25 November, 2016


Grigory had tried. He really had.

Eva, being the premature bride she was, had been given the benefit of the doubt more times than her wonderfully patient husband cared to recognize; and patience came easily, for her overall manner was so utterly mild, agreeable, pleasant.

But all of this turned to mud when it came to the matter of her appalling cooking. It stands to reason that all Jewish women live and breathe to cook, yes? They never get tired of stirring and peeling and kneading and chopping. They go to sleep at night spooning the crock-pots, and awake each morning to find a skillet under their pillow and a rainbow arching serenely, magnanimously, over the stove. But the truth is, there were many days when Eva would have done anything to avoid the culinary perils of her kitchen. Anything. Hit-herself-over-the-head-with-the-aforementioned-skillet-from-under-the-pillow anything. Anything.

For the first few years of their marriage, Eva had many of those days. At first, she thought it was because of her recent run of bad secular recipes: she had trouble with preparations, non-kosher foods that seemed not only foreign but forbidden. She felt pornographic palpitations when handling dairy and meat on the same chopping board, and lost concentration removing the tails from shellfish, or chopping fine pieces of streaky bacon. Her palpitations notwithstanding, she jumped in with both feet, (for, as her mother had always said, if one is going to eat pork, one might as well eat a belly-full). Nonetheless, it was a challenge to feel enthusiastic about cooking after she had botched a number of meals in a row. And, by a number, one means to say, all.

Grigory, however, bless his sanguine heart, believed that she was still capable of redemption, and went about staging something resembling an intervention. He told Eva, quite simply, that she had to stop buying loaves of bread and pre-prepared vegetable dishes from the green-grocer and passing them off as her own. Eva nodded solemnly. Not long after, she successfully made her very own loaf of dark rye. The next day, she made soup[1]. Progress.

* * *

Eva’s challenges were not simply cultural and dietary; she had considered herself to be the passive victim of Sarah's natural ease in the kitchen, and, having identified her deficiency quite early, had somehow always skillfully managed to hand the majority of actual cooking duties over to her sisters. Eva claimed she was more of a food preparation sort of a creature: she cut the carrots, kneaded the dough, chopped the onions, slyly handing these things over to those who knew what in the world to do with them.

She thought her approach stealthy, and believed it would serve her a few more years, and indeed it might have. Had she remained in the shtetl, these shortcomings would have revealed themselves in due course, and their ever-insistent mother would have, with vigorous severity, whipped her flightiest daughter in to a cook one could at the very least describe as solid. Unfortunately for everyone’s sanity and general digestive health, Mother never got that chance. And perhaps regardless of missed opportunities, Mother’s efforts might have been in vain, because for Grigory, it was Eva’s knowledge of exclusively Jewish cuisine that proved the initial barrier during their first few months together.

First off there was cholent. This combination of noxious gases had been the secret weapon of Jews for centuries, and the unique combination of beans, barley, potatoes, and bones or meat was meant to stick to your ribs and anything else it came into contact with. His wife attempted something unusual for their first house guests: She made cholent “steaks” for Sunday night supper. The guests never came back.

Next there was kugel, which, although usually considered a dessert of some description, Eva chose to prepare as a savoury main dish. “The very first kugels were savoury, you know!” she informed him, proudly plopping the heavy dish down before him, expectancy in her eyes. The dish heaved a plethora of noodles, onions and salt and was, apparently, meant to be edible at room temperature, which, Grigory discovered to his grave disappointment, was not entirely the case. As the weeks progressed, Eva, inspired, skipped the noodles, and substituted everything from potatoes, to matzah, to cabbage, carrots, spinach and even to cheese for the base. Grigory soldiered on, with love.

Finally, there was kreplach, which sounded much worse than it tasted. Eva informed him with a certain frenzied air that it could be soft, hard, or soggy, and the amount of meat inside its sturdy folds depended upon whether your mother or your mother-in-law had cooked it! She laughed maniacally at her own joke, but Grigory was too frightened to laugh—both at his wife and the soggy mess before him. Yet, despite Griogry’s attempts at pretense, and despite Eva’s valiant efforts, he never succeeded in fooling her, and she never succeeded in feeding him. Every meal ended with an emotional meltdown.

The truth was, Eva longed to provide for Grigory, to be his perfect partner in life. So complete was this longing that she focused her overall value to Griogry exclusively on her command of the kitchen, forgetting her virtues entirely in favor of the crippling solitude of self-flagellation[2]. She would therefore burst in to a fit of childish temper if he attempted to assist, teach, or comfort her.
It was beyond them both.
He didn’t have a prayer.

[1] Eva made Ukha soup. Ukha is a warm, watery fish dish, though calling it a “fish soup” would not be completely correct. Beginning from the 15th century, fish was more frequently used to prepare ukha, ergo creating a dish that had a distinctive taste, but Ukha as a name for fish broth was established only in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, prior to which the name was given to thick meat broths, then later chicken. Today it is more often a fish soup (prepared with preferably freshwater fish), cooked with potatoes and other vegetables. Chava’s attempt at Ukha, for what it is worth, was tremendously noxious and tasted of feet. At least she had tried.

[2] Well, you can take the girl out of the shtetl…



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