The Persistence of Recipes
Family food traditions are passed down on grease-stained index cards and YouTube.
Nearly every family has at least one kitchen secret. Maybe Mom and Dad ordered takeout seven nights a week, but the trick was knowing what to order where and when. More likely, there was a sacred recipe for rice pudding, or chana dal, or stuffed cabbage. The little variations in ingredients and technique are what make your grandmother’s chicken soup uniquely hers—and are also what lead to lively spousal debates about whose grandmother had it right.
Any attempt to replicate the one of these dishes without years of careful observation is often doomed to failure, because the many of the recipes cannot be reduced to precise measurements and times. Clemenza’s sauce recipe from”The Godfather” is about as vague as it gets, calling for “a little bit of oil” and “some tomatoes” followed by a directive to “shove in all your sausage and your meatballs.” But the really important part of the recipe comes before Clemenza even mentions the oil: “Come over here, kid. Learn something. You never know—you might have to cook for twenty guys some day.”
Twenty guys was nothing to my maternal grandfather, who learned to cook for a crowd when he joined the U.S. Army during World War II. Though he made his living as a butcher after the war, Grandpa also went on to cater parties and dinners for friends. I remember cooking alongside him when I was a child, but I rarely—if ever—noticed him measuring anything. This is largely how I gained the confidence to cook by intuition, fiddling with ingredients and techniques until the dish looks and tastes right. Make the same thing enough times and eventually you will get consistent results—and if it’s not exactly the same as last time, who cares?
Grandpa also liked to demonstrate simple ways to present food attractively: a bed of lettuce under a composed salad, cheesecake sliced cleanly with a hot knife, stuffed cabbage rolled so tightly it could hold its shape through three plate transfers. His recipe for a mashed avocado-and-egg spread may not have included exact quantities, but it contained instructions to serve the dip in hollowed-out avocado shells. A note scrawled at the bottom advised, “If the top turns brown, stir around before serving so it looks green again.”
I spent most of my life assuming that everybody thought as highly of Grandpa’s cooking as I did. Of course, I was mistaken. Reminiscing with my great-aunt last year, she conceded that her brother-in-law was an accomplished cook, but—and here you must imagine her conspiratorial whisper—his food was always so salty!
Salty food or no, I regret not having more of his recipes and advice. There are countless details I wish I knew concerning dishes I never thought twice about when he was alive. For example, that same great-aunt speculates that he used tomatoes in his chicken soup, but she can’t recall whether it was a dollop of canned paste or a cupful of puree. By the time I was old enough to keep track of what was going on in the kitchen, he was taking shortcuts with bouillon cubes instead.
Luckily, there are other grandparents out there who are willing to divulge their family secrets. Five years ago, Avrom Honig set out to make a demo video to aid in his job search, and he convinced his bubbe (Yiddish for “grandmother”) to stage a cooking demonstration entitled “Feed Me, Bubbe.” After the video attracted a wide audience, Avrom produced another episode, and another. The online show took off and “Bubbe”—she never reveals her real name—became everyone’s kitchen grandmother.
Bubbe moves about her kitchen with a comfortable familiarity and cushions her instructions with gentle encouragement.
“Everyone needs an easy beginning…and eventually they will develop their own tastes and style of cooking,” Bubbe told me. “Once someone gets the spark from starting to cook they can’t help but want to learn more.”
Bubbe also seems to subtly reassure her audience that imperfection is okay. Who can resist a teacher who dishes out noodle kugel only to turn away from the camera as she remembers that she needs forks to go with it? Any overwhelmed novice chef would be comforted to hear Bubbe introduce her lesson on cheese blintzes with: “I got a little lazy the last several years and I bought frozen blintzes. And they’re not bad.”
After recording a few dozen episodes, not to mention several endorsements and media appearances, Bubbe and Avrom released a cookbook earlier this year. With extensive narratives and each recipe laid out in a conversational style, the book reflects Bubbe’s reassuring online personality.
If, like so many other viewers, you are determined to adopt Bubbe as your own, you may have your chance this weekend. Avrom and Bubbe will be at the Brookline Booksmith on Sunday afternoon. If you can’t take Bubbe home with you, at least you can bring home her signed cookbook.
And if you don’t have your own family recipes to learn and make your own, you will always have hers.
About this column: A bi-weekly exploration of eating seasonally, locally and mindfully. Look for the Bounty Hunter every other Friday on Brookline Patch.