When folks want to know I tell them I split my growing up between the saltwater air of Seattle and the brilliant Rocky Mountain sunshine of Denver, but what’s harder to convey is the way that Queens, New York fed my childhood.
Physically we lived West of the Mississippi, but my stepmother, who raised us, was a NY expat who brought Forest Heights with her -- along with certain expectations.
Bagels were one. My dad ferreted out what was probably the only bagel bakery in Denver at that time, and I got myself in trouble in second grade when I answered a question in class -- one that baited us with something like “what’s a round breakfast food with a hole in the middle?” -- with the word “bagel”. Red ink followed, and when I approached the teacher about the misunderstanding she said: “the answer was donut -- what’s a bagel?”
She may well have said: “What the *#(@)! is a bagel?”
The Arts were another, and hard to come by in Denver. Used to hopping a subway into Manhattan from the time she was a young girl, my stepmom had to make due with loading us kids into Feff and searching the crevices of Denver and Seattle for whatever little cultural attraction they afforded. There were tours of the Mint and the Capitol building; plays and ballets with surprising frequency (albeit, not all of them any good); museums, the Science Center, street fairs and anything else that might harbor a pulse.
And then there were the home cooked meals. Which in many ways harbored the crux of her conflict.
There was the part where Mom was passing -- trying her darndest to cook like a good hippie should. You could say we lead the health food revolution. And it wasn’t always pretty.
Course homemade breads, school lunches packed with avocado and alfalfa sprout sandwiches on that bread, unfiltered juices, and split pea soup laced with tofu instead of ham. Unattractive, hardly palatable, and nothing you want to be seen eating in public, as the new kid, in the school cafeteria. It’s with shame that I admit here in this public space that those school lunches usually languished in my locker while I scored a Hostess chocolate donut snack pack for fifty cents and called that my lunch.
Now I’m grateful for that cupboard full of raw honey from the co-op and the kind of peanut butter you have to stir to eat from my childhood, because the foods I dig the most are foods that just happen to be good for me. (Like kale. Crave it. Odd. Yes.) But then it was, frankly, difficult to eat, because it had no flavor. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that sweets were largely banned from our household , with the exception of ice cream (always holy, always good), and that most eagerly anticipated Fall harvest: Halloween candy.
These habits were exacerbated as the difficulties in my parents’ marriage mounted: As my stepmom grew increasingly unhappy, the meals she prepared grew bitter and more difficult to choke down.
But there were a few dishes that she made that were always spot on, delicious and made for devouring. That would be: Anything Jewish.
Matzoh-brae and latkes; noodle kugel and blintzes. These became my true comfort foods, because they were always so well made and so good -- probably because Mom knew them in a way that was true and familiar. And she got them right. So right.
Yesterday driving home from Evanston I spotted a sign along Dempster for Kaufman’s Deli that bragged “Chicago Magazine Number One Deli 2007.”
So yeah: I stopped in. It was part of a bakery binge, actually: I dropped by Bennison’s earlier, for their killer carrot cake cupcakes and a loaf of Challah and it made perfect sense to keep the madness going. I came away from Kaufman’s with some tremendous turkey pastrami, a couple of knish large enough to feed a small hill tribe, and the Noodle Kugel of my dreams.
I didn’t share the kugel -- that creamy, cheesy, pudding like thing. I made a lame offer, of course, a weak: “do you want some?” But I didn’t try to sell it to my sweetie, and he had no interest, Midwestern boy unfamiliar with kugel that he is.
Which meant I got to eat it all, just as soon as I got home.
p.s. The NY Times posted a noodle kugel recipe not too long ago. I haven’t tried it yet -- why bother when there’s Kaufman’s? -- but it has all the right pieces, so here you go:
Crunchy Noodle Kugel à la Great-Aunt Martha
Time: 1 hour
1 cup raisins
Sherry or orange juice
1 pound egg noodles
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, more for pan
4 large eggs
3 cups cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
1. Put raisins in a microwave-safe bowl or small saucepan and cover with sherry or orange juice. Heat on stove top or in microwave oven until liquid is steaming hot (about 1 1/2 minutes in microwave or 3 minutes on stove). Let cool while you prepare kugel mixture.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter an 11-by-17-inch jellyroll pan. Cook noodles according to package directions and drain well. Immediately return noodles to pot and add butter. Toss until butter melts.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cottage cheese, sour cream, sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and salt. Drain raisins and add to bowl along with buttered noodles. Mix well.
4. Spread mixture in prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until top is crusty and golden, 25 to 35 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings.
From A GOOD APPETITE; Extra Crunch For the Kugel in the 12 September issue of the New York Times
 Like all forbidden fruits the candy thing came back to bite us. We could regularly expect ten bucks in cold cash from our grandparents for our birthdays, and more than once I took all ten and blew it on candy at the UTotem with my best friend Heather. We ate all we could in the park in an orgy of big chunk and Hostess fruit pie wrappers, and then, with much regret, dumped what we couldn’t consume in the trash.