Food Memory Detective Work

Given my aversion to work in the kitchen, one of my favorite parts of this project has been the work of interviewing my grandparents. And since both sides of my family have roots in Mexico City, I’ve been able to do a little sleuthing by cross checking their memories.

A few months ago, my mom’s mom, Martha, who was born in Hungary, was reminiscing about Jewish food that she used to eat in Mexico City. She had the recollection of a restaurant around Justo Sierra — a street in downtown DF (El Centro) — that her Hungarian mother, my great grandmother, used to eat at to get her fix of Eastern European food.

The only problem — she couldn’t remember anything else. Not the name of the place, not the food that was served.

So I called Dora, my dad’s mom, and amazingly, she not only knew the story of the place in question, she herself had gotten married there. Here’s the deal:

The restaurant was originally a synagogue called Nidjei Israel. The caterer and his wife were named Motele and Etel Shlejter, and they’re the very people who prepared the food for my paternal grandparents’ wedding. They made such amazing food that they eventually decided to open a restaurant on the first floor. According to my Bobe, Dora, “This woman cooked like a queen.” She made chicken soup with kreplach (dumplings) or lokshen (noodles), baked meat and chicken, cabbage borsht, kishke (stuffed tripe), carrot and plum raisin tsimmes (a dessert dish made with dried fruit). But the thing Bobe remembers most clearly is the stuffed chicken necks that Etel would cook. In the States, it’s difficult to find chickens necks with the skin still on, so bobe has never made it for us when she’s come to visit in Los Angeles, and for one reason or another, she’s never made it when we’ve been in Mexico. But she’s offered to make it the next time we ask.

The Jewish community in Mexico City was fairly small when my grandparents were young adults, so it’s not unusual to discover shared memories like this one. As we write the book, I hope to dig up many more.

(BTW, this post is an avoidance of stepping into the kitchen, as I’ve promised to do with this project. But it’s an amusing avoidance, no?)

6 responses

  1. Alex, Even if you don’t like to cook, your writing about all these memories and stories more than makes up for it! Keep sharing these wonderful stories!

  2. this is exactly why your partnership is so perfect as will the recipe book be once it is finished. If the book simply has recipes, then it is a directory or list of Jewish Mexican Food. Your contribution will make it unique and a pleasure to read. Your mother’s contribution will make it a pleasure to eat. These stories bring the neshuma into the project and makes the reader feel like that are walking through the memories of your family and their communities.

  3. The best! Love this, love this, love this!

    (I’ve personally witnessed you in the kitchen…not cooking, but you’ve been there.)

    Love, Leah

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