Flavors Far From Kishke, but Close to Home

MY Aunt Betty holds out those thick freckled arms and exclaims “Stevie!” as if she hadn’t just seen me the night before at my house in Roslyn Heights. “C’mere,” she says, pulling me nose first into that massive bosom. “Oh my God, you’re so skinny! Doesn’t your mother feed you?” Inside the suffocating cleavage, I hear the muffled, icy voice of my mother right behind: “He eats just fine, Betty.” “Well,” she cackles, “we gotta fatten him up if we’re ever going to eat him!” And with that I am dragged by my bony 9-year-old wrist into a steamy kitchen stuffed with red-cheeked aunts in aprons: Miriam, Susie, Sylvia, Judy and some women, distant cousins I suppose, whom I’ve never seen.

Aunt Miriam, a pint to Betty’s gallon, turns from the steaming stove in her ruffled apron. “He looks just fine to me, Betty. Now let him go play with his cousins in the backyard.” The backyard is the size of my cousin Eugene’s small bedroom up the narrow steps on the third floor. Miriam is an elementary school teacher in Queens and doesn’t take orders from anyone except Uncle Mac, who smokes a big cigar. I try to yank myself away, but am stopped short like a dog on a leash. “Not before you have some of this, young man,” Betty says, her free hand swooping around with a forkful of juicy, oniony brisket. “And this...” as she makes me swallow something pruney and gloppy.

“Leave him alone, Betty!” commands five-foot-nothing Miriam. Betty stands as still as a Guernsey in a warm spring wind, one hand clutching a dinner roll like my hero Johnny Podres holds a baseball, the other her skin-and-bones nephew, still yanking. “He wants to go out and play, don’t you, Stevie?” Aunt Miriam says.

I turn my big-eared head and nod, careful not to open my mouth. From the corner of my eye I see Betty drop the roll on the big table crowded with massive bowls of peas, carrots and potatoes, a sizzling turkey just out of the oven, the brisket, a platter of something I don’t recognize and a toilet-size tureen of matzoh ball soup. “Let him go!” shouts Aunt Miriam.

Betty slowly loosens her grip on my wrist, but just as I twist away, my tongue is suddenly wrapped around something warm and smooth and chewy, a revolting, lumpy concoction squishing out the sides. Eyes blurred, throat choked, I race out the back door, down the narrow steps to the tiny yard where my cousins Kenny and Jeffrey watch me bend over and spit it out between the red and yellow tulips.

Behind my back I hear Jeffrey, Miriam’s 7-year-old son, explain to Kenny: “Aunt Betty.” And when Kenny doesn’t say anything, Jeffrey, taciturn beyond his years, nods and points to the back door like an oracle: “Kishke ... stuffed derma ... don’t go back in there.”

SOME 50 years later and about a hundred miles north, in New Paltz, N.Y.: The dining room looks like a scene out of my Aunt Betty’s worst pre-Passover nightmare. The long pine table is turned sideways to accommodate the rickety picnic table dragged in from the screened porch (for the big little kids), a mini card table (for the little little kids) and three high chairs. On the stained, burned and scored butcher block counter is a baked ham, a turkey with oyster stuffing, mashed potatoes dripping with butter, sweet potatoes with a crust of marshmallows, several bottles of South African wine, a gallon jug of cider, a quart of some medicinal-looking red juice, assorted sippy cups and an infant seat minus an infant.

All around me, brushing past my knees, my elbows, my shoulders, are red-faced cousins running and screaming, shirttails untucked, dresses already stained, one uncle after another chasing and laughing or scolding, aunts and more aunts stuffed into the open kitchen, one or two with uncircumcised babies on their hips.

I stand in the doorway of my complicated life, momentarily suspended in some slack-jawed state of mind, amazed at what two utterly clueless college students, one a long-lapsed Episcopalian from New Orleans, the other a barely passable Passover Jew from Long Island, created — simply by stumbling into some mutual adoration during the fall following the famous summer of love.

The chaos alone momentarily reminds me of the Passover dinners of my childhood, except there’s no escaping that this is Easter (there’s a stuffed bunny on the table) and these women don’t look at all like my own aunts, who long ago had moved from Long Island to Florida and then to their final rewards.

These aunts are slim, savvy, long-haired sophisticates, women with advanced college degrees and trendy-looking children who don’t at all resemble the ragamuffins that Kenny, Jeffrey and I were back then. These aunts are my daughters and daughters-in-law, sporting most un-auntlike names: Clover, Addie, Nancy, Melissa, Liz and Elizabeth Bayou-Grace.

And while none of them is stuffing any child’s maw with a revolting agglomeration of cow intestine bulging with something worse than cow intestine, they are nevertheless holding children tightly by their bony wrists and trying, just as generations of mothers tried before them, to fatten up the skinny ones.

One by one, the children are yanking and yanking themselves off the maternal leashes and making that transcultural expression of utter disgust as my wife’s prized oyster stuffing comes squishing out between their lips, their flattened tongues begging for water.

As I watch this mélange of DNA, the unforgettable taste of that long lost kishke-in-the-tulips suddenly rises up through the decades, clogging my throat until I must race into the big backyard for some cool fresh air.

Two grandchildren are in the treehouse, two others on the swings. In concert, they tilt their heads, wondering if I am there to play a game.

But this time my wise cousin Jeffrey, whom I’ve seen only once in the last 40 years, is not around to explain.