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Grandmas’ Cooking

My grandmothers were great cooks, other than that you couldn’t find two less similar women. My elegant  paternal Granny Vera despised the kitchen (she preferred her piano), but when she was reduced to the need to cook she turned out little miracles. Her apple cake, her veal pot roast, her blueberry mousse swimming in a cool puddle of vanilla milk are still fresh on my tongue. She fried everything in butter and scorned the spicy garlicky cuisine of my other Granny – loud and hot tempered Rosa.

We all lived in Riga, but Granny Rosa and Grandpa Usher were originally from Kishinev. During World War II they were evacuated to the relative safety of Central Asia. When the war was over and they learned that all their family members who remained in Kishinev had been murdered, they decided to find another place to live and ended up in snobbish, pretty Riga, capital of Latvia.

Howeve,r in all matters culinary Rosa remained a Kishinev gal. Once a year a delivery of fresh eggplants arrived in a suitcase, and Rosa would cook up a storm. She would then call Granny Vera: "Drop by Veruchka. I have cooked blue ones (i.e. eggplants) with red ones (i.e. tomatoes)".

"So I went," Vera told her friends over a cup of coffee with cream, her voice thick with irony. "But instead of blue ones and red ones, she gave me some grayish goo…"

That grayish goo, that Granny Rosa had been making for me since I was little, was the best eggplant salad I ever tasted  –  flame roasted eggplant flesh, mixed with grated tomatoes, sunflower oil and chopped onion.

Granny Vera was my second mom. We lived in the same apartment. She tried, unsuccessfully, to turn me into a piano playing prodigy. She was very strict, stricter than my parents, but knitted the most beautiful sweaters for me. She also baked the most beautiful cakes. Once for my birthday she baked a cake with whole apples inside.

Rosa and Usher were my "weekend grandparents." Staying over at their place was always about food.  "Eat bread," Granny Rosa would order, while I gulped down chicken soup loaded with noodles. This is where I got my habit of eating bread with everything. I loved her food – her gefilte fish was golden and peppery (another reason for arguments with Vera whose version was pearly grey and subtly sweet), her zharkoye, meat stew with prunes – irresistible and because of her I even learned to like cholodetz, savory jelly made from gelatin rich veal or chicken bones and giblets. Most people find its wobbly texture off-putting, but I find it oddly delicious, especially with a generous dollop of fiery horseradish sauce

In the mid-70s we all left for Israel. Granny Rosa and Grandpa Usher were the first to go, then my aunt Gita, and finally my parents and I with Granny Vera. Before we left, Granny Vera had to sell her piano. I think it was the saddest day of her life.

In Israel, through a strange turn of fate, I found myself writing about food, editing a food magazine, developing cookbooks. "Do you come from a family of foodies?" I am sometimes asked, and automatically answer "No I don’t," thinking about my parents, who are great at many things, but foodies they are not. But then I remember Vera and Rosa, the applecake and the eggplant, two great cooks who agreed on almost nothing except their love for their granddaughter.

Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned. 

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