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?)

Feeding 30 people (or, an ode to my Mom)

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into my parents’ house on a Wednesday evening. My Mom was in the thick of Shabbat prep — she’d just finished up a plate of nockedli (Hungarian dumplings) and was moving on to kosher paella.

A typical sight

30 people were invited and my job was help with the seating arrangements.

Why was that my role?

Because I hate to cook. There’s not much to it — it’s just an activity that’s never interested me. What does interest me, however, is being fed and hosted.

If you love to eat, is it hypocritical to hate cooking? I’ve struggled with some guilt about that over the years and helping with other tasks has been my way of trying to compensate.

The dining room before

Let’s not kid ourselves, though: I’m doing nothing compared to her. Over the years, my Mom has spent an unfathomable amount of time nourishing her family and entertaining friends. All I’ve done is help with chairs and flowers.

The dining room after

When we decided to start on this project, I thought I’d have to hide my dislike for cooking. But then I figured there were other people in the same boat — people who hated cooking, but admired cooks in their lives, and cherished moments and memories those cooks had facilitated. So I decided to try and incorporate that perspective into the book.

Credit for smiles: THE FOOD

By writing this book, I just may convert to the cooking religion, too. The payoff, of course, will be the ability to create moments and memories for others the way my Mom has for us. So the odds are good.