Sue Fox reflects on Jewish cookery from a bygone age.
Who knew that £14.40 would pay for an online e-learning certificate in Food Safety Level 2? Until I started volunteering with Food Rescue/Food Banks, I hadn’t given much thought to rat droppings, cockroach excretions or moth webbing. My approach to Best Before dates was a basic look and sniff at things which hadn’t yet walked out of the fridge under their own microbes. As for separate colour coded chopping boards, shining knives and regularly emptying waste bins – well common sense and life clash sometimes. Everything’s a risk.
Growing up in a traditional provincial Kosher home where milk and meat were never on the same work surface, let alone the same table, my new found status thinks maybe ‘do not even think about’ rules of keeping kosher, were way ahead of their time. The prohibition of mixing milk and meat is based on two verses in the Book of Exodus which forbid ‘boiling a (goat) kid in its mother’s milk.’ As if!
My generation was raised on Florence Greenberg. She was a cookery writer, columnist and BBC broadcaster about culinary matters on the Home Front. Born in 1882, we share a birthday – April 13 – although, obviously, not the same year. My green hardback copy of Florence Greenberg’s cookery bible – given to every Jewish bride – is literally a health hazard. Covered in gravy stains, cake batter traces, sticky sweet and savoury reminders of failed honey cakes, Tzimmes, coconut pyramids, and Holishkes. It has lists of who came to which festival meal, a quick Eve’s Pudding reference – barely readable for grease stains. That Apple again…
I rarely do any of it now. Except – I buy kosher chickens which are on sale five minutes from my house. Everyone says they taste better and make the best soup. Who knows? I’m pretty sure the poor kosher birds – haven’t had much of a happy life on the prairie. Many of them never look quite as clean as the ones in plastic packaging in M&S. But Jewish guilt and habits are hard to shift. Chicken is my boundary. The reminder of where I came from. The occasional kosher chicken with matching sausages is the line over which I dare not cross. I did cook some pristine bloodless M&S chicken wings in homemade barbecue sauce. My dearly beloved said he couldn’t eat them. It was the same sauce I always use, the same cooking time. No fooling a man brought up in the close-knit Dublin Jewish community a lifetime ago. He noticed, a treife pong. I don’t much like chicken or meat so wouldn’t have smelt or eaten them. No arguments. Binned.
The worst thing I ever did as a nineteen-year-old journalist working at Granada Television in Manchester was to eat a piece of bacon in the canteen. It was a shocker for a Jewish girl from Prestwich (well, maybe not the worst thing, but very high on the rabbinical thou shalt nots). I wanted to know what I was missing. Possibly I was too traumatised to appreciate bacon. I could take it or leave it, so I left it. For a week I worried I would be struck by a thunderbolt.
Having often worked in America – mostly Boston – I fell in love with Legal Seafood Chowder. They have been making chowder for the presidential inaugural dinner. Just before George W. Bush took the oath, I wrote about Legal Seafood for the Times Magazine – about the secret Berkowitz family chowder recipe. Shock horror! Amongst the ingredients which go into the artery clogging creamy soup was a large bone of meat – ham, I think. A Hock? (What’s a ‘hock’? It sounds Yiddish.) Maybe it was a haunch of bacon. Does bacon have haunches? Whatever, the photographer and I were never given the method for cooking or the details of the secret additional spices, herbs – piggy bits. All we were allowed to see was an array of fish meat, dairy and veg, in the Legal Seafood HQ where, if I remember, it would have been quite safe to perform a tonsillectomy. If Legal Seafood still cater inaugural lunches, I hope Joe Biden enjoys his bowl of chowder as much I did. If he doesn’t get in and it’s still on the menu, I could happily tell the chef or server how to introduce e-coli and salmonella into the mix.
I can also regale you about HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) from delivery to service, Food Poisoning and its controls, Personal Hygiene, Food Premises and Equipment, Cleaning and Disinfection, Food Safety Enforcement and Microbiological Hazards.
Which brings me to my grandmother – in that bygone age when Gribenes (roasted chicken skin – Kosher ‘Pork’ scratchings) were fatty enough to burn down a house if accidentally thrown on to an open fire. An age when Helzel – chicken necks – were stuffed, sewn up (often with an errant needle left behind) and baked. Liver was chopped by a lethal handheld chopper which could have doubled as a guillotine. That same chopper also hacked at mixed fish to produce something ‘Gefilte.’ Visions of cross contamination swim before my eyes.
During her very long life, my Yiddish speaking grandmother – Grandma Fox – the one I never saw sitting down – as opposed to Grandma Woolf who I never saw standing up – poisoned no one. She did, however, kill her own chickens which roamed free in the yard of the big, frightening house in Cheetham Hill Road. On Thursdays, she sat outside in a pinny and slippers, perched on a high stool, over a chipped enamel dish, like a cellist. She plucked feathers whilst drained innards and blood dripped into the dish. Nothing was wasted. Grandma Fox made delicious chicken soup. It would probably have cured Covid.
My grandmother had no qualification in Food Safety levels. She didn’t even own weighing scales. Instinctively, she poured a bit of this and a pinch of that into a creamy yellow cracked ceramic bowl, always producing the lightest kichals and fluffy cakes. Grandma Fox also made her own cherry brandy. For all I know she could have spent hours treading on and squashing the cherries with her tired, bunioned bare feet, in the same enamel bowl as the chicken innards.
I remember the youngest grandchildren and small second cousins twice removed were, like me, terrified of going to Grandma’s house. The toilet at the end of a very dark corridor locked on the outside, there were no hand dryers or paper towels. Nancy the fag-smoking maid, had a gammy hand. She was straight out of Dickens and was at my grandmother’s every beck and shriek. There were also strange, slightly scary foreign people who put their faces around the doors of some of the downstairs rooms. Refugees and lodgers who, like Grandma, barely spoke English.
So not only basic food safety was lacking when I was little, basic childhood mental health safety was unknown in grandma’s basement kitchen where food boiled in a black cauldron over an open fire. It was from this dungeon that Nancy struggled to serve trays of steaming soup with her one good hand.
Health and safety wise, there may have been something in that milk and meat commandment. Maybe the separate sinks, the blue or red tea towels many Jewish women observe, were innovative way before their time. I no longer clear out the house for Passover, and long ago gave up schlepping special crockery covered in the previous year’s newsprint from the loft. Nothing from my cutlery drawer is ever buried in the garden or left to soak in the bath (Jewish customs) whilst I purge the stairs of breadcrumbs with a feather and torch. (Believe me, this still happens.) My cinnamon box and vanilla essence go back a very long time. They both still smell ok to me.
As of today, I can tell you how to recognise rodent infestations, insect infestations or nasty birds who have found a welcome in your not so spotless food storage cupboard. Welcome to the wonderful world of Food Safety at time when so many people are literally going hungry.
This is not an Aesop’s fable. The sitting and standing grandmas -Fox and Woolfe were my great grandmas.