Monday, April 28, 2008

Best of Widelawns - Leg of Wheel

I wrote this last year at Passover, but you know what? This year not a single thing had changed so I'd like to post this piece again, especially since there are so many new readers. And can I just say that oh my God I am so glad Passover ended last night and that I ate some wheat bread and bean soup to break the fast and it feels like a stone in my intestines.

I like Passover. I'm really glad it's over, but I do like it. Mostly. I think. I like the songs. We do a lot of singing and its way better when we do it at home because I like how my family sings the songs better than how everyone else's family sings the songs. I also like my grandmother's matzo ball soup better than everyone else's grandmother's matzo ball soup. That's because it's better. Everyone says their grandmother's soup is the best, but they don't know anything. MY grandmother's soup is the best and that's all there is to it. I have no idea what's actually IN the soup and I will never attempt to make it because I don't WANT to know what's in the soup. I have this terrible feeling that if I knew what lurked in that broth I'd never want to eat it again.

You have to be careful what you eat at my grandparents' house. They come from a different world where people ate things that frankly, horrify me, and although my grandparents can now afford all sorts of good things to eat, they got stuck eating the things that horrify me, to the point where they love the things that horrify me and actually choose to eat them. I know it came from living in WWII Europe when people were starving to death. My grandmother told me stories about how her family had one chicken to stretch between 15 people. If you have to stretch one measly chicken between that many people you'd be amazed at what parts of said chicken suddenly become appetizing. I suspect that some of these parts are in Savta's soup and I don't want to think about it.

Saba and Savta like to eat the insides of bones. They adore fish skin and fish heads and fish eyeballs. They eat things cooked in stomachs and don't bat an eyelash at innards, organs and offal as long as they come from kosher animals. The kosher part is of utmost importance because my family is Orthodox (not my parents, just the rest but we've been through this all before).

Because of my grandparents' propensity for eating gross things, you have to be extra careful when you're at their house because they WILL try to feed you some nasty shit, and you never can tell what it is. You could think something was a perfectly innocuous brisket and then it'll turn out that what looks like brisket is in fact braised cow hoof, tail and colon. You might like cow hooves, tails and colons, but I don't and I don't want to take that kind of a risk. The first rule of eating at Saba and Savta's house is to always ask what something is before you take a bite. Always. Sometimes it's best to ask three or four times because they don't speak English that well. This has caused a few misunderstandings in the past.

I've always had a mild sense of culture shock within my own family, which is a strange feeling. I didn't always have this family, as you might recall. I was a little hick from Millpond, a place where there are no Jews and certainly no dang foreigners, except for them Mexican pickers who come in the summers. I went to go live with my parents when I was 11. Until then I had never been out of Millpond, and then all of sudden there I was, living in New York, with a new last name and a whole new religion that I knew nothing about. It's taken me 20 something years to catch up and figure it all out and I still feel a little behind. I don't know the songs that well. My family speaks Hebrew and I've learned to understand a lot, but I can't speak it and I can't do the "Chhhh" bone-in-the-throat sound very well. Their food always seemed weird to me, although there are things I really enjoy. I grew to love of all the strangeness though and what I don't love I respect, yet still, I always feel a few steps behind and even after all this time, I'm still a little bit of an outsider.

For instance, I hate gefilte fish. No one in my family can understand that I refuse to eat this mess. Gefilte fish is horrendous, vile and should not be consumed. Basically, it’s a cold, carp cake, boiled in juice made of fish bones and fish heads, fish skin and fish behinds, along with some onions and carrots. The little cakes are chilled and served with beet horseradish and slices of mushy, cold carrot. This is the kind of food that one simply has to be born into to enjoy, except my mother who has long since proven that she will eat anything. My mother is the last person you'd think would eat this, being a born and bred Southern lady and all, but she likes it because she likes everything. So if a boiled cake made from the discarded bits of a pond fish that eats poop, topped with beets and horseradish isn't gross enough, the juice that it's boiled in, is then chilled and then through a process with which I want nothing to do, it suddenly turns into fish flavored Jell-O. Where I come from, Jell-O is not supposed to taste like fish. No. You go to the store and you see all the little Jell-O boxes lined up and you see lime, cherry, strawberry-banana and orange. You don't see black cherry, grape, lemon and FISH!! Jell-O is also supposed to be clear, bright primary colors. Fish Jell-O is grey. You can only imagine my utter horror, when, as an innocent 11 year old, I was first confronted with a plate of gefilte fish with a side of fish Jell-O.
I've never forgiven my parents for this, but they tried to trick me and tell me it was a chicken croquette. How mean is that? That is so wrong to tell a child that a gross food is something not gross. The fact that you'd even have to lie about it at all proves that gefilte fish is vile and shouldn't be eaten. Yet, every year Savta tries to hand me a plate of gefilte fish and fish Jell-O. This has happened at least 75 times and every single time Savta and everyone present expresses utter shock and disbelief that I don't like gefilte fish and then it causes a scene.

"Why is she not eating the gefilte fish?"

