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From Kiev to Salonika: Cooking Across the Divide

September 4, 2012

by Fran Motola
I grew up in the Bronx during the post-World War II years, in a neighborhood near the Grand Concourse made up almost entirely of Jewish working-class families. Though predominantly Ashkenazim, among them were a significant number of Sephardic families, enough to have their own synagogue. My own assimilated Ashkenazic family had Russian roots (my father emigrated to the U.S. from Kiev when he was about 5, my mother was second-generation American and very proud of it). Although we appreciated our Jewish heritage, it seemed to me that being “American” was the goal in my family.
My social life from about ages 9 to 15 revolved around close friendships with three Sephardic girls who lived nearby. This was not by design; we were just four like-minded kids who enjoyed each other’s company. Such inter-socialization was not something our parents did, though. Often bonding through common language (Yiddish or Ladino), the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic adults socialized within their own groups. Our tenement buildings had primarily one group or the other, and even where there were families from both groups, they did not intermingle socially, although they did not discourage their children from doing so.
Our social life took place mostly on our block, where we jumped rope, played games, and, as we neared adolescence, hung out in front of Sy’s Candy Store on the corner (where, of course, the boys our age also congregated). It was at this candy store at age 12 that I met my future husband, a handsome Sephardic 14-year-old. Meeting him altered my Jewish identity by prompting me to bridge the two cultures — especially with food.
My mother was not a particularly good cook, but she did make some traditional Ashkenazic foods well. Chicken soup, brisket, and blintzes were staples, along with canned and frozen vegetables, lamb chops, steak, liver, and lots and lots of mashed potatoes. Our Saturday evening meal — lox, bagels, cream cheese, and whitefish, accompanied by a lettuce-and-tomato salad — was a not-to-be-missed ritual. It was all good.
I looked forward, however, to occasional Saturday lunches at my friend Roz’s home because it meant eating left-over rice and beans (or arroz y frijones, in Ladino) from her Friday night dinner. The beans were delicious, soft and tasty, very different from the Heinz canned beans served in my house. The Sabbath meal for a Sephardic family might include rice and beans and braised beef or baked fish as the main course — instead of the soup and then chicken. I loved this “radical” departure from my usual diet.
This was my introduction to traditional Sephardic food, which has been influenced over the centuries by the cuisines not only of Spain but of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey, all countries (among others) to which the Sephardim fled upon their expulsion from Spain and Portugal between 1492 and 1496. It was also the beginning of my lifelong association with the culture and traditions of Sephardic Jews.

The “Sepharad,” according to Rabbi Robert Sternberg in The Sephardic Kitchen, lived in Spain since well before the 4th century, under Moslem as well as Christian rule. Their customs, language and culinary traditions survived over the centuries because they lived mostly in ghettos in whichever country they settled. Their cuisines, however, were influenced by their adopted countries, as evidenced by differences in the use of spices, fruits and vegetables in households hailing from different lands. Today, for example, the kharoses prepared for a Passover meal might include apricots for a cook with roots in Turkey, dates for a cook from Egypt. In the 19th and 20th centuries, of course, many Sephardim emigrated to North and South America, which added other ingredients and foods to their cuisine.
The widespread use of vegetables, grains and fruit in Sephardic cooking is very much akin to what we refer to today as the “heart healthy Mediterranean diet.” My friends in the Bronx ate such “exotic” fare as okra, cooked celery, eggplant, fava beans, spinach and squash. Watermelon, grapes and other melons and fruits were staples in their homes. My husband had salad at every dinner, fish, and much less meat than I had. While in my parents’ house we ate potatoes, my friends and future husband grew up with rice as the starch of choice.
My good fortune in meeting, dating and marrying a Sephardic Jew changed forever the cuisine I cooked for my own family. I was the only one of my friends to marry a Sephardi, even though the boys we hung out with were mostly Sephardim. In the 1950s, some people in each of our communities considered our relationship as something of an “intermarriage.” They were not overtly against it, as far as I could tell, but I do think some on both sides would have preferred their offspring to marry within their community. I understand now that a tolerant attitude towards Ashkenazi-Sephardi liaisons did not exist in all Jewish communities, but fortunately for us, our parents expressed no reservations.

