‘beyond nostalgia to living re-creation’

by tobybee

In The Age today, a lovely piece by Arnold Zable:

A family legacy lives on in pesto jars.

Throughout my childhood there was not one occasion when our family dined out. After mother died I finally persuaded my 86-year-old father to give it a try. It was a 10-minute walk from our North Carlton home to the Rathdowne Street restaurant. Aware of my father’s tastes I kept it simple and ordered a bowl of minestrone.

“Well?” I asked after he had finished. “How was it?” He shrugged his shoulders, looked at me with a perplexed expression and said: “I can’t understand it. Why pay for a bowl of soup when you can make it at home and save yourself all the trouble?” Needless to say it was the last time I took father out for a meal.

There was perhaps another reason for this reaction. In the final two years of his life, after mother died, father came into his own as a cook. The kitchen had been mother’s domain. Within weeks he was enjoying his new-found kitchen freedom. His specialty was potato latkes. The recipe, he said, came from his mother, Sheine Liberman. She too had ruled the kitchen in their apartment in Bialystok, a border city in eastern Poland. Wars came and went, tribes fought, regimes changed, but Sheine’s kitchen remained a constant.

Latkes are simple fare, a mixture of grated potato, flour, beaten eggs and shredded onions. Father added raisins and chopped almonds. “Something of myself,” he would say. “In this way the recipe goes beyond nostalgia and becomes a living re-creation.” Father could not resist garnishing everything he did with philosophical reflections.

His greatest love, apart from Yiddish poetry, was gardening. Restricted to the small space of the backyard of a single-fronted Carlton house, he grew tomatoes, silverbeet and horseradish. When the milkman still made his nightly deliveries by horse and cart, father collected the manure from the street, carried it in a bucket through the house and spread it over the vegetable patch.

From his produce there emerged the one recipe he could fully lay claim to, a horseradish sauce known in Yiddish as khrain. Once again father added his own touch, beetroot juice, to give the sauce a reddish colour. Khrain was an ideal condiment for the briskets, rissoles and roasts that were mother’s specialties. The horseradish also served, as tradition demanded, as a reminder on the Passover table, of the bitterness of slavery.

The Passover dinner was the one celebratory family meal of the year. My mother, deeply disturbed by the loss of family to war, had become increasingly reclusive. Nevertheless she laboured for hours to produce a feast. She cooked her last Passover meal, aged 85, just months before she died. A proud woman, she insisted on delivering the dishes to the table despite the significant tremor in her hands. She moved slowly from the kitchen, carrying the bowls of chicken soup, one by one, and with supreme effort succeeded in placing them on the dining room table.

It was the one night in the year that we did not eat in the kitchen, the only time our special white tablecloth was brought out, and the one occasion when father assumed the role of head of the family to conduct the Passover service. As children, three brothers with just four years between us, we could not wait for the lengthy readings to end and the meal to begin. The highlight was the four ritual glasses of wine we were allowed to sip from. The drinking produced a night of comedy perfect for a Woody Allen or Groucho Marx script.

After the meal we stepped out into Canning Street for a sobering walk. At the time there were several Jewish families living nearby. On Passover nights their doors were left open. Inside, a glass of wine stood in readiness for Elijah the prophet’s annual visit. “Look closely,” father would say, holding up the glass at the end of the Seder. “Elijah has sipped at least one millimetre.” We were so tipsy from our own efforts, that we readily accepted the optical illusion.

Mother died in 1990, Father two years later. Till his final year, he continued to harvest his horseradish. While I am yet to follow the tradition I have developed my own variant. Instead of horseradish, I grow basil. The herb is an ingredient of pesto sauce. It has become an annual ritual to harvest the bulk of the crop, chop it finely, and add to it the ground pine nuts, grated parmesan, crushed garlic and olive oil.

Perhaps we inherit more from our parents than we realise, in my case, jars of pesto in place of my father’s jars of khrain. And like Father, in writing this piece, I have garnished the sauce with philosophical reflections.