Monday, May 7, 2012

Comfort food and memory

To this day, I always feel special when I tell someone that I am a Greek Jew. It was, to my mind, unique to my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and second, third and “once removed” cousins. I would meet other Jews, but never Greek ones. (Meeting Leah in my forties at Gerrard Berman Day School was like meeting a long lost cousin!) Once a year, we would all go for a “Greek” weekend to the Saltz Hotel in Mount Freedom. The food was typical “Catskills” cuisine, but there would be a Greek band, and lots of Greek dancing with my father always leading. All eyes were on him and I was so proud that he was my father. If someone didn’t know who I was, I always just said “Jack Cohen’s daughter,” and it somehow put me in an elite group. We did not belong to a synagogue, and we were not observant but for a Passover seder every year with 15 of my cousins. Being Romaniote, Greek, my parents never felt at home in an Ashkenazi synagogue. In some ways, the Jews didn’t think we were Jewish, and the Greeks didn’t think we were Greek. My grandmother Mollie lived across the street with my aunt, and everyone cooked. I remember tomatoes stuffed with meat and rice, zucchini with tons of oil cooked in enamel pots, fasoulakia (string beans), and fasoulia (white beans), with chunks of meat. Bizelia (peas) with chicken in a tomato sauce was a favorite. My mother made bourekia with phyllo dough filled with spinach or cheese (always eggs and farmer cheese). We would make hundreds for parties. Farmer cheese and eggs would be mixed with flour and fried in oil to make pancakes called singatu. And again farmer cheese, eggs, and eggplant for patrigian. My mother also made tomato soup with orzo called bigeles, which to this day is the definition of comfort food to me. Two desserts stand out for me. Crunchy cookies called clouthia that we made with oil, not butter (to keep them pareve) and a sweet custard called galaptopta. My father’s mother made galaptopta every Friday. He and his brothers would go out after dinner and when they would come home, late, each would dip a spoon into it the pot. By morning nothing was left! My most prized family recipe is for caltzonia, little halfmoon shaped pastries, made with a very simple dough and filled with either farmer cheese filling, or spinach or meat filling. My grandmother Mollie would make them occasionally, four for us and four for my aunt’s family – even though we had five people and they had four — I feel the unfairness til this day! They were coated with oil, and always a little overdone so the corners (my favorite part!) were extremely crunchy. I called them “cheese buns,” and enjoyed them for breakfast. My grandmother was “off the boat” Greek even though she had lived in the U.S. since she was sixteen. She was the epitome of unconditional love, sweet and adorable, and represented, along with my other grandparents, our “special” background — we were Greek Jews! It made us different and exotic and unique. My grandmother died thirteen years ago at 97 years old, blessed with relatively good health and a sharp mind until the end. Neither my mother nor my aunt ever made caltzonia. After I moved out of the house, I went years without tasting them until I started questioning my mother’s scattered cousins for the recipe. Her cousin Julia, who at this time was in her eighties, sent me the recipe written out on index cards and complete with hand drawn diagrams. The first time I made them, I cried. In each bite was my childhood, my special Greek Jewish heritage, my grandmother’s hug.