In Defense of Mama
To the Editor:
Mr. Harry Gersh’s article in your October issue, indicting Jewish cooking, is so obviously based on the flimsy experience of his own mama’s cooking that even a tyro in Jewish cookery could easily discern its limitations. His dissertation in a five-page article definitely indicates that he and “his friends” were totally unfamiliar with and completely ignorant of some of the most important Jewish dishes that decorated the table of the average Jewish household at the turn of the century.
True, as he points out, the Jewish housewife was greatly handicapped in the preparation of meals by the kashruth laws, which prevented her from making some of the more fancy hors d’oeuvres or more attractive desserts. Nevertheless, from time immemorial she ingeniously evolved dishes that were just as attractive and palatable, and succeeded in combining various food ingredients so that they ultimately assumed a uniquely Jewish character.
I truly sympathize with Mr. Gersh. His ma was apparently totally unacquainted with the many special dishes and delicacies which the average Jewish housewife prepared, especially for the Sabbath and holidays. His description of ma’s cooking reminds me of the Yiddish doggerel: “Zuntag, bulbes; Montag, bulbes,”etc.
Mr. Gersh points to lekach as his mother’s greatest accomplishment in the Jewish culinary art.
What about the classical chicken soup with lokshen or knedlach, which when properly prepared and seasoned is still an unsurpassable soup? And how about the unforgettable potato latkes, baked with chicken or goose fat, but usually served with pot roast, which somehow cannot be duplicated in even the best of restaurants? Or that characteristically Jewish dish called tsimes, made of turnips, carrots, and prunes stewed in a clay pot, to which small chunks of fat beef are added, and served on Friday night supplementary to the main dish. What about the potato kugel, with or without raisins, usually served for the Saturday mid-day meal? Or the taigiechts, made of flat lokshen, mixed with a small quantity of cheese or raisins, and allowed to bake until a thick brown crust forms, really a delightful and nourishing dish—if properly prepared and seasoned. And chopped onion, eggs, and chicken fat is not a bad dish to start a meal with. Surely, stuffed goose neck is a delectable dish. How about teiglach, those little crisp rolls mashed and baked in honey? No one will deny that the chalah twist that ma prepared was delicious bread. Nor can the torte, the kuchlech, and the chremselech be dismissed lightly. Last, but not least, there is the renowned gefilte fish, which by this time has almost become an international dish; and surely the classical tshulent the orthodox Jewish housewife prepared for Saturday meals, required a proper understanding of the fine art of cooking to make it so attractive and wholesome.
No, Mr. Gersh, your verdict about Jewish cooking would not be upheld by a jury of Jewish housewives, composed of many other ma’s and their friends whom I have had the good fortune to know. Even Mazie, our cook, who in the course of twenty years has learned to prepare some of the more typical Jewish dishes, will not concur with your “minority report.”
A. J. Rongy
New York City
To the Editor:
I could understand violent disagreements among Jewish people—be they in theological, sociological, or political fields. But culinary apostasy leaves me in a murderous mood, especially when sins of omission and commission are committed in the process of libelling Ma. Notable examples follow:
According to Mr. Gersh, mittelchuck has vanished completely into the recesses of obsolescence and has become as extinct as dinosaur steak. Where, oh where, are you hiding—or dining? Have you ever heard of boiled beef? I use the term “heard” advisedly, for whereas Ma used to serve it in its pure and pristine state, it now is forwarded to you under a layer of a thick white monstrosity called “hot horseradish sauce,” rendering it impossible to see what you are eating unless the surface is thoroughly scrubbed. If you don’t believe that, go ye, Harry, to the finest rotisserie; seek and ye shall find. Don’t tell me Ma never served pirogen or blintzes. .I am positive that whereas the word “derma” was unknown to you, you licked your fingers every time Ma gave you a piece of kishka. .You certainly didn’t hold your snobbish nose in the air when Ma placed a slice of stuffed chicken neck on your plate. Of course, on Simchas Torah you never, never tasted holopches, cabbage stuffed with rice, meat, and raisins. And the taste of the potato kugel or noodle kugel that prompted delirious requests for additional portions when Ma served them must have been obliterated by now by some effete dish.
You never got tshulent—and by now, you have forgotten all the chicaneries, devices, and schemes concocted to wheedle one more lotke (potato pancake to you) from Ma.
No, the trouble wasn’t Ma’s. It was and is definitely yours! Most of us have disdained and discarded that adolescence which prompted us to come back to Delancey Street boasting of miraculous culinary discoveries in Little China or Little Italy; you remain a prisoner of your infantilism. We proclaim to the world that we have returned to Ma’s cooking. Not only that, but in the process of returning, have brought with us hordes of converts. If you don’t believe this, Harry, just take a stroll down Broadway and gaze at the menu in Lindy’s.
New York City