Credit: Jamie Betesh Carter
personal essay

This Year for Yom Kippur, I’m Making the Only Recipe My Grandmother Ever Wrote Down

published Sep 26, 2020
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“Did you eat?” is the question my family and I have asked each other for years. It starts with “Did you eat?” then goes into “What did you eat?” and eventually becomes “You didn’t eat enough!” Our lives have always revolved around food. For my third-grade show-and-tell project, when all my 9-year-old friends were teaching the class how to fly a kite, and how to tie a shoe, I taught the class how to cook Bourekas, a Middle Eastern baked pastry. My grandmother’s version of “Did you eat?” was “Eat, mamala,” while my father’s was a stare accompanied by a fork being pushed in your face. “Did you eat?” is our family’s love language, and has been our conversation starter through years spent away at college, trips abroad, then eventually through cancer, and a global pandemic.

Our obsession with eating became even more prevalent over the last six months. My father passed away after a long battle with cancer in March, and the next day New York City went on pause due to COVID-19. I had spent the last year of my father’s life asking him “Did you eat?” after treatments and hospital stays. Before getting sick, my father was the chef of the family, and he came to life in the kitchen. Now that he was gone, the kitchen felt desolate. We had a few meals sent to us from family and friends to get us through the first week of mourning, but then we were on our own. I transitioned from my father’s sous chef to the only chef, and I cooked, and cooked, and cooked for my husband, my daughter, and my mother. 

Over the six months that followed, we spent a lot of time at my childhood home. I cooked quiches for breakfast, and roasts for dinner. I played around with my father’s knives and culinary gadgets, achingly missing him. With the Jewish high holidays coming up, I started thinking about how this year will be different. Our days have been focused on scoring food deliveries, cooking, and eating, so what do we do on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and the day we fast?  

This year, the 25-hour fast when food and drink are forbidden seems even more daunting. What will we talk about, if we can’t talk about food? In years past, our family’s pre-fast meal has always been formulaic since it’s purely for sustenance. There would be a protein, some carbs (but not too many so you don’t stuff up on bread), some vegetables (but not too salty so you don’t get too thirsty), and some fruit for dessert, only if there was time. It’s the one holiday where our family puts the least amount of love into food. 

With my newfound focus on cooking, I want to make the pre-fast meal memorable. With no office to commute from, I dreamed about spending the extra time recreating some family recipes. Except there were none to be found. My family never wrote down recipes, so I was left to try to cook dishes from memory. When asked to submit family recipes at friends’ bridal showers in my 20s, I’d write “a bowl of cereal” as my contribution. “Pour the cereal, then add milk. Voila!” I’d laugh as I dropped the index card in the recipe box. As I entered my mid-30s and became a mother myself, I wished I had those family recipes. I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. I use my grandmother’s plates, even though they don’t match, and I use her pots and pans, even though I have a brand-new set. Yet, with the loss of my father, I was longingly searching for a deeper connection to my family’s culinary past. 

And then by chance, while cleaning out my maternal grandmother’s armoire in July, I finally found one handwritten family recipe: “Kreplach,” an Ashkenazi Jewish delicacy otherwise known as Jewish dumplings. I remember my grandmother making them when I was a child, but only on occasion because they took a lot of time and work. I adored my grandmother, and would follow her around in the kitchen for hours as she prepared me three meals a day during our weekend sleepovers. Each meal she created had an appetizer, main course, and dessert. Only in her house did we have dessert — or danish, as she called them — after breakfast. 

With no office to commute from, I dreamed about spending the extra time recreating some family recipes. Except there were none to be found.

I did some more research on Kreplach, and it turns out you’re actually supposed to eat them during the pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur. Leah Koenig, the author of Modern Jewish Cooking, says, “Kreplach are traditionally served at a few Jewish holidays during the year, including the meal eaten just before the Yom Kippur fast begins. For that meal, meat-stuffed kreplach are typically served in chicken soup.” I was fascinated and searched for a deeper explanation. “The filling encased in the dough symbolizes being wrapped up in God’s protection, which is something one would aspire to on a holiday devoted to spiritual atonement,” Koenig  says. 

Finding this recipe that I didn’t know was missing felt like a hidden treasure during an unimaginable year. The Ashkenazi Jewish recipes in my family all but vanished once my maternal grandmother died 10 years ago, making her noodle kugel, blintzes, and chopped liver a distant memory. My mother’s family was Ashkenazi, hailing from Poland and Austria, while my father’s family was Sephardic, coming from Syria. When my parents met in Israel, my mother was used to chicken soup and kasha, while my father was used to hummus and kubbeh. After my father proposed, he made sure he and my mom watched his mother prepare all of her Sephardic delicacies — sans written recipes, of course — so they could do the same for their future family once they moved back to America. So, when I was growing up, our family’s cuisine revolved around the spicy and savory Sephardic recipes — and the sweet and rich Ashkenazi foods usually fell by the wayside. I’ve always missed my grandmother’s Ashkenazi cuisine, and this single recipe was one of my only last connections to it. 

Finding this recipe that I didn’t know was missing felt like a hidden treasure during an unimaginable year.

I dissected the one recipe my grandma thought important enough to write down. “Where did it come from? Was it inherited from her mother, who emigrated from Austria to the Lower East Side of New York City?” My mind wandered. Where’s her chocolate pudding recipe? Her baked apple recipe? Her tough-as-nails chicken cutlet recipe? I don’t even care what the food was, I want more. I want her handwriting, her Yiddish words, her beautiful diction that I can hear in my head as I’m reading it. I want to pass these handwritten recipes down to my daughter, from her great-grandmother, the one she’s named for, and the one who fed me so much when I was young that my mom had to have a talk with her because I gained so much weight. 

The recipe seems unfinished, and leaves off the meat filling. Nevertheless, I break out my grandmother’s rolling pin and get to work, improvising the rest. I picture my grandmother standing in the kitchen, wearing her hairnet, telling me to “Eat, mamala.” My version looks nothing like they’re supposed to, or like my grandmother’s, but I’ll get there one day. 

I never thought of food as metaphysical, but it’s sustained us through all we’ve been through, and if there were ever a year to fill our lives and food with spirituality, it’s this one. I will never get to read through my grandmother’s recipe cards, or shadow her in the kitchen. But through the feasting, and even the fasting, that the holidays bring this year, we’ll continue to ask each other “Did you eat?”