©Elisa Salasin, 2011


By Ruby Bernstein

In my teenage days my mother taught me that a respectable baleboosteh did not buy bottled Gefilte fish or canned matzoh balls.  Certainly it was okay to indulge in S & W canned string beans (and we ate plenty of those), but when it came to the articles of Jewish cuisine no true maven would accept substitutes.  The Settlement Cookbook – “The Way to a Man’s Heart” – the Bible of immigrant cooking – was prominently displayed in our kitchen.  But my 50-year-old mother had neither the Joy of  Cooking  nor in cooking;  her varicose – veined legs had lost their stamina after years of standing on hard cement floors.

Since we lived in a Jewish cook’s desert, making gefilte fish or blintzes brought many complaints from mother. “No pot cheese, no sturgeon,” she would say, throwing up her arms after a futile search through Santa Maria’s A & P and other food emporiums.  Dry cottage cheese and seabass were her creative substitutes.

The fish ball making was a major feat, lasting into the night.  These were the days before the Cuisinart or the Waring Blender; a well-equipped kitchen might boast an electric food  chopper, but we didn’t have one.  Oh, how my mother’s legs ached as she stood for hours removing the fish skins, filleting the fish, chopping the flesh to a fine pulp by hand in her wooden mortar, holding her steel chopper firmly. After she added the raw eggs and spices and onions, she used sushi-like skins to keep the soft, whitish mixture in place.

Plop!  The  gefilte fish balls, one at a time, bounced gently into the tub of simmering broth filled with sweet orange carrots and fresh celery as well as eye-watering onions. The trick was for the gefilte fish to be light and white and succulent. The utter disgrace would be the whisper, “Mrs. Bernstein’s gefilte fish –hard as a rock and the color –oy!” But my mom’s tempting gefilte fish, served cold with fresh beetroot horseradish, always took first prize.

Bakersfield, our religious mecca, lay 140 dizzying miles to the northeast over a winding two – lane road.  My family always anticipated the High Holy Days’ journey, for as special guests we would be invited to eat the real McCoy, not in restaurants, but at the spotless homes of the high priestesses of the kitchen.  Mrs. Einstein, pudgy and dissheveled, was known for her lighter than air strudel; near-sighted Mrs. Daniels for her sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage; and the elegant and handsome Mrs. Himovitz for her cheese cake.  Indeed it was special to receive an invitation to break the fast at the home of one of these doyens of high caloric cuisine.

Even better was a visit to Mrs. Einstein’s kitchen while preparations were in progress. Never mind Bakersfield’s Indian Summer, she and her daughter, Frances, true artists, pulled and pushed the strudel dough, stretching it over miles and miles of dining room table, patting it, pulling it, making it weep over chairs, run over buffets.  While they pushed and pounded their doughy mounds into translucent sheets, the smell of apples and cinnamon permeated the house.

Since we had only five Jewish families in our small California coastal town almost a day’s journey north of Los Angeles, we did not often get to indulge in Jewish bakery or delicatessen.  A trip to Los Angeles with my father in his two-ton truck to deliver scrap metal to his dealer landsman always meant a stop in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. There on the streets animated Yiddish voices scolded and shouted about the day’s events. In the delis – ah, that is where the action took place – Kosher salamis – always from New York or Chicago – streamed from the ceiling. Smoked white fish with shimmering scales and beady eyes lay perspiring on the counter.  The hot dogs – round and juicy and spicy – beckoned; they were nothing like the kind my gentile friends ate.  Breads overflowed the bakery counter: rye with seeds, rye without seeds, dark, light, round, oblong; pumpernickel, challah – olfactory and ocular bliss.

Although the deli’s pastry section defied description, my favorite cakes were the little slices of colored sponge – yellow, pink, and green layers – glued together by sweet strawberry jam and covered on the outside by thin, dark chocolate.  Russian bakeries make them even today although the texture isn’t quite the same as in my memory.

Behind the bakery counter stood the sturdy, buxom counter-maid, always in a hurry and always with a smart remark, “Come on, sir, I don’t have all day!”  She would handily box and bag and tabulate and ask, “What else?”  And we would always purchase more.

On these trips my stout father was the mayor of the delicatessen.  In his pocket he had orders from all of our Santa Maria Jewish friends, plus requests he would honor from his non-Jewish customers.  “Five pounds of lox, 20 rye breads, 12 salamis, eight white fish –wrap them well,” he would call out, systematically moving from counter to counter.  On the long return home his truck, filled with these ethnic delights, would bounce and belch the miles up the 101.

When I did not accompany him on these trips, I waited by the window nagging my mother, “When will daddy be home?” Even if I lay fast asleep, she would wake me when his gruff laughter preceded his arrival, and the three of us would storm the kitchen for real bread and white fish to celebrate his return and the return to our culinary roots.

©Ruby Bernstein, 2011

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74 and ’83, volunteers with WriterCoach Connection, Media Academy, Oakland.  “It’s terrific to work with these bright students and no papers to correct!”

5 Responses to “A Way to a Man’s Heart by Ruby Bernstein”

  1. Ruby what a delightful trip down memory lane…what talent!!

  2. jane juska Says:

    Your best yet,, Ruby.

  3. wolfcrow Says:

    Really great memoir piece, Ruby. Good to see you here. I couldn’t think of a bouncy topic!

  4. Paul Dalmas Says:

    Great fun, Ruby. My mouth is watering.

  5. Judy Bebelaar Says:

    Great details, fun to read. And I have that cookbook on my kitchen shelf too!


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