I had never made a tzimmes, not once, not ever. My mother was three months dead, it was a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, and I was in need of something sort of like redemption. That and something else, too, something I couldn’t name.
There are two ways to use the word tzimmes, of course. Metaphorically, it’s a fuss, as in, “Do you always have to make such a big tzimmes out of everything?” – a refrain I heard more or less daily from my mother throughout my adolescence. Non-metaphorically, tzimmes is carrots cooked with meat and dried fruit.
My grandmother and then my mother after her always served tzimmes on Erev Rosh Hashana; it wouldn’t have been the new year without it. When I was in my thirties and collecting the family recipes – me taking notes and industriously measuring things while my mother cooked my long-dead grandma’s dishes – I’m not exactly sure why, but I never saw Mom make tzimmes. And then later on, once I was in my forties and Mom sort of trusted me to do some of the cooking, with her standing like a pillar, like a force of nature at my shoulder, supervising as I chopped and mixed and rolled and stirred, explaining, instructing in great depth, sometimes barking frantic orders, and occasionally pushing me out of the way so she could do it herself, do it the right way, do it like Grandma, do it like Mrs. Feuerberg or Evie’s mother or Dagney the caterer, do it exactly like all the great cooks she convinced to show her how to make their specialties, because my mother was that good a cook, a cook that other great cooks knew they could trust with their treasures.
And then, of course, in my fifties, the year after my father died, Mom announced we were done cooking the holidays, all of them, forever, just like she’d been threatening periodically ever since Dad’s health had started failing a decade earlier; only this time, she really meant it, and somehow, our family celebrations – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Hannukah party, all of them, even the Seder – came to a screeching halt as we all scattered to assorted friends’ tables.
Looking back now, I see that every year, the tzimmes I was supposed to learn how to make from my mother a day or two before Rosh Hashanah, was always already made by the time I arrived at her door. For some reason, even though Mom promised repeatedly, over decades, that she would show me how to make tzimmes, she never did.
“Oh, come on,” she’d say every August, when we coordinated our dates for the upcoming High Holidays and I reminded her about the tzimmes lesson, “You know how to make tzimmes.”
“No, Mom, I don’t.”
“How could you not know how to make tzimmes? There’s nothing to it: just a few, simple ingredients and a pack of old wives tales. That’s what Grandma always said. ‘A dish for the new year: sweet so the year will be sweet; carrots cut into coins for money; meat to sustain our bodies; spices to tickle our fancies.’ Can’t you hear her saying it?”
So I never learned how to make it, because every time I showed up for my tzimmes lesson, there it was, cooling on the counter, while Mom said, “Piffle, there’s nothing to it. I’ll tell you what, I’ll take you out for lunch and then we’ll go shoe shopping.”
Mom once told me that of all the many Jewish cookbooks in her cookbook collection, the Ashkenazai recipes that tasted the most like the way she remembered things tasting when she was a little girl were in Raymond Sokolov’s The Jewish-American Kitchen, a book that now sits on my cookbook shelf and contains a few ancient Post-its with handwritten notes and recipe adjustments in Mom’s perfect schoolgirl script.
“Sokolov,” she said one time, “definitely Russian. His people probably came from the Pale, just like Grandma, but you have to watch out with him because he gets some things wrong. Vinegar where it doesn’t belong. Parsnips in everything. Yuk. And I never agree with him about salt. Never.”
Hoping with all my heart that Sokolov’s family started out one, maybe two shtetls over from Grandma’s, no further, I open the cookbook to the index and there it is, Tsimmes (spelled with an “s”) with Meat. I turn to page 72.
Flanken is the first ingredient, and I think, yes, flanken rib bones, cut up into one-inch pieces, meat to sustain our bodies. Salt, pepper and brown the meat, decrees Sokolov. Chopped onions come next, wilted in the drippings, followed by simple oven braising, followed by handfuls of prunes and raisins and dried apricots, sweet for a sweet year, and I suddenly remember that Grandma used only prunes and raisins in her tzimmes. Mom was the one who evolved to adding apricots. It must have been after she got the Sokolov book, I think. Or maybe Mom dreamed up apricots before Sokolov was in the picture. She’d always been a huge fan of apricots. I can see her even now, devouring the first apricot of the season, year after year after year, smacking her lips, eyes closed, transported. Carrots, of course, lots and lots of carrots cut into coins so there will be money.
Then just as Mom had cautioned, Rabbi Sokolov veers off into territory where I doubt anyone in my family has ever been inclined to go: sweet potatoes!
I can practically guarantee you that my grandmother never cooked a sweet potato in her entire life, and Mom cared so little for sweet potatoes – and yams, too, for that matter – that the whole time I was growing up, her sublimely delicious Thanksgiving dinners featured neither, while the kids in every other house in the neighborhood got to feast on them topped with toasted marshmallows.
I have no idea what was going on in the shtetl where Raymond Sokolov’s people came from, but in Surazh, where my grandma started out, there weren’t any sweet potatoes.
I glean what else I can from the ingredient list: wine and honey, lemon juice and lemon peel, sweet and sour so life will have pucker; aromatic spices to satisfy our souls, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. Ginger! That is the something warm I haven’t been able to remember. Of course! Grandma loved ginger. She used gobs of it in her taiglach, regular and Pesadich, and she used at least some in almost everything else, even her meat loaf – I have the recipe card in her own hand to prove it. Maybe Sokolov’s shtetl wasn’t so far away from ours, after all.
