There’s no doubt that my grandmother, Eva Epstein (née Freedman), caught the eye. She was still wearing curls, a generous dab of rouge on her cheeks, glossy lipstick and her favorite jewelry. The heart of her home, she was often found with a handmade apron – bearing a phrase like “kiss the cook” or bedazzled with rhinestones – tied around her waist and over a shiny new outfit, sipping sugar-free lemonade while mixing batter, frying schnitzel and simmering chicken soup on a hot stove, making enough food to feed an army.
She was the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, and I loved every bit of it. She would fill our plates with mountains of food long after we announced we were drunk, questioning our love for her if we didn’t have “just a little more.” She would bring us homemade treats like her famous cinnamon buns and Mohn (poppy seeds) as hand luggage in flight to visit us.
Eva was a firecracker. She was a first-generation Canadian, the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant who fled pogroms and came to Canada in the early 1900s to live on the prairies of rural Saskatchewan. Eva was one of four sisters (including her identical twin) raised by fearless mother Freda, who made a name for herself trading furs with the Hudson’s Bay Company. My grandmother met and married my grandfather Louis and they spent nearly 70 years raising a family together and caring for their grandchildren.
Every summer, from age 7 to 11, my sister and I were sent as unaccompanied minors to fly and spend 10 days at “Camp Grandma and Grandpa” just outside of Vancouver. At the time, I understood it was a vacation for my sister and myself, but now I realize it was a well-deserved respite for my parents. Meanwhile, we were embarking on a whirlwind tour of Vancouver, eating our way through the city and my grandmother’s overflowing freezer. We picked raspberries from a local farm, cooked the berries into a sweet and sticky jam, mixed and scooped cookie dough, and used thimbles to indent them into thumbprint cookies, rolled with crushed walnuts and filled with the raspberry jam we had made the day before. My sister and I would sit at their kitchen table and carve tender fried chicken cutlets (her signature dish) and enjoy Grandma’s mashed carrots and potatoes. We eagerly bit into perfectly rolled challah buns, finishing the meal with homemade fudge and sugar bagels – or nothing, as we called them.
It was in those moments, when I watched my grandmother hover over a hot stove, with a tea towel (or shmatte) over her shoulder, an apron, and not an out of place bow, that I knew she loved me, and she showed me exactly how, in her own way.
If I ever saw my grandmother with a book, it was The pleasures of your processor by Noreen Gilletz; his copy had yellowed pages and a tattered binder. It wasn’t just a cookbook. It was a treasure trove of family recipes, secrets, pressed flowers from her garden and, above all, neat cursive writing on almost every page with additions like “a bissel of” this or that to give the recipes its own touch. After his death, I was given this book, and leafing through the pages of his culinary reflections, his presence jumped from the pages, especially in the margins, and always between the folds of dough.
When I first brought my (now) husband to meet my grandmother, I wanted to share my love in the best way I know how. Together, the three of us kneaded and folded dozens of kreplach, or soup dumplings, into neat triangles as she shared her memories of growing up on the Canadian prairies while pinching our punishments between the folds.
It was only when I read about the five languages of love (on the recommendation of my rabbi before I got married) that I understood why my grandmother fed us as if it were our last meal on earth. The book outlines five languages one can give and prefer to receive in any relationship from physical contact, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and receiving gifts. After reading, I came to the conclusion that there were not just five love languages in my grandmother’s heart, but her own unique sixth love language to feed on. Among the many things I inherited from her (including my physical stature and my love for bargains) is my love language for nurturing others. Eva instilled her love of food deep within me. I have a constant revolving door of leftovers coming out of my kitchen, challah runs, and shared meals with friends new and old.
After my grandmother passed away in 2018 (shortly before Rosh Hashanah), I was living in London. Due to the timing of his death and the upcoming holidays, I was unable to return in time for the funeral, which in Jewish tradition must take place within 72 hours. Given the proximity of major holidays, the deadline has been shortened even more. In one phone call, my heart had broken into a million little crumbs, and I was alone, on another continent, picking them up. Without shiva’s closure with my loved ones, I wondered how I could honor him.
My coping mechanism? Knead, roll, fold and shape kreplach through flowing tears, while reflecting on the lessons she taught me and how her legacy lives on through my food and brings me closer to Judaism. Thanks to her, I learned the meaning of love in the folds of kreplach, in the meanders of a challah and between the sharp corners of the hamantaschen. I carried on the tradition for my family, shaping, baking and rising the dough in an effort to keep its memory alive. It is thanks to its dough that I came to celebrate Jewish holidays, and what differentiated them. Each feast had its own dishes and treats, from Freda’s round challah, to hamantaschen made from poppyseed bread and apple cake sprinkled with apricot jam. It was these pieces of dough that connected me to my faith and helped me honor the strong women who came before me.