Mothers and memories: Recipes connect daughters to the past

There are dozens of recipes in the book, divided into sections including chicken dishes, meat dishes, fish dishes, sauces, and an especially long list of desserts.

By LINDA GRADSTEIN
September 13, 2019 04:45
Mothers and memories: Recipes connect daughters to the past

Genie Milgrom is draped with a printout filled with the names of 22 generations of her mother’s maternal line. (photo credit: EMILY MICHOT / MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)



GENIE Milgrom was born into a Catholic family in Havana, and moved to Miami when she was a child. She attended Catholic schools through high school, but says she never felt connected to her religion.

“I always felt I didn’t belong and that there was something else,” she said in an interview recently in Jerusalem. “I can’t explain it, but I always felt Jewish. It was a journey of the soul, and the soul remembers and connects.”

Milgrom started studying Judaism seriously in her 20s, and had an Orthodox conversion at age 31. Her family was very unhappy about her choice, and she did not convert her two children.

She lived as an Orthodox Jew for 15 years before beginning a dive into her genealogy, asking her mother for any documentation she had about her grandparents. But her mother said it didn’t exist.

So Milgrom was on her own, and what she found after years of research stunned her. She was actually Jewish on her maternal side going back 22 generations to the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal in the 1400s and 1500s.

She is from a family of “crypto-Jews,” or “Bnai Anusim,” meaning “descendants of the coerced,” who were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Some chose exile, others were killed, but many became “crypto-Jews,” practicing Catholicism in public but maintaining Jewish traditions at home.

Statistics are hard to find, but the Israeli government said up to 95 million people in the world today may have Jewish origins, and in countries like Spain and Portugal, some are actively pursuing their Jewish identities.

Milgrom says she never expected what happened next in her story.

A few years ago, her mother Isabel, who was exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease, called her and said she wanted to meet with a rabbi. (Note: Milgrom asked that only her mother’s first name be used in this story.)

“I don’t want to die a Catholic,” she told her daughter.

The meeting with the rabbi was set for a Friday, and Milgrom’s mother asked him what she needed to do to become Jewish.
“You are already Jewish,” he told her. “But do one mitzvah with the intention of renewing your Jewish identity.”

As it was Friday, Milgrom helped her mother light Shabbat candles a little early, saying the blessing in English. Milgrom then went home to her own family for Shabbat.

On Sunday her father called to tell her that over the weekend her mother’s mind had snapped, and she no longer recognized anyone.
“So her last conscious act was lighting Shabbat candles,” Milgrom said, shaking her head in wonder.

The story gets better. Soon afterward her mother had to be moved to an in-patient facility, and her father passed away. While cleaning out their home, Milgrom found much of the documentation of her genealogy that she had spent years, and a significant sum of money, compiling. It means her mother knew she was Jewish, but chose not to pass on the documents.

Milgrom also found boxes of handwritten recipes, many of them in fading pencil, going back several generations. It is these recipes that form the basis of her new book, Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers, published this year by Geffen.

Miriam Green and her mother, Naomi Cohen (Credit: Courtesy)

“She [Isabel] took the trouble to bring them from Spain to Cuba, and to pack them up and move them from house to house as we moved around in Miami and then Georgia and then back to Miami,” Milgrom writes in the book’s introduction. “She did not give them over when I asked, but she also did not throw them away. The treasure trove I found that day was not only about recipes. It also included family trees, baby books, birth and death certificates, and the originals of what I had found in the archives.”

Milgrom learned to cook from her maternal grandmother, Maneni, who taught her a series of “family traditions” including checking eggs for blood spots before using them, and washing individual lettuce leaves carefully. Among all of the recipes that Milgrom found hidden in her mother’s house, none mixed milk and meat. All of these, of course, are tenets of Jewish dietary laws.

It means that even after 500 years, her family kept at least some of the laws of kashrut. The recipes also enabled her to trace her family’s movements over the centuries from Braganza, Portugal, to Fermoselle, Spain, to Madrid, to the Canary Islands and then on to Cuba, Costa Rica and then to Miami.

There are dozens of recipes in the book, divided into sections including chicken dishes, meat dishes, fish dishes, sauces, and an especially long list of desserts. Each recipe is given with a level of difficulty ranging from easy to difficult. The instructions are easy to follow.