"You don't like gefilte fish?"

"How does she not eat gefilte fish??"

"EVERYONE eats gefilte fish!!"

"She's not eating the gefilte fish??"

"Something is wrong with the gefilte fish?"

"Something's wrong with the gefilte fish?? Oh my God!!! I ate some!!"

It's utter, overwhelming chaos. It will happen again tonight. Then my mother will chime in and try to convince me that I actually LOVE gefilte fish.

"You always eat it!" she'll say, "It's delicious. You LOVE gefilte fish!"

"I do not."

"Be quiet, you do too."

Every single year I go through this.

Although my mother will eat just about anything, a few years ago Savta made something that we all had to draw the line at.

A strange grey, gelatinous substance arrived on the table. It was ominously reminiscent of fish Jell-o, yet, somehow different. It had long strands of grey, shredded meat suspended in its jiggling, quivering depths. It was cold with slick, oily surface. EVEN MY MOTHER WOULDN'T TOUCH IT. This is huge. My mother eats organs and animals feet. She will kick your narrow ass for a chicken neck, but still she wasn't going near this stuff. Finally my father asked Savta what it was.

"Leg of Wheel," Savta replied, matter of factly.

"Leg of who?" my mother asked.

"I swear she said Leg of Wheel," I said.

"What is it again?" my mother asked.

"Leg of Wheel," Savta repeated, as if we were all complete retards who should have, duh, obviously known that this was Leg of Wheel.

My mother and I looked at each other.

"She did say Leg of Wheel," we agreed.

"Wheels don't have legs," my mother stated the obvious.

"Wheels aren't edible," I added, "and I am not eating it."

Since we still couldn't figure out what the hell this was, and by now Saba and Uncle Mendel were tearing into it and putting ketchup on it, we tried a new tactic. We made my dad ask.

"It is LEG OF WHEEL!" Savta was very exasperated.

My dad shrugged.

"How do you make it?" we inquired.

"On the stove," Savta replied tersely, "You put Leg of Wheel in pot. Add onion, garlic. Boil, and you must to skim the top. It gets ehhhh, how you thees, on top and you must to skim."

We just gave up. My dad told her to tell him in Hebrew and he attempted to translate.

"It's bones of a baby cow," he said.

"Leg of VEAL!!!!!" I shouted.

We figured it out. Leg of Veal. It certainly didn't look like anything's leg and knowing what it was made me even less inclined to eat it, but the mystery was solved.

This year the whole above scenes pretty much played out in exactly the same way as they always do, except that this year I took pictures. Photo essay forthcoming. Did I say I was glad that Passover was over? Because I am.


Green said...

Happy no-more-Passover!

Hilary said...

That "you love gefilte fish" dialogue.. I've heard it before. I've heard it often. Yeah, I've lived it too. Hilarious tales.. thanks for the laughs. :)

Heather said...

I feel your gefilte fish pain. I have tried, tried, tried to find something redeeming about it, but I just can't stomach it. I think American palates are just not into the gelatinous and wobbly, hence also the low popularity of tofu in this country. Congratulations on surviving Passover: The Diet. Now go get yourself a slice of cake and two loaves of bread.

JoeInVegas said...

I hope you have some pictures of the Wheel leg. Thanks for letting us non-Jewish people in on what you do in those secret ceremonies.

Anonymous said...

Is gefilte fish the same as jellied fish? If yes, you're missing out - it's very tasty :).

onthegomom said...

Thank God that is over! I am not Jewish and I had NO IDEA that stuff even existed. In this case, ignorance really was bliss! :-)

So glad you survived!!!

Sinclair said...

So your parents lied and made you believe gefilte fish was chicken croquette!

When I was 13 my dad ordered "Sopa de Criadillas" and made me eat one of the "floating balls" stating they were in fact hard boiled eggs (mom was laughing at the other side of the table). Criadillas ARE THE BULL'S TESTICLES!!! Ewwwwwwwwwww

Anonymous said...

I have to remember to ask what I'm about to eat the next time I find myself in a Jewish household.

As much as I love fish, I do not want to eat it congealed in the form of a gray gelatin. Eeeeew.

PS. My first time commenting, but I've been reading your blog for a while.

Michele said...

I love this blog. I know I am several years late in my comments on this post, but I just found you and have been reading steadily through all the previous posts to catch up. While I can't say I love gefilte fish, I do LOVE LOVE LOVE Matzo ball soup. I always have to go to the Jewish deli to get some (which was hard enough to find where I live), but I refuse to make the bland flavorless one from the box. I would love to have an authentic, straight from the old world, no shortcuts recipe like your grandma's. (Even if I would be terrified by what's in it.) Even if you are not willing to share it with the world, please promise me that you will get the recipe from her for yourself. They are such a great connection to your past. Every time I make something my mom taught me, it's like she's in the kitchen with me, except she's in California and I'm many miles away. I wish I had some good recipes from my grandmas, but neither were as great of a cook as my mom.
Anyway, long story short, I love this blog, can't wait to catch up. And I will pass the link on to others!

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