You may have noticed that I’ve grown to love cooking over the past few years. If you knew me at any point from birth through my college years and into early adulthood, then this might be considered a shocking development. There’s a pig flying, somewhere, somehow.
It certainly surprised my mother. Who could blame her? I used to blithley insist that pouring a bowl of cereal counted as cooking. At best, I could scramble some eggs and boil pasta.
I can say when it changed but I can only posit a guess as to why.
When: We were still living in Düsseldorf. It was a great apartment with an unsuaully spacious living room for a European apartment in our price range. That meant the kitchen took the hit in terms of space. At the time of signing the lease, I can’t say I really cared. I didn’t need much space to clean dishes, which was generally my job. Melanie cooked, I cleaned.
Slowly but surely, I started getting involved with the chopping. If you think you don’t like cooking, go chop some veggies. It’s remarkably satisfying and a good first step into pretending you know what you’re doing. In fact, there was a brief period in college in which I developed an interest in chopping. Remember those scrambled eggs? Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I used to slice and dice an onion to go with it.
(In hindsight, I’m also certain I didn’t properly sautée it first.)
I chopped mainly to help speed up dinner. Our easy, go-to dinner was always a burrito. We’d sautée some veggies (onion, red pepper, zuchinni) with some chicken layered in spices (paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper). I remember begrudingly asking Melanie if she could show me how to actually make the thing and not just chop. I say “begrudingly” because I was embarassed. I’d realized I was an adult human person who couldn’t cook and it wasn’t cute anymore when I said pouring cereal counted as cooking––if it ever even was cute.
I like to think it came pretty quickly. Learning to heat the pan, dropping a light layer of oil, chopping the onions while it heats up, sprinkling a few onto the pan to gauge the heat, and then dumping the rest in to start almost every recipe I’d learn over the next few years.
Why: Something strange started happening as I memorized our go-to meal: I liked it. I genuinely liked cooking. I’m not sure if it was the simple pleasure of providing a meal for someone or something in my DNA flickering to life. Probably a little of both.
Over time, I think I’ve started to understand why. Just as I’m falling in love with cooking, I’m pouring through genealogical webistes and documents to learn more about my ancestry. Ethnically, if that’s even the right word to use, I’m a bit of a mix. By my count, my ancestors come from the former Austor-Hungarian empire (most likely Slovakia, Romania, and Ukraine in modern terms), England, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, and Wales.
But growing up, none of those cultures came through in a tangible way. On both sides of the family, we were firmly assimilated. That in itself isn’t entirely surprising. My mother’s side had been Stateside for generations. My father’s side is more recent with everyone coming in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.
There was a period where I toyed with thinking of myself as Swiss. My surname comes from Switzerland. Plus, the pictures I found on Google at the time of Switzerland were pretty damn stunning (they still are). There are worse places to claim as your own, I thought at the time.
Just before getting married, I was able to go to Switzerland, take the train across country, ride bikes, hike, and even meet a Baur who descended from the side of the family that stayed in Europe. It was a wonderful experience. But I didn’t leave feeling Swiss or thinking of myself as Swiss.
This, too, makes sense. Despite my surname being Swiss, it’s just one great-great grandparent who I can trace back to Switzerland. And whatever traditions he held dear, they diluted and dissipated by the time I came around. To be fair, I could more or less say that about most of my ancestors and the traditions that were important to them.
Now, let’s catch back up to Germany. That’s where I learned what “Ashkenazi” was. (For more on that story, click here.) Sometimes when I tell this story, people misunderstand and think that it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized I was Jewish. That’s not true.
The issue was that I mistakenly thought of Jewishness as solely a religion. I didn’t think of it as a peoplehood with their own rich history, culture, and cuisine. I read a little more and discovered that the Ashkenazi ethnicity came together in the German Rhineland. At the time, I could see the Rhine outside my office window. In a way, I had unknowingly come home.
That’s when my research began in earnest, fueled by the strange familiarity I had with certain dishes, like potato kugel. I’d have flashbacks like the villain in Ratatouille. “Have I had this before or am I just making it up?” I’d think to myself. I’d occasionally send a photo to my brother to confirm whether or not I was making the connection up. “Oh, definitely,” was his response to the kugel.
I do think sometimes my brain might be making it up or exaggerating. But in the end, there was no denying my connection to Ashkenazi Jewish food. That truth hit especially hard when a little over a year ago I learned that my great-grandfather ran a horseradish business with his brothers.
(Sadly, this photo came from a cousin I’ve since met who simply had a photo of it. I never got to taste it before it went out of production around the same time I had just found out about it.)
Not only did my great-grandfather Maurice Leonard Stern run a food business, but his father, David Meyer Stern, ran a grocery store in Cleveland. Two of my older cousins from this side of the family run their own successful food businesses––Island Noodles and Guac Girl. Making these connections, my Guac Girl cousin told me, “Grandma was the cook of the family.”
I’d say there’s must’ve been a cooking gene getting passed down if the award-winning chef, writer, and historian Michael Twitty didn’t already popularize the phrase in his brilliant book.
With the dust coming off my culinary DNA, I wanted all of the recipes, the cookbooks, the histories, and stories behind each dish. I’d even settle for a good foodie idiom.
(My new, recently discovered favorite is the Yiddish “Dreyen zikh vi a forts in rosl,” translated by novelist and Yiddish scholar, Michael Wex, in his Rhapsody in Schmaltz as “to blunder around like a fart in the brine.” The gist is that “The person doing so has no idea where he is, why he’s there, or where he’s supposed to be going. He is bubbling frantically, but the bubbles that he’s making have nothing to do with fermentation.”)
Come to think of it, I think it’s fair to say most of us are bumbling around like a fart in the brine in search of what we’re supposed to do. I don’t want to be so bold as to suggest that I’ve graduated beyond the fart, but I do think the bubbles are starting to quiet and I’m finding my way out of the brine.
(Have I killed the metaphor yet?)
Ashkenazi Jewish food in general is having a moment right now thanks to a mix of reasons. People are simply more interested in food, different recipes are more widely available, and there’s a new generation of cooks unabashedly championing the cuisine. I’m thinking of cooks and authors like Leah Koenig, the duo behind the Gefilteria, and websites like The Nosher (where I’ve previously shared a recipe). They’re challenging outdated stereotypes of what Jewish food looks like (brown, gefilte fish-in-a-jar slop) all the while celebrating traditional recipes that are genuinely good. (I’m looking at you, cholent, tzmmies, and kasha varnishkes.)
I am no chef. I am no cookbook author. I’m the guy who nearly made it to his fourth decade of life, regularly pouring a bowl of cereal for dinner because that counted as cooking. So, I may still be blissfully ignorant of what’s out there to learn. But I feel an unshaking confidence in the fact that this is my cuisine.
And that, my friends, deserves a slice of babka.