My mother-in-law, Allegra, to whom I grew very close, migrated to New York as a teen in 1922, from Salonika, Greece, where her family had lived for generations. She was a “life force,” gregarious, fun-loving, and affectionate, a doting parent and caring person. She married a few years after arriving in New York, had two sons, learned to speak English (in addition to Ladino, French, and some Greek, Turkish, and Italian), and became “Americanized,” working full-time outside the home as an “operator” on skirts. With all her time constraints, she still managed to cook the traditional foods for her family. A visit to her home, however brief it might be, always included a homemade pastry or olives and cheese, and a cup of Turkish coffee. Spinach fritada was often an added bonus.
Not only was I in love with her son, I was also in love with the dishes Allegra prepared. What a match! Through the years, this happy circumstance led to my learning to cook at my mother-in-law’s side, sometimes in her kitchen, sometimes in mine. She was very supportive when my initial forays were not so successful, but ultimately paid what to me was the supreme compliment: “You make it better than I do.”
As the years passed, my husband and I had two sons who came to enjoy the savory aromas and tastes of the dishes their grandmother prepared, as well as the Ashkenazi/American foods that I grew up with. I would describe our sons as “foodies” who enjoy foods from many places and cultures.
My husband still kvells (not Sephardic lingo) over a good spinach fritada or phylliqa (phyllo dough stuffed with a spinach, cheese or meat mixture) that I prepare. Not only does he love eating the foods, but I believe it evokes a sense memory related to his childhood and connection to his mother.
Allegra and I belong to the school of cooking in which you “put a little salt, add enough water till the dough’s not too wet” and “enough lemon juice to make the sauce taste right.” So when my sons grew up and married in 1989 and 1990, my new Ashkenazic daughters-in-law, who quickly grew to love the Sephardic foods they ate at our home, asked for the recipes. The directions I provided were not specific enough for them to replicate the dishes to their satisfaction because they were used to commercial cookbooks with more exact measurements. I decided to commit a few recipes to paper using standard measurements.
It was a time-consuming process that required me to convert habit and intuition to standard, consistent measurements, and I started and stopped several times. Sometimes memory failed me and I had to consult cookbooks focused on Sephardic cooking.
When Allegra died in 1990, a few months after our second son’s wedding, I decided that preserving her recipes along with photographs and anecdotes was a way I could pay tribute to the memory of this incredible woman, and keep her history and traditions alive for present and future generations. Over several years I assembled the material into book form, and now each grandchild and great-grandchild has a copy of Allegra’s Garden: a Cookbook/Memoir. Our grandchildren love the food. I am happy to say that one of our teenage granddaughters has already mastered the recipe below for Allegra’s Spinach Fritada, so for the moment, at least one descendant of Allegra will carry on her culinary tradition.

Allegra’s Spinach Fritada

10-ounce package of fresh leaf spinach (or 1 lb. loose spinach)
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
6 eggs
8 ounces low fat cottage cheese
4 sheets of matzo
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons corn oil and enough oil to coat the baking pan generously
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Wash spinach thoroughly, remove stems, and tear into small pieces.
3. Dry spinach thoroughly and place in large bowl.
4. In another bowl, break matzo into pieces, cover with cold water and let soak.
5. Add one tablespoon flour and 2 tablespoons of oil to spinach.
6. Add crumbled feta cheese, cottage cheese, 4 eggs and half the grated cheese.
7. Mix together until ingredients are well blended.
8. Squeeze water out of the matzo, add 2 eggs and rest of parmesan cheese.
9. Add all but 3 tablespoons of matzo mixture to spinach mixture. Stir to mix well.
10. Coat 9’x12’ pan generously with corn oil, making sure bottom and sides are well coated.
11. Put pan over low flame on top of stove. As oil begins to warm, add small amounts of the remaining matzo mixture around the bottom of the pan.
12. Add spinach mixture, spreading evenly around the pan, patting it down as you do this.
13. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
14. Remove from oven, pour off any excess oil.
15. Allow to stand for at least 15 minutes before cutting into portions for serving.
ENJOY! (Delicious with yogurt, grapes and melon).

Fran Motola was a teacher in the New York City public schools for many years, and on the faculty of Bank Street College of Education as an advisor, course instructor, and consultant to public schools. She lives in New York and Woodstock with her husband Gabriel, and is still cooking across the divide.