The instructions? The browned meat and onions go in a covered stewpot in a slow oven for an hour, then you throw in everything else, give it a stir, give it a second and then a third hour just like the first one, and voila. The end.
Mom and Grandma would interrupt at this point to say don’t give it another two hours, Mr. Sokolov. Give it until it’s done – no more, no less. Cook it until the meat has given up and reabsorbed its juices. If it’s too soupy, leave the lid off the last half hour, but what you’ve really got to do, they would say, is to check it now and again, let it tell you how it’s coming along by giving it gentle pokes, careful stirs, tiny tastes, and whatever else, do not – do not – let it dry out.
They are so close to me and so very far away as I lean against my kitchen counter keeping company with Sokolov.
I roll up my sleeves, hoping to get it right, feeling the loss of both of them, of my grandmother, who died fifty years ago, when I was eighteen, feeling her absence as deeply as I did at twenty-six on the day my first child was born, when the thing I wanted that I could not have was to introduce my baby to my grandmother. And feeling the loss of my mother, gone a single season, remembering how we laughed together and cried that day in the hospital as we took turns holding the first child of our family’s next generation. If I could have one more minute with them, just one more minute.
As I gather my ingredients and fine tune my plan of attack, I think that if I can grab the tzimmes back from the abyss, back from oblivion, dayenu. It will be enough.
I’m nervous as I put on an apron, afraid that what I am about to do will fall short of the mark, fail my memories, place Mom and Grandma even further beyond my reach, but sometimes, all you can do is begin. My mother and my grandmother taught me that.
My mother was right, of course; there’s absolutely nothing to making tzimmes: just some browning and chopping and combining and braising. I throw in twice as many carrots to make up for the sweet potatoes I will not be putting in my tzimmes. I use fresh ginger instead of the dried that Sokolov calls for because Grandma always had a fat piece of fresh ginger in a basket on her kitchen counter, the one that held a couple of heads of garlic, a lemon, some dried bay leaves. I throw in a couple of bay leaves, too, because there is something about them that is entirely familiar, that I know hits the mark, like Mom is smiling in my direction with Grandma standing just behind her shoulder, nodding extra encouragement.
And then, there is nothing to do but wait. I wait in the living room, pretending to read my email. I wait in the bathroom, giving myself a desultory facial. As the facial dries, I wait outside, my face painted a sorrowful green and I weed my roses on my hands and knees.
I can hear Mom yelling from afar, “Oh for goodness’ sake, get up and go wash your face.” I can hear Grandma chiding her, “Leave her be; there’s nothing wrong with a good sulk now and again.”
There are trips inside every half hour for gentle stirs, careful pokes, tiny tastes. Everything seems okay, but nothing is ringing any bells. It’s a little soupy, so I crack the lid the last half hour.
Flower beds immaculate, the timer goes off on my cell phone and feeling sad but kind of happy, kind of right with the world, right with the line of women I come from, feeling the warmth of the September sun on my shoulders, I come inside through the kitchen door.
And I am suddenly three years old, sitting on Grandma’s kitchen floor playing with her dented old stewpot, the cheap tin one she and Grandpa bought the day before their wedding, or so the story goes, when they were picking up a few things they needed to start their new life together. I have a spoon, too, and I am clanging it against the pot for all I’m worth. It is a wonderful, loud racket. Mom and Grandma, my sun and my moon, are bustling on the other side of the kitchen, cooking the dinner that we will eat later on with everybody else.
“Get the tzimmes out of the oven, Tauchter,” Grandma says, and as Mom opens the oven door, I am surrounded by the rich and soulful smell of meat and carrots and prunes and cinnamon. And there is something else, too. There is ginger, as warm and as familiar as my mother’s and my grandmother’s arms.
And so, how was it, my reclaimed tzimmes?
It was good. It was delicious.
Was it the tzimmes that my mother made, that my grandmother made before her?
To tell you the truth, when I tasted it, I really couldn’t say, I wasn’t really sure. But it was close, I know that much, and maybe, just maybe, close is enough.
- Olive oil
- 2 pounds flanken rib bones, cut into 1 inch pieces
- Salt & pepper
- 2 large onions, chopped
- A generous handful of pitted prunes
- A generous handful of raisins
- A generous handful of apricots
- 2 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ thick coins
- Grated peel and juice of half a large lemon
- 2 inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into paper thin slices
- 2 ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 ½ cups of red wine
- 1/4 cup of honey
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Heat an ovenproof stewpot over medium heat and add a few tablespoons of olive oil, just enough for a light coating. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper, brown in batches and put aside. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the rendered fat. Add the chopped onions and saute for two or three minutes, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the meat and meat juices to the pot, give the meat and onions a good stir, cover with a tight fitting lid and bake in the oven for an hour at 325 degrees. Every 20 minutes, stir the contents.
After one hour, add the carrots, dried fruit, ginger, spices, bay leaves, wine and honey and mix gently but thoroughly. Cover the pot and return to oven for another 2 hours, giving the contents a gentle but thorough stir every 20 minutes.If, during the final hour, the tzimmes starts to dry out, add a ½ cup of water or wine.
It’s done when the meat is falling off the bone and juicy, when the prunes, apricots and raisins are plump and the carrots are tender and taste like candy.
Mara Lathrop is a playwright of eleven full length plays, most recently THE GARDEN OF MONSTERS. Her work has been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto, Rome and elsewhere. She recently completed her first novel, THE BOOK OF BITTERNESS & JOY, and is seeking representation.