My grandmother wore a frilly apron with a flower print and ruffles along the edges. It wasn’t fancy but rather useful and comforting. Mine is handsome, taupe in color and matches well with whatever I’m wearing.
Eighteen years after my husband and I moved to California from New York, I wear a different apron from my grandmother’s and live on a different coast, but the love and tradition she instilled in me remains strong.
I think of my grandmother whenever I cook the Ashkenazi foods I grew up eating at her kitchen table. She was an excellent cook, filling me and my brothers and sisters with food and with love. I now roast sweet potatoes in the oven for a long time until my house smells like hers did. I add little pasta stars to my chicken soup just as she did. I could never make my roast chicken taste like hers, but I try.
I have tried to create the same safe and loving space in my kitchen that my grandmother created in hers. My kids sometimes tease me; they tell me I’m a “Jewish mother” because I like to feed. When their friends come over, I like to fuss over them, too. I like channeling my inner bubbe. And I’m proud to have that connection that links me in California back to my grandmother in Lakewood, New Jersey, back to her grandmother in Ukraine, and back further still.
Whether it’s the latkes we make on Hanukkah or the chopped liver we eat during Passover, my kitchen is where I honor my grandparents, my history and my Judaism. It’s often the starting place for many of the Jewish holidays and the traditions and values that ground me, encircle my family and hold us close. It’s a framework that helps me parent. The kitchen is where I can steady myself in what feels like an increasingly uncertain world.
In my kitchen, I make brisket three times a year with sautéed onions, beer and ketchup. There are plenty of fancier ways to make brisket, but my daughter Sophie, 15, doesn’t like it fancy, fussy or Instagram-picture pretty. She wants her brisket to taste exactly the way it did when she was younger.
Many years ago, in my kitchen, I buttoned the dress shirt of a squirmy toddler, tied his shoes as his legs rocked back and forth and worried that the challah I left on the counter wouldn’t rise while we were at services. Samuel, now 14, is taller than me. He has opinions on all sorts of things. But the round fig challah I make every Rosh Hashanah remains an important constant in his life.
The kitchen is the place where we come together to share, grieve, argue, embrace and celebrate. It’s the place where the kids lament about one teacher and sing the praises of another. The place where they stress over finals or tell us a funny story about their day. It’s the place where I get to smother my kids because increasingly there’s distance in other areas and places in their lives.
And lately, it’s become the place where our kids express their worries and fears about the rise in anti-Semitism, global warming, rights for women and minorities and so much more. I don’t feel that I can always reassure them in the way they need. And I have my own worries and fears. But the kitchen has become our anchor, more now than ever. Dinner discussions increasingly revolve around current events. And around our kitchen table we’ve begun to encourage our kids’ activism borne out of frustration and the injustices they see around them.
Apple cake. Matzah ball soup. Cholent. Those are the sure things, the starting places for what comes next in our lives. Maybe it’s the assurance that just as my great-grandmother made cholent and endured, we will, too. Maybe it’s because cooking and eating the food of our ancestors makes us feel part of a larger story and then we feel less lonely. Maybe it’s just because it tastes good. I hope my kids take all that love and all that tradition and use it as a starting point as they chart their own life course. And I pray it helps carry them forward in a fragile world.