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Mamas Jewish Cooking

Mamas Jewish Cooking

About Mama

Mama was born in Azaritz, a Russian hamlet (Dorf) where only one Jewish family was permitted to live. A hamlet is a little cluster of houses, with perhaps a general store, in farm country. At that time there were many migrant Jews going from hamlet to hamlet, looking for a place where they would be allowed to stay. They were poor, bewildered, often dirty, very much like our own migrant workers in parts of California.

The word sped swiftly that in “Sholom’s Dorf” they could find a haven. Sholom was Mama’s father. He was a pious Jew who felt that in helping Jews poorer than himself, he was doing God’s work. He was the trader and man of business for his community.

At the age of twelve, Mama lost her own mother, but her father’s hospitality persisted and it was the young girl who now waited on the ragged, tired travelers. Never knowing how many would be at the evening meal, she became accustomed to preparing food in quantity. The sin of inhospitality would never be Sholom’s. And so, early in life, Mama learned the joy of seeing eyes light up and sagging shoulders straighten after the comfort of a good meal gladly given.

Often when we were little, and, like all children, complained about our food, she would say, “Ach, give me hungry people to feed. They like everything.” But the joy of sharing was not all that Mama taught us. Though she would open her cupboard to anyone, Mama was also frugal, and the waste of a single morsel of precious food was a terrible sin. To this day I cannot bear the sight of good food left uneaten.

Here is one of my favorite stories about Mama. I once asked her why it was so dreadful to throw away a piece of bread that nobody else would eat even if I didn’t finish it.”You think this is just a piece of bread?” Mama retorted. “Let me explain to you what this bread means.” When you live in a ‘dorf as I did, you see how the peasant tills the land, then plants the seed, then reaps the harvest. You see how he frowns in bad weather and how he smiles when the sun and rain help his crop. You see how he brings the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour, and you smell the good bread baking when the housewife puts it into her great oven. Count up how many hours of human labor, how many dreams, how many sacrifices go into one slice of bread, and you will see that it is not merely a commodity, but the story of a life. That is why it is a sin to waste even a single slice.

“So Mama’s frugality was not really a contradiction of her generous nature, but only an expression of her deep reverence for life and the labor that gives it worth. And so this is the legacy that Mama left us kind, hard-working, independent, standing always protectively over her aloof Talmudic husband, who let her bear more of the burden than either of them realized the joy of making a home more than a haven for the immediate family, but a place of warmth where others might come to renew themselves, to eat, drink and be merry. What¬ever their personal beliefs, they kept their faith in the old Jewish concept that the enjoyment of the fruits of life is a reverence toward God.Once, at a gathering of friends and family, when we were full of food and affection toward each other, my sister Rose, getting up from the table, said, “Honestly, Sadie, sometimes I think you’re just like Mama.”A nicer thing, no one could ever say!

Mama brought up a family of seven children. She was also the breadwinner for the family, so you will understand she was quite a woman. Her preparation for the weekly Sabbath feast was something to remember. The saying in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Fools make feasts and wise men eat them,” did not impress her at all. She maintained that holidays must be festive, and what are feasts without guests? Her cooking would, of course, begin with gefilte fish, and be followed with soup, poultry, tzimmes, several kinds of kugel, and, asked why so much, she would say “some for us, and some for “leiten” meaning guests. Never knowing how many guests Papa would bring home.

Saturday morning after the prayers at the synagogue, she would add to all the above-mentioned dishes chopped herring, chopped liver, and whatnot. Often, after we were grown up, we would admonish her saying that it was too much work for her to cater to leiten, as she would call her friends. Her answer would be, “Please, children, try to understand that I cannot just work, sleep and rest, for if I do when will I live?

Her way of life taught me, in later years, when I wanted time for work, study or play, so to arrange my kitchen work as to give me leisure time without depriving my family of good cooked food and gracious living. This is what I have tried to teach my students in the cooking classes and I hope that I have in some measure succeeded. In the following menus, I shall try to show you how to cook almost a full week’s food in a few hours. You can start your week as I do on a Friday. This way, during the weekend, you will have a full refrigerator, enough food for the family, and, should company come, the happy feeling that you can set another place with no strain and almost no expense.

The following are four projects for several days’ cooking at a time. You will find recipes in the body of the website for everything listed here. Add a little of your own ingenuity and you can vary them and plan your own projects, including your favorite dishes.