By Ted Roberts
You either love noodle kugel or you hate it. For 50 years of kiddush on Shabbat morning I hated it.
“Have a nice piece of noodle kugel,” urged the sisterhood’s ace kugel saleslady. “Lotsa raisins and cinnamon.” I was a challenge to her. Every Shabbat morning she sought me out. She knew I was a hard case.
“I’m allergic,” I smiled, as I piled pickled herring into the empty spot on my plastic plate that seemed designated for a 4”x5” square of her gooey product.
To me, noodle kugel was a plate of pasta that hadn’t “found itself” — like our children. What was it but a frustrated lasagna? Heavy enough to be a main course, sweet enough for dessert, and served in such small portions that it could pass for an appetizer. In a few hundred years, I figured, tradition will determine its use. In the meantime, I’ll try the chopped liver. On my personal food chain, kugel ranked somewhere below chicken fat spread over stale rye bread.
My kugel hang-ups ended when my boss sent this native Southerner to Boston. That’s where I met Sylvia. Well, first I met her son, Lenny.
It happened on June 15, 1970 at 8:15 p.m.. My wife and I were sitting in Lenny’s living room and a small fly with blue-green wings had just lit on the mantelpiece. I suddenly saw every stark detail of life’s mosaic because into the room comes Lenny’s mother, Sylvia. In her arms is a giant noodle kugel in a Pyrex baking dish. An aroma that obliterated my wife’s Channel No. 5 flooded the room. One sniff and I knew my days as a kugel-hater were over.
Lenny’s mother was an artist. A skillet and a baking dish were her palette. When she made noodle kugel, the angels sang.
Her only blemish was a certain vagueness about her recipes. Quantities were described as “some,” “not too much,” “a lot” and, naturally, “a bissel.” Sylvia saw no reason to chance that her blueprints might end up in inept hands. Why trust Heavy Handed Hannah with your prized creations so she could advertise her soggy mess as “Sylvia’s Noodle Kugel?” If you pressed her, she got “a bissel” more quantitative, but not enough for precise duplication of her masterpiece. She’d confess to “an eggshell full” of sour salt, a “glassful” of cream.
Once, to a young cook she respected, Sylvia allowed access to her recipe for kreplach. “Fill up a bowl with flour,” Sylvia told the ingenue, “almost to the top.”
“Sylvia, how much flour?”
“Almost to the top of the bowl, like I said, Sadie.”
“Oh, the bowl with the blue border of daisies I got from my mother.”
On another occasion, “Sylvia, what’s that delightfully different tang in the stuffed cabbage sauce?”
“Some grated citrus peel,” Sylvia almost whispered under her breath hoping her inquisitor was hard of hearing. Orange, lemon, grapefruit peel, who knew?
My wife was always nervous about the fulfillment of Sylvia’s dotty directions. It took many phone calls to get it right.
“Sylvia, the tsimmis, what does it mean to ‘sweeten to taste?’ I’ve eaten half of it raw and I can’t decide. Should it taste sweet like strudel or sweet like cabbage soup?” She’d listen briefly, then run back to the stove for more nibbling –more sugar — more nibbling — until a smile very like Sylvia’s crossed her face.
But even as the Lord’s gift of manna ceased for the Israelites — so Sylvia’s bounty came to an end. It was goodbye, Sylvia’s noodle kugel, hello, fried okra. It was time to return to the Southland. “There was cotton to be picked,” I joked with Lenny and my Boston friends. My boss had ordered this wandering sharecropper back home.
My wife rarely asked Sylvia for a recipe, but now we were leaving, and how could we face a cold world without Sylvia’s noodle kugel? Even I, the renegade kugel-hater, shuddered to think of supper tables covered only with platters of fried chicken and grits.
Sylvia, with grace and good humor, passed the formula to us with mathematical precision and none of her past evasions. The ingredients and processes were described in detail. It was a blueprint to bliss that our 15-year-old daughter — who made a microwave meatloaf that the cat refused — could have followed.
We left the Boston area 20 years ago and remained in contact with our old friends, including Lenny. But sad to say, we never again saw Sylvia — though over those 20 years my wife frequently made the kugel from that foolproof recipe. Sylvia has unwittingly brightened many a Huntsville, Alabama party with her creation. Now my wife had countless requests for the recipe, always passing on the story of Sylvia and her kitchen smile, as we called it, as well as her stuffiness about revealing her secrets.
“Now, I’m not going to give you the recipe unless you’ll do it right,” she’d tell supplicants. And in deference to Sylvia, my wife allowed access to the kugel directions only to the finest cooks in her circle.
A few years ago Sylvia died. There’s a plaque in a Newton temple commemorating her memory. There’s also a host of happy noodle kugel-eaters all over the South which grows every time there’s a Bar Mitzvah in Huntsville or Memphis or Birmingham or Atlanta.
To paraphrase Robert Frost a bit, “One could be worse than a cooker of kugels.” Sylvia would agree.
Ted Roberts is a humorist from Huntsville, Alabama.
Competent Cooks! Send a self-addressed stamped envelope with the statement: “Yes! I will try to faithfully prepare Sylvia’s Kugel to the best of my ability,” (or something to that effect) to receive the recipe for this legendary dish!
Mail to: Secret Recipe, c/o Jewish Action, Orthodox Union, 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001.