Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Food Love Story

Our kitchens are filled with stories, but some stories lurk in one special dish. It’s the dish with a whole history behind it, a history you can’t separate from preparing, tasting, eating that dish. So let me tell you about noodle kugel.

Noodle kugel is a traditional Jewish side dish. When my mother first made it, Mott’s had come out with a variety of applesauces they called Fruit Treats. So we had Mott’s Chunky Apple and Raspberry Fruit Treats, Mott’s Chunky Apple and Apricot Fruit Treats – in jars, like applesauce. They were delicious; I don’t know why Mott’s discontinued them.

My mother’s recipe calls for “1 jar Mott’s Applesauce with apricots (Fruit Treats),” but that’s impossible now, so I’ve always had to buy a can of apricots, dice them, and add them.

My mother made hers in a 9x13" aluminum pan. It was so heavy with ingredients, it was hard to lift in and out of the oven. I have that pan now. I look at the pan, even when it has lasagna in it, and I think “noodle kugel.”

My mother called it noodle pudding. Maybe it was the name on the recipe when she received it; maybe it was her generation’s way of Americanizing their food. I call it kugel … because I entered it in the San Francisco Kugel Cook-off.

It was San Francisco’s inclusive way of trying to include everyone in their urban version of a state fair. There were maybe 50 entries: 25 older Jewish women, 24 gay guys, and me. The winner was the lone potato kugel. I guess after tasting 49 noodle kugels, the judges were relieved to encounter a potato one.

It was at that cook-off that I encountered my first traditional noodle kugel, which is very cheesy, with lots of dairy. My mother’s is full of fruit: apples, apricots, raisins. I had no idea her kugel was so revolutionary! Her kugel became her go-to side dish, the surest crowd-pleaser.

My sister lives near Amherst, Massachusetts, and we’ve visited the Yiddish Book Center there. I became a member and, in 2013, heard they were asking for recipes for a national contest. I submitted my mother’s noodle kugel recipe, and it was selected as a finalist. (They renamed it noodle kugl, which goes to show how languages are changed as they’re assimilated, so I guess that’s the “original” Yiddish version in English characters.)
I’ve written here about my mother’s and my prickly relationship, but over the course of our lives together, there are a handful of things I did for her outside my “shitty daughter” box. Entering her kugel recipe is one of those things. When I think back about all the things I didn’t do for her, I try to remember her kugel moment.

The way it worked, people had to go online and vote on the finalist recipe to win. I went into action: I contacted everyone I’d ever known for years, I enlisted my siblings, I was a “Vote Tibby” machine. Friends solicited votes from friends; my sister got the Berlin Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra to vote. The Daily News even printed my request. Facebook was a sharing frenzy. Votes for Tibby’s kugl poured in.

Winners were to be announced at the Yiddish Book Center on October 20, 2013. Tim and I were to be back East, so we drove my mother up to Massachusetts for all of us to be at the awards ceremony.

Alas, the kugl came in second to Esther’s Matzo Balls.

My mother received applause and a mug, and we took her photo. She was really happy. Look at that smile!

Every now and then, when I’d visit her, I’d remind her of her award-winning noodle pudding and dig the mug out of the cabinet. She didn’t remember winning it, but it made her happy. When she moved, I wanted the mug, but I couldn’t find it.

Yesterday, I made my mother’s noodle kugel for the first time since she’d died. I boiled the noodles, diced my apricots, beat my eggs. As usual, I cut the sugar in half, added only six tablespoons butter. I put it in the oven.

Then I looked over and saw the applesauce sitting on the counter.

I’m in my Third Third. Things like this happen. I knew what to do. I dumped the kugel back in the mixing bowl, added the applesauce, and put it back in the oven. My book club loved it.


  1. Interesting ideas for applesauce! Do you suppose folks have created "pumpkin spice", jalapeƱo and bacon flavors?~

  2. I made it! It was wonderful. Didn't read the blog all the way down to the part about cutting sugar in half and reducing butter. Probably a good idea.

    Yes there are recipes floating around for various flavors. I made pumpkin kugel for Thanksgiving.


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