Third Place - Critical Non-Fiction

A My sister, my two brothers, and I all remember my mother’s tzimmes—that is, we all remember eating it. As for everything else surrounding the tzimmes, the details are subject to much debate. For example, did my father like tzimmes or did he turn up his nose (the only one to do so at the table) when the steaming casserole of sweet potatoes, carrots, and potatoes found its esteemed place on the Passover seder table? I remember Dad liking the tzimmes (there was scarcely anything my mother made that he didn’t devour, hence his wide girth that contributed to his belt slipping lower and lower as the years went on). I recall Mom dishing out his portion first because like a king, he was always served first. But my sister Joan insists that the family joke was how much Dad didn’t like the beloved dish—too many flavors and textures all mixed together. If that was a family joke, then it has disappeared from my memory. At any rate, Joan has appointed herself the official keeper of family memories, so I defer to her position.

The most important tzimmes issue is to make the tzimmes, because re-creating the tzimmes is critical for a seder to bring back the days at 2410 Smith Avenue when 15 or 20 of us gathered around the table that extended well into the living room of our skinny Baltimore semi-detached house. Mom left us her recipe. In fact, she bequeathed it to Joan and me long before she passed away, about the time she began ceding first one seder, then eventually both to “the girls,” as we were called well into our fifties. The recipe, a mimeographed copy salvaged from a cooking class she taught at the Jewish Community Center, remains legible, but the measurements and timing defy duplication. She writes: “Cook together in a pot of water.” But not what size pot or how much water, a question that becomes critical when the ingredients are transferred from a pot sitting on the stove top to a casserole for the oven, and then topped with knadels, a series of oval blobs of potato-kugel that brown and form the crust—the most delicious part of the tzimmes. If the water is inadequate, the tzimmes becomes dry and gummy. If the water is excessive, the tzimmes leaks over everyone’s plate.

Then there’s the question of the timing. Mom writes about the stove top cooking: “When all is tender, add and stir in the following.” No idea about how long it might take to become tender. Similarly, when the casserole disappears into the oven, we are to cook it for “between 1 to 2 hours.” When trying to engineer the logistics of a seder for 15-20 people with one oven and one microwave, the cook needs to know exactly how long that casserole will be taking up one-quarter of the oven space.

In the almost eleven years since Mom’s death, Joan has stopped trying to re-create the tzimmes and has purchased prepared tzimmes from Wegman’s. But perhaps because I’ve always been the inferior cook in the family, I’ve been unwilling to give up and miss the taste of that tzimmes when properly done. It’s the final test from Mom, this stained, fading recipe. I have had some magnificent failures. But I persist. The guests around the table usually don’t editorialize on the failures since only a handful of us have ever attempted the time-consuming preparations, and those who have are grateful that the failure belongs to someone else. In recent years I have decided that cooking the tzimmes in the same thin tin casserole dish that Mom used provides the best chance to replicate her masterpiece. Still, I have fallen short, especially with the knadels, the critical final piece. Just as I felt I had fallen short when Mom asked, “Are you sure you can manage working, raising a family, and keeping up your house?”

In the whole family, only one person has regularly uncracked the code of the tzimmes — my daughter, who usually spends her seders at home in Los Angeles with her husband and children. On the few occasions we have traveled there for Passover, I have not seen her prepare the tzimmes from her inherited recipe, but I have reveled in the perfection of her final product. Not once, not twice, but three times—despite the competing pressures of work and young children! This past year, for the first time in ages, Jessica and her family traveled East for Passover. Together we tackled the tzimmes recipe, or I should say, she tackled it and I watched with awe. When the mixture looked too watery, she instinctively ladled out some of the liquid and added a bit more matzo meal. When she started to prepare the knadels, she deviated from the recipe, saying, “They’ll be too dry unless you have another egg and too skimpy unless you have another potato.” It had never dawned on me that the recipe wasn’t sacrosanct, that your eyes and taste could lead you to the perfect adjustments. For a mediocre cook, a recipe is like the ten commandments. Thou shalt use two large potatoes. Thou shalt fill the pot with water, then transfer the cooked items with ALL the liquid into the casserole dish.

As Jessica removed the tzimmes from the oven, its crust a golden brown, the carrot and potato base bubbling delightfully around the knadels, it was magnificent. I could feel my mother qvelling.

Next Passover Jessica won’t be coming East. Once again I will face the tzimmes on my own. Even with the awareness that recipes are intended to be adjusted to suit the cooking circumstances, I know that it remains a matter of chance if my tzimmes succeeds. Still, it is one last way to honor my mother and our differences, one last chance to hold on to the memory of her love—the most important ingredient of the tzimmes.