Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A tale of two dumplings

Some years ago now, my father-in-law had a stroke. So it was decided that, to lighten the load for my mother-in-law, we would have that year’s seder at our house.*

The seder meal is a fairly standard one — though it varies from family to family. The one I’m used to starts with chicken soup plus all the trimmings. Bits of chicken, noodles and — most particular and important of all — kneidlach. Little dumplings.

I’d eaten kneidlach many times, of course, and can’t say I’d liked them much. They’re the kind of thing, I guess, that you have to grow up eating to appreciate. About the size of a very large marble and the colour of a camouflaged tank, they’re heavy eating. To my mind, they’d be better put to use as large calibre ammunition.

I’d never made them, though. I’d not even watched someone make them. So, charged with providing a batch for fifteen or so people, I did what I thought was the most sensible thing. I looked up the recipe in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food — to Jewish food what the OED is to the English language.

I followed it carefully, finely chopping the coriander, beating the egg whites into peaks and folding them in with a knife. These kneidlach were fantastic, by far the best I had ever eaten — light, fluffy, fragrant, joyous.

I’m not a big praiser of my own cooking in public but I was about to say something when I caught the air of general distaste around the table. These aren’t right, was the clear and general vibe. These are not kneidlach as we know them. But they’re much better, aren’t they — light, fluffy, fragrant etc etc. Absolutely, I was told. That’s what’s wrong with them. Kneidlach are meant to be heavy, leaden, drably coloured. Home is where the heartburn is, I guess.

So I never made kneidlach again. Which is where this story might have ended. Then I happened to be reading a New Yorker profile of Claudia Roden. In it, she told a story about what she, a Sephardic Jew from Cairo, thought of the food served by her husband’s Ashkenazi family in London. She found it quite awful, leaden, colourless and flavourless — dreary, central European, stodgy. In particular, she hated the kneidlach.

Years later, she took her revenge. When writing the kneidlach recipe for her masterwork, she invented her own recipe for them — a Sephardic reimagining of an Ashkenazi staple. Which, of course, was the one I followed so carefully. So light, so fragrant, so . . . inauthentic.

* The seder is the Passover meal, the one that Jesus is tucking into in the Da Vinci painting that the book got all coded up about.