Tzimmes

By Donna Jacobs Sife

I have vivid memories of Seder night at my aunt’s house when I was a child. I remember the long table, taking up all the room so that it was a major strategic achievement to get all the family seated. Only the ones, carefully placed on the ends, could get up during the evening, to help serve the great plates of roast chicken, matzah ball soup, sweet and sour beans, potato kugel, and tzimmes. Soul food. Food that I knew somewhere inside myself, were remnants of a ruined world.

This room had a small frosted window that always remained ajar. Whilst the others sang of freedom and Prophets, I, being the dreamer of the family, would stare at that window, and imagine that all Jews - out there - were doing this, now. The thought gave me great comfort. I came from the non-believing, non-kosher side of the family. These moments wrapped me in the knowledge of something greater, something beyond.

When I grew up and became a mother, I wanted to recreate those soul food moments for my children. One year, just before Rosh Hashana, I started to remember the taste of tzimmes. It had been a long time since I had eaten my auntie’s tzimmes. So I went to the supermarket and bought carrots and prunes, took them home, and experimented. The first attempt was too dry. The next, not sweet enough, not thick enough. There was a particular quality that I was trying to find. During one attempt, I turned down the oven to very low, forgot about it, and went to bed. When I woke in the morning there was a smell that filled the house, that evoked something very powerful in my memory. That was it. That was the quality I could not describe, but knew was missing. The result was a rich and thick dish, dark in colour, and heavy with meaning.

But that is not the end of the story. A couple of years after the great Tzimmes Discovery, I visited my auntie just after passover. She had some left over tzimmes in the fridge and asked me if I wanted some. Of course I did. But the taste was nothing like I remembered. I asked if she had changed the recipe. She said she hadn’t. “But”, I continued, “is this the same tzimmes you would serve at Seder when I was little?” She insisted she hadn’t changed the recipe for forty years.

It was a mystery. We agreed to meet the following week and I would bring her some of mine. I thought I would remind her that long ago, she really did make a different tzimmes. At the appointed time, I arrived, with my little plastic container. We sat down together. I watched her carefully as she raised the fork to her lips and chewed ponderously. Then, I was astonished to see her eyes fill with tears. She leaned forward, put her hand on my arm and said “Donna-le. This is the tzimmes my mother used to make.”

My grandmother died when I was five. Somehow, it was that taste, that quality that I had remembered and tried so hard to reproduce.

Soul food. What else would you call it.