One full day was spent making gefilte fish. Hers was homemade, all but unheard of in the 1980s. From a jar or Jewish deli is where those salty hunks of the Chosen People’s “spam” came from in other people’s homes, and with good reason I assure you.
First she’d gather a boatload of raw fish, different types of white fish, I believe. By the time I’d witness any action, shopping was done (she and my mother) and chopping had begun. She used an ancient wooden bowl, roughly the size of a kitchen sink, probably brought over from the old country (grabbed fleeing a pogrom?) and a wooden-handled chopper with a crescent-shaped blade (that scares me to this day).
With both hands she'd grip the chopper, pointing her elbows outward, mincing the fish for hours, spinning the bowl every ten seconds or so, occasionally sweeping her wrist across her forehead to push a hair back, hands glistening with fish oil. When the fish would reach baby food consistency, my grandmother was banished to the outdoors for what I call “Gefilte Fish, Step Two,” a.k.a. “this really stinks up the house for weeks so maybe your mother can cook the fish outside, dear.” My dad would fill a huge electric pot (also ancient looking) with gallons of water and set it on a bench on the backyard deck. Once the water began to boil, she would sculpt, with bare hands, the mini football shaped pieces eventually to be served atop pieces of romaine, sliced carrots on the side. Into the steaming water (or was it chicken broth?) went each “Gefilte” to simmer until cooked through. (My father claims she smoked simultaneously, cigarette ash sometimes landing in the pot.) If early fall (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur), bees would swarm her and my dad would run outside to shoo them away.
Had I stood by her side, today I might be making gefilte fish twice a year instead of doing triceps curls twice a week but the process looked no fun at all. So from afar I watched my grandmother love every minute, careful not to touch her for fear of staining my favorite sweater.
Now for the Chocolate Whatchamacallits, invented well before the candy bar, by the way. My grandmother’s story, which I’ve heard a time or two, is that she concocted the dessert “years ago” after tasting a “pretty good” homemade cupcake at “whatshernameagain’s” house. She took the recipe, which whatshernameagain was happy to share, added a bit of this and a little of that. The result was a party-in-the-mouth: mini chocolate cupcakes topped with a cream cheese-butter-chocolate chip mixture and chopped pecans previously sautéed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Heaven in a paper muffin cup. And since they were chocolate and she couldn’t think of whattocallem’, the Chocolate Whatchamacallit was born.
“I’ve had one of those before!” you may be thinking. “At that party over Christmas, or from the bakery down the street.”
You are wrong. You may have eaten a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese topping, but if you didn’t get it from me, or my brother, a Chocolate Whatchamacallit it was not. Only those who have been properly trained can produce the real thing, or as close as possible. My brother and I are among the lucky few who learned the process first hand.
Sadly, not all my grandmother’s relatives have the touch. A cousin on my father’s side has arrived at family functions proud to present these beloved treats. Family members rush the tray, eager for a taste, but after a bite or two, heads shake.
“Not the same, nope,” someone says.
The baker is not insulted. “I followed her recipe exactly,” she says. “They should be the same.”
It’s not your fault, I think to myself; you’re just too far away from her on the family tree, and you probably didn’t pay close enough attention when she showed you how to bake them. That part is your fault.
So my family never passed up a chance for the real deal, always requesting Chocolate Whatchamacallits when she visited from Florida. To say she accommodated was an understatement. Seemed she never stopped baking those visits except to go outside for a cigarette.
When weekends home from college coincided with her visits, it was impossible to resist grabbing a stash of the goods on my way back campus. Major threat to “want to fit into jeans later.” My solution was to aggressively, yet graciously, dole out the contraband to roommates, friends, men on the street.
“This is the best cupcake I ever tasted!” people would say. Beaming I'd imagine my fellow students telling their hometown folks about the world's greatest baker.
“So my roommate forced this cupcake on me…baked by her grandmother. You’ve never had anything like it.”
“Tell us more!” shout family and friends of the lucky soul.
“There was a topping of some sort…cream cheese, chocolate chips and something else.” Licking her lips to stimulate the parietal lobe she gets it. “Chopped pecans sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar! That’s what it was!”
Too bad she leaves out the pecans were sautéed in butter. Nevertheless, her audience wants a taste. “You must bring them to us!”
She laughs. “Are you crazy? Those cupcakes won’t survive the first thirty minutes of my next drive home.”
In January 2000 my grandmother died at age 91. A year later at her headstone dedication, I showed up with a freshly baked batch of Whatchamacallits. After all, what's a family gathering without a little something to nibble? My relatives and I stood around her gravesite and indulged. My dad, wet-faced with tears and exploding with nostalgia, rolled his paper muffin cup into a ball and placed it, instead of a stone, on her headstone.
“That was the best Chocolate Whatchamacallit I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
“Dad, seriously,” I said. “They can’t be as good as hers.”
“Actually,” he said, “I think they might be better.”
That was my day to deliver the joy.
That was my day to deliver the joy.