Those of you who have come to pick up orders on the screened porch know the drill. You put your money in the plastic pineapple, make change as required, and leave on the table any items like empty egg cartons that may be re-used. Occasionally I find a surprise out there. This week, it was a plastic bag filled with a fine white substance. No, nobody was trading cocaine for veggies. It was a bag of Marhaba brand Citric Acid (also know as sour salt or lemon salt), with this note on the back: “To keep the memories of our grandmothers alive, Carole.”
I knew exactly what this note referred to. The writer had ordered two bags of sorrel, telling me that she was hoping to re-create her grandmother’s recipe for “schav” a sorrel based sour soup. When I was growing up, my family served schav as a chilled iced drink in a tall glass on hot summer days. I associate it with the long summers I spent at our family’s bungalow colony in the heart of the Catskills borscht belt.
To be honest, it took me some time to develop the taste for schav in part because of its appearance. In the version made with egg, it somewhat resembles a murky swamp – a yellowish liquid with ribbons of what appears to be dark green seaweed swirling through it. However, as I grew older I gained a far greater appreciation for the refreshing jolt a glass of schav provided on a hot afternoon, and saw the beauty in the mix of colors.
I told Carole that back in graduate school I had asked my grandmother to let me watch her make schav and carefully recorded the process, but after a few years I lost the recipe. I tried many different recipes I found on line until I ultimately landed on one which to my mind came closest to the taste of Grandma Sonia’s (below), which I provided to Carole. But I recalled that in place of the lemon juice in that recipe my grandmother used sour salt (citric acid), an item I have had increasing trouble finding in supermarkets as the years have worn on. Hence, Carole’s gift of a bag of sour salt from Kalustian’s, a market in New York City.
With that bag of sour salt and the memory of her schav lives a wealth of other memories of my Grandma Sonia. Last August, I wrote a recollection (“Am I my Grandmother”) of my father’s mother, Grandma Eva — the intellectual, lousy cook and housekeeper, who spent endless hours puttering alone in her garden. My mother’s mother, Grandma Sonia, was her polar opposite, the embodiment of home-making and an excellent cook. As much as I dreaded visiting Grandma Eva, I relished time with Grandma Sonia. (In the pic above, I am flanked at age 13 by Grandma Sonia on the left, Grandma Eva on the right). Grandma Eva thought one should live the life of the mind, expressing her disgust when I quite graduate school to go to law school (dirty commerce). Grandma Sonia, ever the practical one, was in contrast relieved that I might actually make some money. At one point, when I was studying anthropology and my brother Howard was studying geology, she described our endeavors to friends with puzzled disdain in this little rhyme (pardon my mangled Yiddish transliteration, but this is the way I heard it): “Eine ist in steine, die andere ist in beine.” (One is in stones, the other one is in bones).
Virtually all my recollections of Grandma Sonia are food related. One of the earliest, brought to mind whenever I hear the insect choruses of August, was of accompanying her to field near the lake at the bungalow colony, where wild blueberries (she called them “huckyaberries”) grew. She and I went alone, carrying large white enamel cooking pots. It seemed to me we were out there for a couple of hours. I must have been six years old. It was the first time I can remember be conscious of excessive heat. We filled the pots to brimming with the blueberries and dinner that night, as it often did on really hot summer nights, consisted solely of a bowl of blueberries and sour cream.
Born in 1899 in what is now the Ukraine, her family had a fruit and vegetable stand in Odessa before progroms sent them to Warsaw and eventually New York. Perhaps it was that background which in part explained the simplicity of her cooking, even as compared with others in the simple Jewish cooking tradition. She was a demanding shopper, and she let the ingredients shine through without a lot of gussying up. You could say she was ahead of her time in that respect. I craved her plain cookies just dusted with cinnamon and a little sugar. My mother was never quite able to match the richness of Grandma Sonia’s boiled chicken dinner. Her cabbage borscht stuck to the richness of the beef-based stock and centered on the shreds of brisket, again something it took me time to appreciate — when I was young I preferred my Aunt Jennie’s sweeter version.
Despite the food retailing in her background, Grandma Sonia was unenthused about being involved in food production. She stopped eating the chicken she prepared weekly during the summer in the country, because while she was fine buying chickens hanging in the butcher’s window in the city, she couldn’t stand watching the chickens being slaughtered in the country.. When Peter and I bought the farm, she asked “What do you want to do that for?” She nevertheless fully appreciated our steady supply of sorrel, which over time became harder to find in markets.
Grandma Sonia lived to 100, her last years with living with my parents and cooking almost all the way to the end. Perhaps she found what Eric tells me the Japanese would call her kigai.
As reflected in my trying to preserve her schav recipe, in her later years we began to recognize that our beloved recipes could die with her, and we made efforts to record our favorites. But recipes will inevitably evolve as they form a chain from generation to generation. Rather than the precise proportions of ingredients, maybe what’s important to recognize is that feeding one’s family is act of love. Recreating the recipe is an act of remembrance.
CLOSE TO GRANDMA’S SCHAV:
Yield: 6-8 servings
▪ 1 pound Schav, (sorrel leaves)
▪ 2 tablespoons Butter, or corn oil
▪ 1 medium Onion, finely minced
▪ 6 cups Water
▪ 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
▪ 2 tablespoons Sugar
▪ 1 Lemon, for juice
▪ 2 Egg yolks, beaten
▪ Sour cream
Wash the sorrel thoroughly in several changes of cold water. Remove and discard the stems. Chop the leaves into thin ribbons.
Heat the butter or oil in a 3- quart saucepan and saute the sorrel and onions. Cook stirring, for 10 minutes. Add water and salt. Let the soup simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Add the lemon juice 1 tbsp. at a time, tasting constantly to achieve the degree of tartness that pleases you. Beat a tbsp or two of the soup into the egg yolks, then stir egg yolks into the soup. Reheat the soup but do not let it boil after adding the egg yolks.
Serve hot accompanied by sour cream (a dollop or two gets added to each bowl) or cool the soup and chill in refrigerator for several hours or overnight. Serve cold with sour cream.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK
Swiss chard $3/ bag
Rhubarb $4 a lb.
Mint $1 a bunch
White oasis turnips, $3/lb
Shiso leaves, $1 for 10
Sorrel, $3 a bag
Garlic chives, $1/bunch (flat leafed)
CHICKENS: They were quite uniform in size, all just around 6 lbs, a few under. These freedom rangers have been what you want them to be, deeply flavorful. $6/lb, frozen.
Email us your order at email@example.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.