Generation to generation A taste of tradition comes from the kitchen, as Jewish families prepare to celebrate the New Year with Rosh Hashana foods beloved by their ancestors.

September 24, 1997|By Beverly Levitt | Beverly Levitt,Special to The Sun

When I was a child, too young to understand about Rosh Hashaha and the Day of Atonement, my only clue that the High Holidays were coming were the smells wafting out of our kitchen.

My parents were first-generation Americans, their parents born and raised in the Jewish ghettos of Russia and Poland, in cities whose names have changed and borders shifted. When I ask my grandparents about our roots, they tell me sadly that neither the family nor the village is there anymore. During the difficult times, the dream of coming to America was the light that kept their spirits alive.

They came over from the old country with a few prized possessions tucked inside old trunks. But their best "possession" was in their head: the rich heritage and tradition of celebrating Jewish holidays -- what to wear, how to pray and what to eat. Today when I watch my parents prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it's as if all the relatives I never met are in the kitchen with us. "Add a little more sugar. Don't you think those onions are browned enough?" "Forget the olive oil, during the holidays we use schmaltz."

These experiences are aptly described by Nancy Ring in her charming book "Walking on Walnuts" (Bantam Books, 1996), about how her ancestors' thoughts on food, love and survival have become a part of her. Maybe it's universal among Jewish women to embody all the matriarchs who came before us. And nowhere is it more obvious than in our cooking -- especially the traditional dishes that have been handed down l'dor vador, l'dor vador -- from generation to generation.

As our family's reigning matriarch, my mother, Celia, has a phone that rings off the hook every time the High Holidays come around. "How come my brisket is so dry?" "Why is my kugel so temperamental?" "Why doesn't my tsimmes taste like yours?" But the latest questions aren't from one of our future matriarchs. The inquirer is my father, Milton, with queries about, of all things, horseradish. Because he loves the root's rich, acrid flavor -- he actually eats horseradish plain as well as on chicken, fish and brisket -- he was moved to learn the recipe. And she was only too happy to help him, as she gets the pleasure of his company in the kitchen.

For Rosh Hashana, they will work side by side peeling, grating and seasoning the piquant root until they get it just right. Then on to the tsimmes, kugel, gefilte fish, schmaltz, chopped liver and finally the fruit. Even though, in his heyday, my dad was a very successful businessman, he almost revels in his culinary capitulation to his wife. It seems that as their marriage surpassed golden -- next year they celebrate their 60th -- a new and wonderful relationship has developed. But the last thing my brothers and I ever thought was that it would develop in the kitchen.

On the day before Rosh Hashana, my parents will make the rounds, first to the kosher butcher to buy the pinkest brisket, the liveliest liver, and a fat chicken from which to make broth and her prized schmaltz. Then to the Jewish baker for the round challah with raisins, the Middle Eastern market for fresh spices, dried prunes and the best-looking horseradish root. And finally to the farmer's market to pick out the most pleasing produce.

Celia's brisket and carrot tsimmes is the family favorite -- from my youngest daughter, Alyssa, to my dad, we unabashedly ask for thirds. It is only overshadowed by Milton's horseradish, which we pass around in tiny jars, and watch religiously to make sure everybody replaces the top. "You expose it to the air -- you may as well throw it out!" they warn.

Since Celia is a perfectionist, one year she's positive her potato kugel is too dry, her chopped liver too bland, her tsimmes too sweet. Another year, she slyly admits she got it just right. Of course, to us, no matter how she "gets it," it's delicious, and we love watching her beam at the kudos as the plates are passed around. Now that we can include Milton in the compliments, celebrating the High Holidays is really an ancestral event. In the best sense!

Mama Celia's brisket and carrot tsimmes

Serves 6

1 pound brisket, with a small amount of fat left on

2 onions, sliced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

2 sweet potatoes, grated

5 carrots, grated

2 white potatoes, grated

1 parsnip, grated

2 stalks celery, diced

1 cup pitted prunes, soaked in water (reserve water)

kosher salt and pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon paprika

lemon juice

1 teaspoon brown sugar

In large Dutch oven, brown meat with onions and garlic. Cover with water; simmer for 2 hours. Take brisket out of pot and place it on cutting board; slice into 3/8 -inch pieces, return to pot. Add remaining vegetables, prunes, (including the water they're soaked in) salt, pepper, paprika and lemon juice. Sprinkle brown sugar on top.

Bake in oven an hour longer at 375 degrees.

Papa Milt's horseradish

1/2 pound horseradish root

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

cold water

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