Milgrom either personally tested or had friends test the recipes, in some cases making changes for our modern kitchen.
For example, the recipe for a chicken dish called sofrito de pollo comes with the following description:
“This recipe is a staple in Cuban cuisine. It can be used inside empanadas, over white rice, or baked inside a pie shell (the pie is called a pastel de pollo). My grandmothers always had an extra pastel de pollo lying around when I would visit. It looked like a regular pie but had this yummy chicken filling inside. It was always served cold at parties, and was such a great addition to the table. Those grandmothers were so smart!”

The one thing missing from the book are photos. Milgrom said she considered having at least some of the recipes photographed, but decided it was more of a historical document than a cookbook.

Another type of memory comes from The Lost Kitchen by Miriam Green. (Full disclosure: Green is a longtime friend). The subtitle is “Reflections and Recipes from an Alzheimer’s Caregiver.”

Green’s mother, Naomi, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010 at age 69. At first she continued to live at home in Netanya with her husband, Jack, and then less than two years ago, Green’s parents moved to Beersheba to be closer to her. Even with a full-time caregiver, Green and her father moved Naomi last year to a residential facility.

The cover of Genie Milgrom’s book ( Credit: Courtesy)

The book is a combination of recipes, poetry and prose. The idea began as a cookbook that she would write together with her father, who had to learn to cook for the first time after Naomi, an excellent cook, was no longer able to function in the kitchen.

“Cooking is therapeutic,” Green said in an interview. “One of the poems in the book is about onions. They don’t talk back when you chop them. You can cry as much as you want in the privacy of your own kitchen. When I cook something more difficult, it takes my mind off what I’m feeling. I have to focus on following directions and it alleviates some of the heaviness I’m feeling.”

She dedicates the book to her mother.

“To my mom, Naomi Cohen, who, even in her advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, remains my most stalwart teacher of love and compassion.”

Green’s love for her mother shines through the book, as does her sadness at gradually losing her. She is painfully honest about her own shortcomings in how she handles her mother, and writes about trying to enter Naomi’s reality and meet her there.

Most of the time, Naomi no longer recognizes her, which Green of course finds painful. It was also difficult for Naomi to admit she had an illness.

“My mom had these rings that were too tight, and we had to get them cut off by a jeweler,” Green writes. “The first place we went to, I tried to lean over and tell the owner that my Mom has Alzheimer’s and she was so angry. If she knew I had written a book, she would be very uncomfortable and possibly very angry. Keeping an intimate big secret from someone you love is difficult.”

Naomi finds it difficult to function whenever Jack is gone. She describes one day when Jack is gone for the whole day, leaving Naomi with the caretaker, Sahlee. Green describes the scene when she and her father return to Netanya.

“When we reached Netanya, we heard her through the door impatiently asking Sahlee to unlock it so that she could see her father. Standing in the hallway, Daddy and I shared that moment with an unspoken shrug: no matter how much we gave to Mom, we would often not be recognized by her for who we were. It lent new meaning to acting selflessly.”

The book is at times very funny. She describes giving her mother a picture frame with photos of all of her children and grandchildren for her 74th birthday.

“Mom loved it,” she writes. “But as I gave it to her, I realized my phone wasn’t recording her wondrous reaction. Thinking quickly, I took back the gift, waited ten minutes, and presented it to her again, this time with the camera rolling. The same beautiful smiles at seeing all her loved ones were now recorded.”

She uses the same technique to get her mother to take her pills or take off her coat if she was reluctant to do so.

“I was both amused and horrified by my use of Mom’s Alzheimer’s,” she writes candidly.

Chuletas and lamb cutlets, one of Milgrom’s recipes (Credit: Courtesy)

My favorite part of the book was the poetry, like this one called “Recipe for a Small Star.”
Ingredients:
2 cups sifted memories
½ tsp. unfiltered light
1 Tbsp. clarified passion
3 sun-dried hearts
Pinch of time
Directions:
Say her name. Say
Her name. Shout it. Loud,
Louder. Louder.
String the memories together
Like beads of light
That explode in a brilliant flash
In the night sky.
(Reprinted with permission from The Lost Kitchen: Reflections and Recipes of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver, Black Opal Books, 2019; © 2019 by Miriam Green.)
Green also writes about her own journey in the world of Alzheimer’s.

“The episodic nature of Alzheimer’s meant that we had to be prepared for anything, and we had to think fast. I entered her world as best I could and gave to her as if she were my precious child. That’s what she needed. Mom was teaching me through her Alzheimer’s the enormity of what it meant to honor my parents.”

Her book is meant to send a message, she says.

“Even though this disease is horrible, you can find joy with your loved one,” she tells me. “There is no reason to live in that darkness with the disease.”


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