It almost didn't matter what holiday it was: Rosh Hashanah, Pesech, Hanukkah, whatever. Regardless of what the rabbis prescribed, our meal was identical. And whether celebrating an exodus from slavery or a festival of lights, Buba's food was the same: badly cooked.
As we sat in the living room before the meal snacks always boded well, especially when she made her famous chopped liver. In my earliest years I may have balked at the concoction, but soon enough I was a devotee of that high-cholesterol-inducing dream schmear. I tried not to focus on the fact that I was eating entrails and more on how good it tasted spread on a cracker. And that it was something that my Buba could cook, unlike what was to come.
The table was always beautifully laid. Buba used the good china and the good silver and lit lovely candlesticks, albeit without a brocha, each time we came together for the holy days. We began the meal innocuously enough with fruit. Always cantaloupe chunks with red grapes, for some reason, halved. Fancier that way, I supposed. I'd pick at the fruit, but I was always looking forward to what I considered the main event: matzoh ball soup. How was I to know that a matzoh ball was not to have the weight of a baseball or take as much effort to cut as a hunk of Swiss cheese? My Buba and Zayda's was the only Jewish table I knew, and as far as I was concerned, this was what a matzoh ball should be. Craggy as the surface of the moon, with shriveled, uneven skins, these hunks of starch were what I looked forward to. They sank in Lipton chicken soup mixed straight from the packet. As we began the soup course, I could hear the persistent click on the bottoms of our bowls as we pressed hard enough to chip away bite-sized pieces.
There were always chicken parts, though broiled or baked, I was never sure. Neither could I discern in what she'd marinated them, if she had. There was no skin, a strangely healthy choice that left the meat with no defenses in the oven and rendered them each, breast to thigh, a desiccated taut brown thing. They looked more like the hides of Jews on Miami beach during the yearly exodus from the Bronx than like something to eat. One might describe the chicken as overcooked but then what descriptor would be left for what loosely resembled brisket? I can only imagine she cut the meat into those strips before she cooked it, as our efforts to slice them on the plate were proof it was impossible. There were, at least, vegetables. Carrots, always mushy and shrouded in a thin, vaguely sweet mustard based sauce, and string beans that from time to time had a surprising, even hopeful, bite to them. Alas, potato halves too were roasted and shared the accompanying rock-like quality of the meats.
Dessert was a relief, bringing the other two things that my Buba could cook, "Annette's cake" and apple strudel. I'm not sure those squares were as a classic strudel should be constructed, but with a great balance of fruit, raisins, and not too much sugar, no one cared. She placed each piece in a delicate pink or blue baking cup. And the cake, a plain pound cake with a drizzle of Hershey's chocolate syrup poured through the center right before it went in the oven. A half of that ring could generally be found in our kitchen at home, named for my mother who was the cake's biggest fan. Or maybe Buba just looked for a way to honor my mom. Shortly after their meeting, she'd called my mom a "good balabusta", she kept a good house. Praise from Annette meant something, so the cake was always made for her.
Buba needed that praise, cherished it as much as our little family as we gathered around her table. I imagine she may have helped with the preparation of more than a few shabbes meals when she was a girl, but by 19 she was off alone in a prison camp in the Siberian tundra. How does a girl learn to cook a savory brisket there? When your mother, your sisters, your bubas, your aunts, your cousins, even your mother-in-law have perished, burning in god knows which camp, who is to teach you how hot the oven must be, the right amount of schmaltz, how the soup must boil to make the matzoh meal puff and float? So we ate her food. We ate well and full, grateful for each bite.