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Danita and Michel Aziza

DANITA AZIZA: Lesson #28: Create a Recipe Box Full of Memories

By Danita Aziza, April 28, 2011

When I was 20 I drove with my friend Trish from Calgary to Toronto where we were both attending university.  We crammed all our belongings into my little second hand blue Mazda GLC and set out for a four- day road trip adventure that included a stop in Moose Jaw to have dinner with my Grandma Bea.  As we neared our destination, I told Trish to prepare herself for the dinner which Gram would prepare; boiled chicken, cream of wheat, salad and honey cake with its characteristic sticky top for dessert.  If you ask Trish today, she would tell you that I nailed the menu cold and she still can’t figure out how I knew everything my Gram would serve.  She is also still contemplating, all these years later, why Gram thought Cream of Wheat was an appropriate dinner food.

As the menu suggests, my Grandma Bea wasn’t the most outstanding cook, but she did have some signature recipes that I remember her making to this day.  I love to flip through my recipe box and see recipe cards written in her most perfect handwriting and I take special joy in making her honey cake recipe with the sticky top, that I loved so much as a kid, each and every Rosh Hashanah.

When I think of my Granny, Eva, I remember many of her virtues and I can actually conjure up the taste in my mouth of the Jam Cake that she prepared with much love for every family gathering.  When I think of Aunty Gertie I not only recall her great sense of humor, but I actually start to salivate at the thought of the amazing kasha verenikas that I would devour when we would come to visit. And, every time I walk by a white radish in the grocery store, I remember how my Dad would love to slice one on a plate, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and ever so gently drizzle olive oil on top and tell me how he acquired a taste for it from his Baba who said it was a Romanian delicacy.

Food is so much more than just sugar and spice and everything nice, it is memory, culture, tradition and legacy.  When Michel and I married, we had to integrate both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures into our lifestyle as well as our palette.
Without doubt there are many variances in our individual life experiences, but none quite as great as the food we were brought up eating.  My Eastern European roots made eating sweet foods such as noodle pudding laced with sugar and sweet carrot tzimmis, a dish of cooked carrots, often made with some kind of overly sweet fruit and loads of sugar part of a well balanced main course.  For anyone from middle- eastern backgrounds, sweet food is reserved only for dessert and only salty or spicy food is allocated prime positioning on the dinner plate.

I will never forget Michel’s first taste of sweet gefilte fish or my initial encounter with a brown egg from the traditional Sephardic Adafina; a stew that is served on Shabbat.  We both nearly gagged on our first bites, but now both dishes have become regular fare for Friday night dinner and Saturday afternoon lunches.  I believe the fact that Tali, Benji and Rachel have all developed a taste for both Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking is evidence that two cultures can be successfully blended into a family and that you can eat from the best of both worlds so to speak.

Since settling in Israel I seem to be cooking more than ever before and Michel too has found comfort in the kitchen.  There is someone always visiting and stopping by for a meal and we seem to have a steady stream of hearty appetites who are here on one year programs who need a place for Shabbat and we always want to have good food for Daniel, our Lone Soldier, when he comes home for the weekend.  With Benji now in the army, we have joined the club of parents of soldiers who seem obsessed with making their children’s favorite foods and baking cookies and special treats for them to take back to their base on Sunday mornings.

When you have kids serving in the army, food takes on even greater significance, for it demonstrates unwavering love and support for your child who is giving so much of themselves to the country and many times are out in the field dining on the sparsest of fare. I remember being with a tour guide in the North of Israel a few years back who told us about an experience he had during the Yom Kippur War.  He recalled how he was crouched with gun cocked, tired and starving near the Jordanian border when suddenly one of the cooks from his base untouched by fear of being fired upon, appeared at his side with a plate of freshly made french fries.  He said he could taste those french fries to this day and, in his eyes, the cook was equally as heroic and important to the army’s victory as any of his fellow combat soldier.  Those, fried potatoes, he said, gave him a taste of normalcy amidst chaos and motivated him to continue on with the difficult task at hand.  I look at French fries in an entirely new light after hearing the story and it always comes to mind whenever I sit down to devour a plate full.

After meeting Michel’s cousin, Claire, one of the best cooks I know, for a coffee just prior to Passover, I started to think of food in a way that I never did before.  Claire has built traditions around food and marks every Jewish festival with food that her family has come to associate with the holiday.  After she cleans her kitchen for Pesach, for example, the first thing she does is make strawberry jam that she delivers to family and friends.  She has made the same fava bean dish for lunch on the day of the traditional Passover seder for years now and her while she claims her kids say her food rituals border on the obsessive, I think the idea of adopting food rituals is a brilliant way to cement family tradition that will hopefully be carried on for generations to come.

I don’t think you have to attend cooking classes, sit glued to the cooking channel or resort to hours preparing a particular savory dish in order to create culinary memories.  I do believe though, that there is much merit in using food as a tool for preserving culture and tradition within your family. Making the same chocolate cake for birthdays, stuffing marzipan in a date for the traditional Moroccan end of Passover Mimouna party, buying donuts even to celebrate the festival of Chanukah or baking the traditional round challah bread for the Jewish New Year can only serve to bring family closer together and establish a type of pleasant routine.

After that coffee with Claire I’ve set out on a mission to put together a recipe box that includes recipes from my Mom, mother-in-law, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends. My hope is that this box will one day find its way one day into the kitchens and rituals of my children and then hopefully down the line to theirs as well. Inside will be a little bit of this and a little bit of that…a mish mash of brown eggs, the spicy and the sweet and without doubt, the box top from a package of cream of wheat.

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