Writing about food is a challenge. I’m not a big eater. I’m not a 'foodie’. I know it’s time to eat when the musical idea I am working on begins to be repeated in a kind of jagged, manacled frenzy. My brain becomes useless and I am on the edge of anger. These days, now that I’m a bit older, I know this means it’s time to stop. And eat.
But eating for me is far removed from the vagaries of my obsessive personality. Food does not equal eating. Let me explain. In Jewish families, especially Jewish families with a Holocaust survivor, food is more than something that is enjoyed or hated, relished or pilloried, swallowed or spat out. That’s for gentiles. For us Jews, religious or not, food is so central that it functions as a medium of communication between people who otherwise are incapable of expressing it. It is the ultimate expression of the inexpressible.
Krupnik (Polish barley soup), was the liquid that wafted itself into the sinews of my brain. This soup was more than just love – it was a tangible reminder that my nanna embodied everything that she had convinced herself she was. Even as a young man, eating Nanna’s food was a strangely emasculating ritual. 'Put your leks around ze bar under ze table, Simi," was her first terse command. Out would come the soup, piping hot from the microwave. Reheated multiple times, timed to coincide with my arrival – invariably later than she had anticipated.
Often, she would watch me eat, without a word; this little old woman with a bitter face. I would look around the kitchen, and feel the ghosts around me. I would know, just know, that this would all someday end, but I just had to keep eating. It’s the Jewish mentality – everything you have in front of you right now can easily be ripped away in a matter of seconds.
Like many Holocaust survivors, Nanna in many ways eschewed the traditional Jewish ways. Ham and bacon were food, after all, and people who were frum (religious) were poseurs. So, we ate everything bar pork, which is strangely taboo for even atheistic Jews such as myself. Some of her recipes were sickening, such as one particular dish, a real vomit inducer. Active ingredient: bone marrow. When you cook bone marrow, the fat rises because it’s lighter than everything else. The resultant concoction is a fatty, nebulous, mass of pink jelly-textured slop. Her old duck friends (Lena, Zosha, Gosha, Losha) would devour it. They were the only ones.
Honey cake, traditional for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), was initially a famous success, then a failure and then a success once again. This was because Nanna lost her original, much-lauded recipe and refused to listen to Mum’s pleadings that something tasted different. Several times, Nanna sent a honey cake by post to the country town where Mum lived (where Jews don’t dare to tread). When Mum opened the package, the cake was as hard as a brick. Mum tried breaking a paddock fence with it as an experiment. It worked. It was like Mythbusters for Jews, without a point. This was all rectified when, in a moment of rare self-awareness, Nanna listened to reason and accepted she had the wrong recipe.
I will never forget the Seders (a ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover). Ironically, it’s the one time in the Jewish calendar when Jews are truly allowed to be happy. Nanna’s Seders were heavily militarised gatherings, with enough fatty food to kill the whole of Warsaw, and the constant, teetering threat of overflowing emotion. We would arrive en masse, and she would be in the kitchen, hyperventilating with carefully confected suffering. Act One had begun. My brother and I would sit among the odd array of household items – plush furniture, Danielle Steel novels, the TV always on ('Larry Emdur’s a goot Joovish boy, you know") – and wait. Already the tension would be palpable, and as young boys, humour was our only weapon. The more puerile, the better. The ceremony itself transpired the same way – year in, year out. Firstly, the Passover plate was explained to us children in ghoulish detail: bitter herbs were there to symbolise the bondage Jews underwent at the hands of the Egyptians; charoset (a fruit and nut paste) was the bricks built by the Jews during their slavery; lamb shankbone signified God’s sparing us his wrath and not killing our first-born children; a salty egg symbolised mourning; matzot was unleavened bread commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The middle piece of matzah (the afikoman) was broken in half and 'hidden’ by a child and only returned when gifts were presented to all the children. Then followed a bone-marrow-meltingly long series of prayers, followed by dinner. This is all fairly normal for a Seder.
Where ours differed was in the prayers. There is word in Hebrew that means 'in the beginning’, but is pronounced 'brei-SHIT.’ When we heard it, my brother began to snigger – every time. Then my mother collapsed in fits of hysteria. Then everyone else. For the rest of the evening, every time one of us would catch another’s eye, the process would be repeated again. On cue, tears would appear in Nanna’s small, beady eyes – the beginning of the end. As the night wore on, my brother would begin to drink the very quaffable kosher red wine in larger and larger quantities. Hilarity would ensue. On one memorable year, my brother turned around to me without warning and began to sing the song, It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. He sang it with a deadpan voice and unblinking eyes, as if to mirror the tightly controlled dynamics of the room. The darkness, irony and timing proved too much to handle. I lost control. This outpouring was like the food it towered over; it was a release-valve of pent-up emotion.
Writing this essay forced me to ask myself the question: was Nanna a good cook? In some ways yes, in some ways no. Her food was certainly flavoursome. In many cases, it was way past its use-by date and tasted stale. Her vegetables were frequently overcooked, so the broccoli, carrots and snow peas all took on a quaggy uniformity. On many occasions, when Nanna left the room to bring out the next course in the Seder, we would stuff the inedible items into whatever repository was available – a pot plant, under a wine bottle, a pocket.
In my family, as well as being a vehicle for emotional transaction, food has been an observer, a silent witness to complex dynamics. In the early days of my parents’ courtship, my father took my mother out to the fourth-year University of New South Wales Medical party. During the dinner, someone made a joke; Mum laughed and a large chicken bone became wedged in her oesophagus. Mum was forced to check in to casualty to get an emergency endoscopy. Dad visited Nanna to let her know her daughter would not be returning that evening. He still vividly remembers the look on her face. When Mum returned the next day, Nanna’s strange look took on a more familiar form. 'Pleez," she hectored. 'I know zat you just vonted to stay ze night vis him, zat’s all. Don’t lie to me!" Until the day she died, Nanna never could accept the fact that the culprit was actually a chicken bone, not a healthy libido.
Some memories are very clear, so much so that they seem to coalesce feelings into a ball of vision. As a young man, I lived in a city apartment. Nanna would ring me, quickly dispense with pleasantries, and announce her intention to feed me. I knew just what this meant. Chopped liver (and I mean chopped for four hours, not processed), cake, krupnik, tzimmes (carrots), schweinerei (literally translated into 'pig’s filth’) and kreplach (dumplings) would be loaded into a phalanx of plastic containers. She would board the L82 bus and 45 minutes later, I was to meet the bus in the city. The doors would open and out she would come, in a barely concealed display of martyrdom and love. I would get a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and then would come the food. 'Aren’t you going to come in?" I would ask, knowing full well the answer. 'Vot for?" she would reply. A whiff of sadness, and I would accept the containers. We would cross the road for the returning bus, and off she would go, as quickly as she came; trotting away like a midget spectre. Such is the meaning of food in my family; it is where language cannot and will not go.