The Great Strudel Excavation


One of the most used insults of my childhood was the phrase, you’re a big, fat something, perhaps a big fat liar, or a big fat pig. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when it occurred to me that the using fat as a derogatory term must have made the overweight kids feel terrible. If I recall correctly, after my realization, I began to substitute the word hairy for fat. Only now do I realize that I might have offended the kids with beards.

From as early as kindergarten I remember things kids said to me that hurt my feelings, though only my brother called me fat. I was, in fact, on the skinny side, and I hope you’ll indulge me while I take a minute to wallow in self-pity and tell you that being the slight granddaughter of two Jewish bubees was its own kind of hell.

I could not eat enough to satisfy either of my grandmothers. If I’d had an IV with a steady drip of chicken soup, they still would have told me to eat more. I ate Manischewitz Garlic Tam Tams, blintzes, and lokshen kugel “The more you eat, the healthier you’ll be,” my grandmother Bashy would say. When you live by that motto, observing Yom Kippur, a holy day of fasting, can be life-threatening. And each year my family and I spent Yom Kippur in synagogue, where the fasting  were revered, and the children did not tempt them by eating in public. Luckily, Bashy was sly and always had a plan and the provisions to keep us from the brink of death.

I think I was ten years old the Yom Kippur Bashy whisked me and my brother down the synagogue halls that were filled with muffled prayers, and out the back doors to the parking lot.  Our shoes crunched on gravel as we walked toward her little white Datsun. Bashy held the key to the car’s trunk like a pulled trigger. She rushed ahead with the determination of someone on a mission to save lives, in this case, me and my brother, who, in her version of the world, were starving.

Salvation came in the form of strudel. 

Inside the trunk, wrapped in many layers of aluminum foil, was the baked good that saturated my childhood. As Bashy peeled off the first layer of  foil, there was promise in the air. Everything looked fresh, and after I’d endured three hours in synogogue without being offered food, just the suggestion of a snack was enough to make my mouth water. 

The second layer of foil was not as crisp, but nothing made me consider refusing the food.

At the third layer, it really began to feel like an excavation. The crinkles made it obvious that we’d reached foil that had been previously used and balled. The question, then, was whether it had been involved in the baking of pizza bagels or gefilte fish. (This was in the days before it was cool to care about the environment so we did not admire people who reduced, reused, recycled.) And then just as a phantom fish smell started to get to me and make starving seem not all that bad, the pruney scent of jam-filled strudel that had been sitting in the hot trunk of a car for a half a day, filled my nose. 

A fourth layer of foil held the actual squished pastry. It looked like a snail’s shell made of beige and plum-colored play dough. But that didn’t stop me from swallowing my eating-on-Yom Kippur guilt so I could chew with vigor. While some prayed and asked God to forgive their sins, Bashy nodded at me and said, “Eat so you can live.”

My other grandmother was American born and so her phrases about my diet lacked Yiddish melodrama.  They were more of a whiney, exasperated, throw your hands up in the air and drop them with a smack on the sides of your thighs, kind of aggression. “Jessica eats like a bird.” Or worse, “Look at her, she doesn’t eat.” 

But. I. ate. Once and for all I would like to make it clear to anyone who cares (Hi, Aunt Matkey!) that I did eat. My grandmothers were wrong. I’m a small person, who had the fortunate, youthful ability to eat massive amounts of junk food without gaining weight.

Today I’m on a low carb diet. I sometimes imagine the horror my diet would cause Bashy. A life without thick slices of challah, potato latkes, and a loaf of strudel the size of a small barge is not a life, she’d think. Oh, but it is. I betray the pizza-lover in me as I say that, but there really is life after bagels.  It consists mainly of cheese, cauliflower, and many cups of coffee. Food that has almost no impact on blood sugar is the next best thing to a diabetes cure.

I’m far from a perfect low-carb dieter. I cheat sometimes, like when there’s cookie dough ice cream in front of me, or a butter croissant, or a freshly baked cookie.

But I only eat strudel on Yom Kippur.

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