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Wednesday Night Fiction: Oral History -- Strudel

Barbara Ann Porte
August 2, 2017

by Barbara Ann Porte

IT WAS SOME TIME around 1990 when my aunt by marriage, Betty Spodak, came to visit me for a week. She'd celebrated her eightieth birthday several months earlier. It was during this visit I heard, for the first time, that she'd started life with a different first name, Bertha. "Immigrants were always giving their children names the parents couldn't pronounce: Edith, Gertrude, Bertha, Murray. They'd spit just trying to get them out. As soon as I was old enough legally to do so, I changed mine. Not long after, I married your uncle Harry, and changed my last name, too." My uncle was deceased now for years.

I guess it was thinking back to their wedding day plus her being seated at my kitchen table, watching me cook, that caused my aunt to recall the following story. It began with her mother, Mrs. Rahn, whom I had met at this or that family celebration in the long-ago past. She'd come here with her husband from eastern Europe, I think Poland, to join relatives already settled in Brooklyn. Soon after, she gave birth, first to my aunt, then over a period of several years to two boys:

"In Yiddish, she was a baleboste. In English, a homemaker," my aunt recounted. "Most of every weekday and Sunday she spent cooking, cleaning, mending, food shopping, gossiping on benches out-of-doors with local landsmen. She made strudel for all their daughters' weddings. No sooner was some girl engaged to be married than her mother would come visiting mine in order to arrange for her to bake the strudel dessert."

"Why your mother?" I said.

"Because my mother's strudel was the best strudel in the world." My aunt enumerated some of its ingredients: "apples, raisins, cinnamon, sugar, mixed jams; dough so thin, you could hold up a letter behind it and read it."

"Letter?"

"Like my grandmother wrote me from Europe. I learned to read and write Yiddish just so we could correspond. I still make parve rugelach using her recipe; yeast, but no cream cheese."

"I see." Then I asked, "So, when you got married, did your mother make strudel for your wedding?"

"Naturally she made it. You don't think she'd make strudel for every other bride in town, and not for her own daughter, do you? She used only the best and freshest ingredients, carefully mixing, then lovingly baking, never minding how hot it was that June, our apartment small and poorly ventilated -- no air conditioning. It was the finest looking strudel she had ever made. Unfortunately, none of the wedding guests ever got to taste it."

"Why? What happened?"

My aunt Betty shrugged. "Who knows? But when it came time for dessert, and the waiters went from the rented reception hall party room to the kitchen to get the strudel, it was gone. Not a slice. Not a crumb. Only an empty, oversize cake plate, clean as a whistle. Until the day she died, just thinking about it brought tears to my mother's eyes."

* * *

"HUH! What kind of story is that? Strudel doesn't just disappear. Someone had to know what happened to it. It didn't just walk off on its own."

"What difference? Gone is gone," said my aunt. "Well, some of the guests thought, maybe a cat. Or worse, rats. 'It wouldn't be the first time,' they whispered. How awful! Also, how embarrassing! My mother insisted it was most likely a hungry passerby, who seeing the strudel sitting near the open window, had reached in, snatched, then taken off with it. As time passed, to console herself, she said, 'Feeding the hungry is a mitzvah. We did a good deed.' But to this day, I blame my brothers."

"Your brothers?"

"Sure. They loved strudel. They had access. While all the guests were helping themselves from the smorgasbord, eating and schmoozing and dancing, how easily they could have slipped, unnoticed, into the kitchen. 'Just a taste,' they likely told each other. Then a slice. Then, another. In for a penny, in for a pound. Soon only a piece or two remained. 'No point leaving just that,' one or the other would have said. I'm telling you, my mother's strudel was that good. Nothing left. Back to the party room. Like two innocents!"

"But why not one of the other theories?"

"Why? I'll tell you why: Because afterward, hours after the wedding was over, everyone in bed for the night, I and your uncle Harry off on our honeymoon," and here my aunt blushed, "both my brothers awakened with excruciating bellyaches, were rushed, screaming, to emergency. 'We worried appendix,' my mother told me. But no; according to the doctor, 'Probably just something they ate.' Who knew? That was some smorgasbord! My mother ticked off possibilities: kishkas, pickled tongue, lung stew, calf's foot jelly, turkey neck, liver soup; all among my parents' favorite delicacies. Foods my brothers would have rather died than eaten. It was our mother's strudel they could never get enough of.

"Well, up until my wedding day. Afterward, neither ever ate strudel again. To this day, when offered it, they always say, 'No thank you. I'm allergic.' For sure, then, my theory is the right one."

Who could say "No" to that? Therefore, such is the story I am handing down.

Barbara Ann Porte is a writer and a librarian. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Newsday, and elsewhere. Her stories and poems appear often in literary magazines, and she has had several collections published, including from HANGING LOOSE PRESS, S & S, Harper/Collins, and Wm. Morrow.