Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Bronx Food Story - Personal, Intimate and Revealing
I remember food. It was the most important aspect of my life while growing up in the Bronx. But not to me. Mom and dad were obsessed with anything kosher and edible. Ethnic food was always around us. We bought the basic ingredients at local Jewish merchant stores, talked about it, moulded it, cut it, cooked it and ate it. With one caveat, there were never any leftovers. Whatever was served was devoured to the last sucking of the marrow on the bones.
Sometimes food was thought of so reverently that it overshadowed other aspects of our life. Especially when the cupboard was bare for a day or two before payday.
When one grows up in such an egregious environment where food is held in such high regard it’s thought of as normal. But as the years progressed the talk of food at our our home and during events at other homes became to be a subject ad nauseam. After a wedding, bar mitzvah or funeral the talk of the food served was spoken more often and with greater passion than about the event or people we visited.
Even in my adulthood when living far away from my family and during occasional visits to see them food was the first order of business. However it quickly became a subject of contention if it were not accepted with fervor and devoured in massive quantities. No subject was more important, more heated or caused more consternation.
Yet there was an ironic twist to this history of pushing food down one’s throat - figuratively speaking of course. Mom was a good but inconsistent cook. Sometimes her creations were masterpieces and other times were rushed flops.
When the few women guests we had over during rare occasions asked mom for her recipes she was flabbergasted. Why? Mom never relied on recipes but rather memory, which was another issue. And not being a great communicator mom was unable to share her unique food creations. My take was that she didn’t want to share the knowledge of the one skill she had so well culled - cooking.
However, there were many legitimate and practical reasons for my folks food antics. Unspeakable extenuating circumstances laid the foundation for their food behavior. Their actions were well founded and based on years of horror and misery.
As teenagers living in Poland they were whisked off to Siberian labor camps in 1939 when Germany and Russia invaded their country. They toiled in the bitter cold weather of snow and ice with bare essentials and little or no food. When I would chat with my folks over the years bringing up this uncomfortable subject they shared horrific stories of sickness, mistreatment and starvation where many of their friends and relatives died around them from exposure, disease or malnutrition.
After being released from the cold and hard labor camps they wandered around southern Russia, wound up in Uzbekistan and finally in Germany where American Soldiers and German people helped them get settled in a displaced persons camp before emigrating to the US.
During a trip to Israel in 1991 I had an opportunity to meet my long lost aunt. My mother’s sister Sonja who lived in Tel Aviv. She shared many heartbreaking stories about her family in Siberia during their hard labor encampment there. One struck me deeply regarding the food issues with my mom. Sonja spoke about my mom being strong, fearless and dynamic. She would scour the Russian soldiers’ trash digging for potato peelings, bones, rotten vegetables, fruit peals and heaven knows what else to feed her family. Some of the other secrets Sonja shared I cannot.
Those years in the Siberian labor camps and wandering through unknown parts of the world were horrendous experiences I’ll never know. Between their lives in Poland and their early years in the US there were many onerous obstacles to hurdle. But having enough to eat was their main concern that never left them. Even today when I talk to my dad his first words are usually “what did you eat today”? I had cereal milk and bananas”.