Being a child of immigrant Holocaust survivors, I grew up with some very strange foods. There were the traditional foods, all unable to be matched to whatever animal they had originated from—and then the things that even the American kids in my neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois were familiar with, but called only by Yiddish names, to apparently increase our foreignness and isolate us from our American neighbors.
Knowing only the Yiddish names for such common dishes as chicken leg (pulke) and chicken wing (fliegel), I ventured out of our house, which apparently was in part of Poland, and into America, which was anything outside our door. This is how I arrived to have dinner at my friends’ houses, pointing mutely at the chicken being served because no one understood the words used by the immigrant child.
My parents, having spent the war starving, were not picky eaters. As a matter of fact, they were somewhat dumbfounded by the fact that their seven American daughters were not so hearty, and were, indeed, choosy. Why else would we refuse to eat the food they relished, the food that smelled up our house for days? Since everything was judged by whether we, too, would have survived the war–based on our strength, our health, and, yes, our appetites–we came up short. Picky eaters did not survive the war.
In some ways I was less persnickety than my sisters. I liked herring, I liked smelly fishes, even sardines. I probably could’ve eaten an onion like an apple as a kid. But when certain foods showed up on our table, there was no way my mother was fooling me— I knew inedible when I saw it. Mysterious foods, nefarious foods, foods that we’d stir in the pot and there’d be a globule of some primeval creature bobbing to the surface and then a bay leaf. With all of these, my mother was exceedingly evasive about the ingredients. She’d say, “It’s food!” And if she refused to give enough details on its origins, we moved on to our new dietary staples, things that had slowly made their way into our house: Wonder Bread, Sugar Frosted Flakes, and Campbell’s Tomato Soup.
Over time I compiled a list in my mind of the Jewish foods I learned to avoid. I was not going to be lulled by exotic-sounding Yiddish or Russian names or no name at all. Nor was I worried about offending the various hosts by turning these foods down—they were on my absolutely no-go list.
1) Borscht – This is a cold beet soup preferably served with sour cream. It’s red and chunky and showed up at our house in a glass jar, the contents settling to the bottom. Some people love this, particularly Russians, but it was a no-go for me.
2) Schav – This is cold sorrel soup. Sorrel is a spinach-like vegetable that can be toxic if consumed in large quantities. It also showed up at our house in a glass jar, dark green on the bottom and lighter and lighter shades of green, almost like my nauseated face, as it climbed towards the nozzle. As a child, I thought of it as the evil half-twin of Borscht.
3) The Glop from the Gefilte Fish jar, otherwise known as “jelled broth.” Each Passover I buy several jars of Gefilte Fish which come packed in something called “jelled broth,” a gloppy, chunky, clear slime that I wash off each piece of fish before serving. My mother always loved this stuff, begging me to save her all the glop from every jar combined in one jar and to bring it to her after Passover.
Yes, that’s right she did not want the fish, only the glop.
4) Pupik – When I was a little girl, grown-ups would play a game with me pretending they were going to eat my “pupik,” which was my belly button. All in good fun. But, guess what? A few hours later I’d sit down at the kitchen table and my mom would say, “Who wants the pupik?” and we children of immigrants would fight tooth and nail over it until one day we realized en masse that it was some animal’s belly button. Years later, I asked my mother what animal the belly button had come from and she replied to me, “A chicken.”
5) Kishke – This is fat mixed with sugar, flour and onions and then stuffed in a casing, which is an intestine. This is something I grew up with and loved even after I knew what it was. But as an adult craving the mysterious foods of her childhood, how is this recipe compatible with modern life, or health, or social trauma? How does one go shopping at the grocery store for rendered fat and intestines?
Despite ingesting these foods regularly, I lived to adulthood. Somehow, though, I’m always dreaming of the food of my childhood: the good, the bad and the mysterious.