid in the closet. When my Aunt Marion came home from school, Dad would appear from the closet, arms straight out walking and talking like Frankenstein's monster. To this day, my Aunt doesn't like watching "Frankenstein."
Through these stories the day flew by. We laughed; we cried as we finished preparing our meal and sat down to eat. A few short minutes was all it took to consume the potato pancakes, but the memories that were made on that day have endured through the years. Learning to make latkes was more than learning to cook a dish. I discovered the woman behind the apron and a link to my past.
Ellen Press is a storyteller and writer who lives with her husband and two children in Thousand Oaks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.