Chicago’s cooks turn to their forebears for recipes and connection

Jewish heritage cooking brings proud traditions forward

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Rachelle Gold and her late mother, Harriet.

Among Jewish Americans, it is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the most meaningful, potent ways to honor the worlds of our forebears--whether they hailed from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Morocco, Iran, or dozens of other parts of the Diaspora--has been to replicate their cooking. Recipes handed down from grandmother to mother to son or daughter have allowed us to retain, even strengthen, the connection to our traditions.

Lifelong Chicagoan Dr. Rachelle Gold understands this well, perhaps because she is a clinical psychologist, perhaps because she is the co-president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, and certainly because she is the beneficiary of what has become known in common parlance as "heritage cooking."

Gold-- who lives not far from the West Rogers Park neighborhood in which she was raised-- did not know her maternal grandmother, Masha Gitel, but she knows Masha Gitel's sponge cake. That's because Gold's mother, the late Harriet Gold, learned it from Masha Gitel, who immigrated from Suvalk, a town near the border of northeast Poland and southwest Lithuania. Years later, Harriet Gold passed it along to her own daughter.

"In the days before electric mixers, beating egg whites by hand was an arduous task, and my mother, the youngest of Masha Gitel's brood, was allowed to help and thus to learn the art of making the airiest, softest sponge cakes," Gold said. 

She continued, "The secret was in the egg whites and the blending. My mother taught me how to know when the whites were exactly the right consistency--stiff peaks but not dry--and how to gently fold them into the yolk-sugar-flour batter, using the right implement (a wire loop with a handle) and wrist motions. I mastered the technique."

Today, Gold said, she credits her passion for baking to the lessons of earlier generations.

Chicago podcast and radio personality Turi Ryder, author of the memoir, She Said What? A Life on the Air , also connects to her maternal grandmother, the late Rose Julius, through cooking. Julius ran a wedding catering service in New York attached to the Orthodox synagogue where her husband was the rabbi. Ryder said among her favorite dishes that her grandmother made was a specialty called "vegetarian chopped liver." Ryder explained that Julius created it because Ryder's Great Uncle Jack, Julius's beloved brother, "was a vegetarian years before people were vegetarians."

For years, Ryder said, she implored her grandmother to teach her how to make it--"All I want is the recipe," she said--but Julius resisted. It was, she felt, a secret.

Then, well into her 90s, Julius finally acquiesced. In one of the last Rosh Hashanah cards she sent to her granddaughter, "she gave me the recipe in her quavering handwriting," Ryder recalled.

Ryder continues to make it--to rave reviews. But, like her grandmother, she is loath to pass on the recipe to friends and relatives. "If my grandmother kept it a secret, I want to keep it a secret," she said.

By making the food of her late mother, Esther Solooki, Account Manager in JUF's Marketing Department, has found a way to honor her memory and to connect to her family's Mizrahi culture. Solooki's mother, Ana Haim-Solooki, who died last year, and her father both immigrated to the States from Iran and raised their daughter in what she described as a "very Persian home life" in Indianapolis.

Whether it was a Shabbat, Passover, or the High Holidays, recounted Solooki, "my mother showed her love through food. Her passion was to make sure that everyone was fed."

Solooki would shadow her mother in the kitchen so that she could learn how to make such dishes as khoresh -- a stew of eggplant, green beans, beef or chicken, turmeric, and red pepper-- and abgoosht , a chickpea soup. She now makes these--and other Persian and Persian-Jewish--foods for her non-Mizrahi friends. Doing so, she said, "is a way of remembering my mother."

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago. 

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