Over the weekend, I went through the notes from my incredible day of Ashkenazi cooking with the Hadar family. I thought I’d share a bit of the experience with you here on The Shiksa Blog.
My friend Etti Hadar descends from a Polish family. Her maternal ancestors, the Levin family, lived in the Pinsk region of Poland (now considered Belarus) in a small town called Luninets. While researching her ancestry, Etti found a 280 page memoir written by her late uncle, Dov Shimon “Beraleh” Levin. Dov grew up in Poland in a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish family. He later served in Italy in the Jewish Infantry Brigade, and fought the Nazis during World War II. His memoir describes in great detail what Jewish life was like in Poland during the 1920’s and 30’s.
A few weeks ago, Etti and I sat down together to read through Dov’s memoir. Etti translated while I took notes. In Uncle Dov’s words (roughly translated): “I have written down these recipes and described our traditions, because it is important to keep our family history alive.” He certainly achieved this goal. I was very impressed with the details he provided, giving us a clear insight into Polish life prior to World War II.
Here are a few of the more interesting “daily life” tidbits we discovered from Uncle Dov’s manuscript:
- Winters were brutally cold. Food and supplies were stored in unique ways to get the family through the winter.
- Stomach parasites were treated with a special “medicinal” cabbage
- Chicken pox were soothed with warm pig’s fat.
- High fevers were treated with cold slices of potato on the skin, to draw out the heat.
The most exciting part of the document for me was, of course, the food! Uncle Dov was born in 1922, the fifth child of eight (two girls, six boys). Uncle Dov loved food; you can sense it in his colorful descriptions of the meals that the Levin family would prepare together.
Uncle Dov describes how cooking a meal was a family event. Everybody had their responsibilities—Abba (father) would bring home the household supplies and ingredients, Ima (mother) would prepare the food, and the children would help out in the kitchen. Everybody pitched in during the cooking process. The Levins, like many Ashkenazi Jewish families, had to survive the brutally cold conditions of a Polish winter. With a house full of children to feed, and temperatures reaching thirty degrees below zero in winter, the Levins were forced to become very creative with the ways they would store and prepare food.
Here are a few of the many interesting food facts Uncle Dov talked about in his memoir:
- Potatoes were a staple of Polish cooking. The Levins were taught by local farmers how to store the potatoes for the winter. In autumn, they would “cook” the potatoes (there was no detail as to how they were cooked, I assume they were probably baked). Then Abba would dig several pits in the yard. They placed the potatoes inside the pits and covered them with straw, followed by a layer of dirt. Apparently, this method of storing cooked potatoes kept them fresh throughout the winter. Uncooked potatoes were also stored in the cold cellar below the house.
- Because meat was expensive and difficult to find, especially in winter, mushrooms were often used as a “meat substitute.” They were collected during the summer, then Ima would string them up with a thread and needle, hanging them to dry in the attic beside the chimney. During winter, these dried mushrooms would be used in a number of different ways—they were sometimes added to potato soup, or “barbecued” like a meat entrée.
- In autumn, many foods would be pickled and stored in large barrels for the coming winter. Popular products for pickling included cucumbers, apples, cabbage, and fish.
- Dried cheese balls, called gmaleks (sp?), were dried above the furnace and eaten throughout the year.
- On the morning of Shabbat, before synagogue, the whole family would drink coffee with milk that had cooked slowly in an iron pot overnight. A “skim” of milk fat would develop on top of the coffee; the kids would often fight over who got to eat the skim.
- Shabbat was a very important food day. Meals were prepared the day before and served at the end of the Shabbat synagogue service. Regardless of financial ability, most families would “splurge” on this meal, preparing foods that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive.
- Every holiday had its own special dishes. Channukah was celebrated with roasted duck and latkes fried in duck fat; Purim had a special kind of kreplach stuffed with liver; Simchat Torah featured stuffed kishke, tzimmes, and noodle kugel with lots of cinnamon.
In addition to facts like these, Uncle Dov’s document provided some specific recipes and dishes that were regularly prepared by the Levin family. Etti and I decided to choose a few of these family recipes and recreate a Polish Shabbat dinner. As an experiment, we decided to cook these dishes from scratch, much in the same way that Ima Levin might have prepared them in the 1920’s. Together with Etti’s mother, Bella, we spent an entire day in the kitchen preparing a delicious Ashkenazi feast. Uncle Dov would be proud!
In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll share our Shabbat menu with you, and let you know how it all turned out. If you’d like more information on the history of the Levin family, Etti has created a wonderful online album of pictures and historical records. Here is the link: