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Family Ties

Football, food, and the importance of tradition

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Annette Lerner’s apple cake. (Joan Nathan)

A few weeks ago, at a book signing in Detroit, a woman in her forties came up to me. “My mother is a phenomenal cook,” she said. “We have videotaped her, and I have copied her recipes, but I don’t want to share them.” Then, as if to further pique my interest, she said, “If you tasted her blintzes, you would know what I am talking about.” She paused. “Maybe one day we’ll come to Washington to your kitchen and show you how wonderfully my mother cooks.” A little later, just to taunt me, she brought her mother, an elderly Hungarian immigrant, over to meet me. Her mother smiled.

It was a funny moment, but the daughter was making a crucial point: She felt her mother’s cooking made her family different from other families, and she wanted to protect that difference. Like many Jewish women, she was also superstitious. K’naina hora—even recipes should stay in the family.

There’s a good argument for those kinds of traditions, too. I believe that children not only need but crave repetitive traditional foods to reinforce the folkways of their household. The question of traditions and how we impart them to our children is especially on the mind at this time of year, with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah right around the corner. We’re all busy, and it can be time-consuming to put a meal on the table, but if someone lives on a steady diet of take-out dishes, no matter how healthful, then take-out dishes are what their memories will contain. One young woman told me that she had perhaps three homemade meals in her home per year. What memories will she have, and what traditions will she transmit to her own children?

The encounter in Detroit recalled another book tour of mine, five years ago, when I made a stop in Brookline, Mass., at the home of Myra Kraft, a childhood friend, and her husband, Robert, the owner of the New England Patriots and a sponsor of the Israeli Football League. The Krafts had organized a get-together of about 35 people, mostly mothers and daughters, for a cooking demonstration.

Because many more people attended than Myra had originally planned, not everyone fit in the Krafts’ kitchen. With the help of the video team from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play, many of the Krafts’ guests watched me on closed-circuit television throughout the house as I cooked newfangled Jewish food, like fish with ginger and scallions and wafer-thin chocolate macaroons, both recipes that appeared in my book New American Cooking. After the demonstration of these modern foods, we discussed the transmission of recipes from one generation to the next and the importance of traditional food in making memories for children.

“Foods at different holidays are very important for children to remember,” said Myra, whom I first met years ago at a meeting of the New England Federation of Temple Youth in Hartford, Conn. Two dishes that she says her grandkids love to eat are her brisket and her tsimmes, made of sweet potatoes and carrots and topped with a potato crust. She serves her tsimmes for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. I serve mine for Hanukkah.

Her brisket is first cooked, then the vegetables are added, and then it is sealed and cooked again in a golden potato crust. She got this recipe from her Russian forebears, who originally settled in Worcester, Mass. Like many of us, Myra is busy—she is a leader of the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Jewish Federation, to name two organizations—and she sometimes cooks her dishes ahead of time and freezes them, to ensure she’ll have them whenever she needs them.

For the Krafts and other families, these recipes bind the family. There are jokes made about them, and love transmitted through them. They are what make family folklore and what helps to differentiate one family from the next.

Annette Lerner, of Chevy Chase, Md., agrees. “Once I got a phone call from my grandson Jonathan, who was at NYU,” said Annette, who represents a new type of grandmother, one who exercises, sculpts, and cooks. “ ‘Nana,’ he said. ‘I want your chicken soup.’ When I told him that he could get better soup from the Second Avenue Deli, located around the corner from his dorm, he said, ‘But it is not your chicken soup.’ ” So, Annette dutifully made chicken soup, packed it in dried ice, and sent it to New York, where her grandson put it in his dorm refrigerator. “That was the most expensive chicken soup he ever ate,” she said.

For Annette and her husband, Ted, owners of the Washington Nationals, Jewish traditions are such an important part of their lives that they will not go to ballgames on Friday nights. “Ted is rather observant,” she said. “We always have Friday-night dinner at home. When the children are in D.C., they always come to our house for Friday.”

Not only does Annette serve kosher food at home, but her butcher sends kosher meat to the president’s suite at Nationals Park, to be cooked there and served to guests. Annette is known for her apple cake and mandelbrot, which she brings to guests at the Nationals games. “These foods are ‘Grandma love,’ ” she said, adding that her apple cake is “a very, very old recipe from Russia” that her mother used when she started baking in Northern Virginia. “She measured by eggshells instead of cups. I updated the apple cake by adding the nuts, chopping the apples more, and I make the layers fancier. We have been making that cake for over 75 years, and it is still the family favorite.”

BEEF TSIMMES WITH POTATO KUGEL TOPPING
Adapted from The Way We Cook, by Sheryl Julian & Julie Riven

For the Brisket:
1 6-pound double brisket of beef
2 quarts of water, or more as needed
½ teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup honey
1 cup pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice

1. Put the meat in a large flame-proof casserole and add enough of the water to cover it. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 ½ hours.
2. During the last 15 minutes of simmering time, set the oven at 300 degrees. Transfer the meat and liquid to a large roasting pan. Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, apricots, honey, pineapple, and orange juices. Sprinkle with salt, cover with foil, shiny-side down, and transfer the pan to the oven.
3. Cook for 4 ½ to 5 hours, adding more water to the pan, ¼ cup at a time, if the mixture seems dry, until the meat is very tender.
4. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Cover, refrigerate overnight, and skim the fat from the cooking liquid.
5. Cut the meat on the diagonal into thin slices. Arrange the meat, vegetables, and cooking liquid in a large roasting pan and set aside while you prepare the kugel.

For the Potato Kugel:
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
2 medium Spanish onions, grated
2 russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and grated
2-3 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
2/3 cup matzo meal
1 ½ cups cold water

1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Combine the eggs, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. With a wooden spoon, stir the mixture for 1 minute. Stir in the onions, potatoes, chicken fat or oil, matzo meal, and water. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour, or until it thickens. The mixture may seem watery, but it will thicken as it sits.
2. Spoon the potato mixture in mounds over the meat in the roasting pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until the kugel topping is golden brown and the meat and vegetables are hot.
Yields: 10-12 servings

GRANDMA LILL’S APPLE CAKE
Adapted from Annette Lerner
4 medium baking apples, such as McIntosh or Cortland
2 ¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts or raisins (optional)
4 large eggs
3 cups all purpose or pastry flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
7 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a spring-form pan or a bundt pan and dust with flour. Set aside.
2. Core, peel, and cut the apples into ¼-inch slivers in a bowl. Mix ¼ cup of the sugar, the cinnamon, walnuts and/or raisins, and sprinkle over the apples. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and eggs together until creamy. In a separate bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
4. Gently stir in 1/3 of the dry mixture to the sugar/eggs and then add ½ of the oil. Continue alternating until all ingredients are used. Add the orange juice and the vanilla.
5. Pour a layer of batter into the pan then top with a layer of apples. Repeat, creating layers, until all the ingredients are used. Finish with a thin layer of apple slivers.
6. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be sure not to underbake. When the cake has cooled, sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve.
Yields: 12 servings

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I find the whole name dropping post really bizarre and the analysis is quite shallow. I haven’t really learned anything new about how food transmits tradition except for that fact that Bubbes now FedEx their chicken soup to spoiled eineklach instead of the grandsons getting off their lazy asses and going down to visit Bubbe to get the goods.

How someone can take such a positive posting with some wonderful anecdotes and respond with such negativity is stupid/gross/mind boggling.

Nothing makes me happier than spending time with family over delicious, cooked meals that come from the heart. Family recipes are created and passed down with love, and sharing them allows all of us to take part in and add to those special traditions with our own families. What a great story :)

Marla, I find it stupid, gross and mindboggling that Tablet thought this was an interesting article. If you really want to know about how food transmits tradition, read Gil Marks or Claudia Roden, whose rich descriptions, stories and recipes actually have something to say. There is nothing intrinsically Jewish about American football, so I’m not sure why it was necessary to hear about how the wealthy wives of the owners of football teams cook or Fedex their chicken soup. It’s just absurd.

yohanan gamar says:

this is a sad essay.jewish prepared foods and meals are the result of centuries of encounters between jews, their calendrical moments and the desire and need to lend artistry to the life of faith. this life of judaism was based on: every home a temple, every meal an offering, every every table an altar, every jew a priest. many jews now live in the vacuum created by the demise of that great civilization. joan nathan seeks to filll that vacuum with her focus on recipes and food. these are but the most availible vestiges of a once rich and complex civilization.when not nurtured by living judaism her foods and recipes become intersting and delicious remnants of a declining ethnicity.

Larry cohen says:

I don’t care if a person is rich or poor but to demean an author for what she/he writes is childish and speaks poorly of how you are as a person. I thought the article was well written and personnel. I wish that I could call my grandmother and ask her for her blintze recipe or her matzoh ball soup but unfortunately the only way to reach her is by prayer. Joan, you did a great job!

brynababy says:

I would like to know if I can substitute butter for the oil. mmm-mmm-delish! My children would love it.

Bermandie says:

I’m a great fan of Ms Nathan, and was also surprised at her name dropping – left a very bad taste in my mouth, if you excuse the pun. Family traditions are those passed down from generation to generation, and are not the sole preserve of the rich and famous (who all seem to own football teams?!). What a pity that Ms Nathan did not use this opportunity to write about traditions that have been passed down and are still used by “ordinary” Jewish family throughout the US and the world, choosing to rather focus on the Krafts and Lerners. Suffice it to say that I think my late Bobbe would have insisted that I visit her in person in order to collect the chicken soup she prepared for me, and can readily picture us sitting down together at her well used kitchen table to share of bowl of her “Jewish pennicilin”. Bete’avon!

Ms. Nathan, quite naturally, needs to sell her books. The header might catch the interest of people who wouldn’t normally read a cooking column. That’s clever of her.

Name dropping or not, this is a fun post (taken MUCH too seriously by its detractors).

As an ordinary Jewish mother you’ve probably never heard of (unless you’ve read my novel, After the Auction–OK, a shameless plug), I personally Express Mail honey cakes, Pesach brownies, and mandel bread, and a whole lot of other Jewish foods to Beijing, where my son has lived for 11 years, seven of which have been as a married man. I’ve never Fedexed chicken soup in dry ice, though. However, my Chinese-born daughter-in-law makes a mean chicken soup herself, as well as her favorite food–matzah balls–from my own mother’s recipe, also handed down. We did so together last Passover, the third we’ve celebrated in their home. I’m just happy and grateful that Jewish tradition, however it’s expressed, remains important to my son and his wife, who also attend services and observe holidays with a host of Jewish friends in China.

And, by the way, he remains an intense football fan (Green Bay Packers) and follower, too, even if we don’t own a team!

Joyce Gilbert says:

I so fully agree with Linda. We each have our traditions that we hope will inspire the next generation — whether or not we are sports team owners or authors or empty-nesters or new families starting all over again. We take a bit from the past and add a bit from ourselves and trust that the future will continue with the equation.

Lester Goldstein says:

Seems like a great recipe, but what is a double brisket? I think I might add some maple syrup and decrease the honey. What do you think?

PS Thanks for the spelling of K’naina hora!

Daniel says:

Interesting-ish article, unnecessary name dropping

mamenju says:

wow, that’s a surprising amount of vitriol for a fairly tepid piece. grandchildren go off to college and miss their grandmothers’ cooking; why the hate about the boy not visiting his grandmother? sheesh.

three points:

1) while the new england patriots are indeed a football team, the washington nationals are actually a baseball team.

2) the brisket/tzimmes/potato kugel on top recipe sounds delicious.

3) my mother’s blintze recipe (origin: carpathian mountains, czech/hungarian) is by far the best!! ;-)

Benjamin Entine says:

So Joan Nathan hangs out with a ritzier crowd than we ordinary mortals do–so what?( Like you didn’t know already she’s rich and famous} Again, so what? The recipes sound delicious and will gladly be tried in my holiday kitchen, among the not so rich and famous, where good Jewish cooking is appreciated at least as much. My thanks to all the ladies– and Go Pats!
Special shout-out to the Lerner’s for a life-style that sounds like a Kiddush HaShem.

Dina Truman says:

I managed to read this whole article and have a positive response, because I can relate to feeling my grandma’s dishes are the only ones that are “best” because they are hers. and altho my siblings have told me i have surpassed her on some particular dishes, there is something about eating them at grandma’s house that makes them have that certain taste that tastes like love to me.
I don’t know the people in the story and don’t care about sports, so all those ‘names’ went in one ear and out the other so to speak, and I came away with a sense of what the article was trying to say and didn’t get bogged down in the peripheral information. Probably because I wasn’t looking for it.
However, in these days of tagging articles, I believe the more names you drop, the more tags you might be able to create and thus increase your readership and affect a wider audience. I don’t know if that is what the writer was going for, but I can see how it would help, and since this isn’t a print article, then why not use every method available to expose different cross-sections of people to your point of view. Just a thought.
There is usually both a positive and negative outlook on something that is relatively neutral…I choose to see the positive…Thank you Joan for reminding me again to treasure my grandmother while she is still around, and to encourage my siblings to pass these traditions down to their growing children (my daughter is already grown.)

Ellenhope says:

I think Joan is a great writer and cook, but featuring two ultra-rich women (with links to their husband’s sports teams) demonstrates the lofty world she lives in. This makes it hard to relate to her.

Thank you so much, this was a good read. I was actually born in Spain ( not telling when though!) but was moved around europe and finally settled in England when I was a teenager. I dont remember an awful lot of the few years I was in spain, but the delicious smell of spanish food always seems to ring a bell in me or something. It’s weird how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn’t it! I actually found a whole internet site dedicated to spanish recipe, which gave me great delight and thought I really should to share with your readers. Anyway, thank you again. I’ll get my husband to add your website to my rss thing…

I liked this article becuase it is a welcome reminder that family traditions actually do matter. The name dropping basically went over my head and is unnecessary, but I am surprised by the vitriol of these comments. Maybe these readers forget what it is like for the younger generation, who either want to stay connected to family, or are young parents in need of help and support in creating their own family traditions. Isn’t honoring family a core Jewish value? Aren’t the food traditions worth noting and celebrating? Not everyone is lucky enough to have Bubbe FedEx latkes or honeycake, but I believe parents and young people still crave info about how to create meaningful holiday traditions.

Sharon Gates says:

OMG, how petty are you people? This was just an article, and truthfully, I was pleased to learn that these 2 teams are owned by Jews……….the recipes were interesting and no one forced you to read the entire article if you found it too “lofty”. Who cares who Joan Nathan hangs with? Enjoy her writing and the recipes…….life is too short for such unnecessary anger.

I saw a lot of website but I conceive this one has something extra in it in it

I’ve said that least 2027670 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wish i had time and patience to make a informative publish like yours. A ton of information on all the states. Bookmarked your blog.

I am really impressed along with your writing abilities and also with the structure for your blog. Is that this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway stay up the nice quality writing, it’s uncommon to peer a nice blog like this one today.

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Theres a dupe born every minute.

My wife made the apple cake over the holidays – it was really a treat!

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Family Ties

Football, food, and the importance of tradition

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