I began by telling them about my grandmother's kitchen in Brooklyn, with its buckling linoleum floor and fluorescent light fixture. She only cooked with chickens that came from a kosher butcher, and she first had to soak them in salt and drain the blood. Then she removed the thick, yellow globs of fat, and rendered them in a pan with onions. The fat would melt and mix with the onions, and she poured the concoction into a glass jar and put it in the refrigerator. When it became solid, it was used as a spread—instead of butter—on rye bread, and it was called schmaltz. I couldn't believe I was sitting at someone's table, talking about congealed chicken fat.
"Shmaltz!" exclaimed Andrew, interrupting my thoughts. "We love schmaltz. We Ukrainians make it from pig fat!"
"Pig fat?? My grandmother—wherever she is— is covering her ears right now so she doesn't hear the name of the forbidden food!"
"She didn't like pig?" Andrew asked.
"Like it? I doubt she ever got within fifty feet of it," I explained. "It's taboo. Verboten. Like one of the ten plagues. And speaking of the plagues, at Passover time my grandmother prepared gefilte fish—a poached, oval fish ball that was made from de-boned, ground pike, whitefish, and carp. It was served with chrain, or horseradish."
"Yes, chrain, that's what we call it too!" announced Hala, as we all toasted to chrain.
I explained that for Chanukah, my grandmother fried potatoes to make patties called latkas.
"Platzkes!" Igor bellowed, and we all roared with vodka-soaked good humor.
I added that on Friday, for the Sabbath, my grandmother sometimes made kugel, which was a sort of egg noodle pudding that baked in the oven until the outside of the noodles became crisp. It was a very dense dish and, when served piping hot with kishka, which is made by stuffing animal intestines with flour, spices, leftovers, and God knows what else, and the effect on the body is like consuming tasty molten lead.
"Kishke," Hala repeated, and she ran off the kitchen to bring us some to taste. It was made from stuffed intestines and had blood inside of it. I am not big into eating blood, veins, capillaries, arteries or any other part of the circulatory system, but everyone was watching to see what I thought. I winced visibly, I shuddered internally, and I nibbled politely.
"Do you still use family recipes in your cooking?" I asked Hala.
"The borscht we ate today came straight from my grandmother," she replied. "And I am sure that Oksana makes borscht like her grandmother did."
"The nectar of her grandma," added Andrew, clearly pleased with his mastery of the new word.
"Nectar," Oksana chimed in.
I put down my fork and knife, carefully folded my napkin, and looked very seriously at Hala and Oksana. "You two should come to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any big American city, and open a deli. You'd be a roaring success. The food is all familiar, but you give it a particularly fresh, authentic, earthy, vodka-infused, Ukrainian spin. Would you consider doing that?"
"Sure," said Andrew with a grin. "And they can call the deli Nectar."
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist and speaker. Her just-released book, The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Trip to Ancestral Lands, is about her life-long obsession with her grandmother's Ukrainian village and the importance of connecting to our ancestors. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us
Out of Smyrna by Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer
Tipsy in Transnistria – Trying to Stay Sober in Nowhereland by Rory MacLean
Chickens and Tea in Azerbaijan by Carla Seidl
From Red to Green in Bulgaria by Tim Leffel
See other Europe travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: