A TASTE OF HISTORY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Our senses have a way of reconnecting us with our past. For example, I remember a long-ago summer spent on a Greek island, walking in the hills and picking fragrant mountain oregano, wild bay, rosemary and sage. As the herbs dried in the sun, I sewed little packets for them out of a rough-spun blue-and-white-checked cotton. I filled the bags, tied them with string, brought them home, and gave a set to my family. Unfortunately my mother, who thinks that spices grow in little glass bottles with McCormick labels glued onto them, never opened her packets. Ten years later I found them tucked away in a dark corner of her pantry, opened them, and was immediately transported back to the island; I could see the dark Mediterranean in the distance and feel the sun on myface.
Sometimes I use cooking to bring back memories of a dearly departed ancestor. For example Lena Kagan, my father's mother, learned how to cook as young girl in Odessa, Russia. She carried her mother's recipes across the sea in her mind, but she never wrote them down. Once, as a school project, her niece watched her cook and took some notes. In that way, three recipes have been preserved.
Whenever I want to think about Grandma Kagan, I take out a heavy pot, break an egg into it, and stir in raw kasha. As the scent of the roasting groats rises, I bend over the pot and inhale deeply. At once I feel connected to generations of Kagan women -- to generations of Eastern European Jewish women -- all bending over their stoves or fires, all smiling as they smell that wonderfully rich and earthy scent.
Grandma Kagan's recipes are precious to me, and they were the first thing I thought of when, a while back, my husband read about a Mother's Day recipe contest in The Boston Herald. The paper was asking people to send in their mothers' best recipes, especially those brought from-far away places like Italy, China, France, Russia or South America.
"Why don't you enter?" my husband said.
"OK," I said back. But instead of copying out Grandma Kagan's recipe for stuffed peppers or rice pudding or kasha varnishkes, I reached for the phone. I called my mother in Florida and asked if she had any interesting recipes. She didn't hesitate for a moment.
"Demph noodles, of course," she said.
"Huh?" I said.
"Demph noodles. My grandmother used to make them, and she taught me how. When I visited you a few years ago, and you had that party, don't you remember, and I made demph noodles for your guests and they loved them."
"Oh, that cobbler thing with the sour cherries and the prunes?" "That's the one." "There weren't any noodles in that."
"I know. That's just what my grandmother called it."
"OK, how do you spell 'demph.'?"
"I have no idea." "What does it mean?"
"I don't know. It's all really strange, when you think about it. But my grandmother -- your great-grandmother -- came over from Germany late in the 19th Century, so it must mean something in German or Yiddish."
Frederika Kampler, my grandfather's mother, was a wonderful cook who ran a popular boarding house in Yorktown, in New York City. When my grandfather became rich owning garages on Broadway during the Roaring '20s, he moved his family into a huge house in Far Rockaway, near the beach and abutting a mansion owned by Lillian Russell. My mother spent an enchanted childhood there. Frederika and her husband retired and lived in a small apartment on the top floor, where they had a small kitchen of their own.
This wouldn't be a family story if there wasn't a pinch of resentment and jealousy in it -- at least, it wouldn't be a story from my family. So the truth is that Frederika disliked my grandmother, Flora Kampler, very much.
Even though Flora begged Frederika to teach her how to make her wonderful dishes, she always refused. But Fredericka loved her granddaughter, so she swore her to secrecy and taught her how to cook.
By the time my grandfather lost his money, sold his big house, and moved his family into an apartment by the subway tracks, Frederika and her husband were long gone. Demph noodles lived on only in my mother's memory. Over the phone, Mom tried to give me the recipe, but when I asked, "How much sugar?" or "How many prunes?" she had no idea. It seems she made the dish each time by re-creating and then duplicating her child's memories of her grandmother's movements.
"But you have to use sour cherries," Mom said. "That's the most important thing."
My first attempt at making demph noodles was so sour that I couldn't eat it; instead, I dumped it into the compost pile. Then I doubled the sugar and sent the recipe to the Boston Herald. Last Tuesday, the paper's food editor, Jane Dornbusch, called and told me that demph noodles had won the contest.
"We received close to 100 recipes," she said. "We tested and tasted six. It wasn't even close. The demph noodles were very delicious -- honest, straightforward and unique."
Although I never met Frederika Kampler, I think she, like her recipe, must have been "honest, straightforward and unique." And, considering the way she treated my grandmother, a little sour as well.
While the recipe's name will forever remain shrouded in mystery, ("We're guessing 'noodle' comes from 'knodel,' German for dumpling," Dornbusch wrote in a story that accompanied the recipe yesterday),
I am delighted that food has helped me get to know another of my ancestors and unlocked another door to my past.
DEMPH NOODLES For the fruit:
To make the dumplings, mix the dry ingredients together. Then, with two knives, a pastry blender or your fingers, cut or rub the butter or shortening into the dry ingredients until the mixture starts to look like bread crumbs. Add the milk and mix it in quickly and gently, until the whole thing clumps together.
With your hands, pick up clumps of dough, round them into balls, and drop them into the fruit syrup. Spoon the liquid over them. When all the dough is in the liquid, pour the whole thing into a 9"x13" baking pan. Bake for about 35 minutes, until dumplings are browned. Makes 8-10 servings.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.