Rediscovering the Foods of Our Family
By: Stephen & Adam Podowitz-Thomas
The fish swam lazy laps around the tub, ignoring the ring of grime, and wondering what it had done to deserve this temporary imprisonment in porcelain. My grandmother had arrived with the carp from her parents’ fish shop on the lower east side, intent on turning it into gefilte fish for that night’s dinner.
“Hold on a second,” my husband, Adam, said, “she put a live, whole fish in the bathtub?”
While it was certainly one of the stranger things my family used to do, the story exemplifies the impression food from my childhood has left on me. I was telling him the story because we were working on a recipe for a Passover dish, something that came from my past, and something we hoped to share with a child of our own in the near future.
My husband and I had been talking about growing our family through adoption for sometime before we decided the moment was right to start the process. We carefully researched our options and settled on domestic open adoption because we wanted our future child to know their birthparents. We hope to have an open relationship with our child’s birthparents, as well. We wanted our child to have very positive associations with being adopted and know that everyone in their extended family (particularly, us and the birthparents) loves them.
Once we found the right open adoption agency, we were off and running. From our first information session to “going live” (in adoption lingo, that’s screened, approved and available to match with birthparents), we took about 1 1/2 months. That’s pretty fast for our agency, considering we had background checks, health screens, home visits, and many rounds of edits to our “dear birthmother” letter, but we were motivated to get it started.
And then began the waiting part of the process. Given how fast we got the paperwork portion done, you can probably tell that Adam and I like to keep things moving. Rather than just wait, we decided to use the time to think about the things that really mattered to us growing up.
One of the things that makes us both think of family is food. Adam grew up in Georgia and North Carolina and has fond memories of helping prepare his mother’s mac ‘n’ cheese and his Aunt Deanie’s dill bread. I grew up in New Jersey in a family with Eastern European roots, and I loved visiting my grandparents in New York, where they would cook stuffed cabbage, borscht, and sweet noodle kugel. Adam and I have decided that there won’t be any fish swimming in our bathtub, but thinking about our family traditions made us realize how much food has been a part of them for both of our families. We decided our love of cooking and the foods we remember fondly growing up were things we wanted to pass on to our child.
We set out to find those recipes and create our own versions of family classics, but between spending many years in school and moving to the other side of the country, we had forgotten many of the basics.
My first stop was my mother. I wanted my bubbie’s borscht recipe for us to try out that weekend. “She never wrote it down,” my mother responded. The same held true for most of my grandparents’ recipes.
Adam didn’t have much more luck. His family was a bit better about putting things down in writing, but when it came to Aunt Deanie’s dill bread, we hit a dead end. He knew which cookbooks some of the standards–brownies, biscuits, and beans–came out of, but there was no way to completely recreate the more special, and therefore more important, recipes.
While we didn’t have much luck sleuthing out written recipes, we still had our taste memories and the little bit of information our parents could provide. Armed with this base minimum, we have started experimenting. We’ve been taking advantage of online resources and cookbooks with ingredients and techniques that sound like they will reproduce the food we remember. Sometimes things don’t come out quite the same, but in most cases our intuitions have served us well. We’ve been incredibly stubborn, recreating recipes over and over again, changing small ingredients and tiny processes until it tastes the way it did when we were five.
One of our early successes was with kreplach soup. I remember going to a diner in New York near my grandmother’s house that had the most amazing kreplach, small “Jewish dumplings” often filled with coarse ground beef. It took grinding meat dozens of different ways (some were too fine, some had too much gristle, others had the wrong flavor), not to mention playing with the dough (figuratively and literally–our cat decided pieces of dough looked like balls she should steal off the counter and hide under the couch), until we got it right. But wow, when we hit, we hit it spot on.
We have also found ways to blend our food traditions, including stunning versions of sweet potato bourbon kugel, pecan pie rugelach, and dill challah. Believe it or not, Jewish and Southern food pair unbelievably well, at least if you’re willing to leave out the ham hock in the green beans (which Adam still swears is a sacrilege). By sharing the flavors from our childhoods, we’ve learned more about one another and begun developing our own traditions that we’ll be able to share with our future children. We may not be a traditional “blended” family, but we’re certainly discovering new ways of combining our pasts and developing an image of our future.
With all of the work we’ve been putting in to these recipes, we decided it might be worthwhile to record them, both so we can recreate them in the future, and to hopefully make it easier to pass them on to our future kids. Our blog, Biscuits & Brisket, was born from this effort. As is so frequently the case, writing the stories that we associate with these foods has brought back other memories and more recipes to try. It has also created more traditions for us.
While we’re still waiting to match with a birth mom, we’re feeling increasingly confident that when we do, we’ll have the ability to share our love, both for each other and with our child, through our food. We’ll teach them about the traditions that we hold dear, and create more of our own. And we won’t have any fish swimming in our bathtub.
Read more about Stephen & Adam’s journey to adoption on our profile page.