From Lviv to Lille: The Odyssey of a Gastronaught

Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, I never thought I would become a “foodie,” not even an academic one. But accidents shaped me, both personal and professional. This story begins with my mother, who was expertly trained in the ways of Ukrainian cooking by her mother, Anna Pidherny. My grandmother was from the village of Micolaiuw, which is just outside of Lviv in Poland. She married Basil Dzadziw from the nearby village of Pidhaichik. An official at Ellis Island changed Dzadiw into Jadoff and Basil later became William, but the grandchildren all knew him as Toots.

A block between Avenues A and B.
October 4, 1942.
© Charles W. Cushman
PHOTO: Charles Cushman Collection:
Indiana University Archives (P02694)

I never saw Toots in the kitchen. But for our Sunday visits Anna was always in the last throes of whipping up a pungent hot borscht with a huge meat bone anchoring it, followed by the main dish of mashed potatoes and her version of pierogi (which she pronounced pyroheh in Ukrainian). All over Europe, from Latvia to Germany, pierogi is probably the most popular dish because of the easy availability of its simple ingredients: ground meat or potatoes caressed by a fried cabbage leaf lovingly dipped in sour cream.

Dessert was rugelach, each pastry looking like a snail scratching its back, and as small as my thumb — which meant that I could eat two at a time, crunching my way through walnuts and cinnamon. (Apricots, often included in recipes for rugelach, were too rare and expensive in the 1950s to be found in the fruit basket on my grandmother’s table.) At Easter, the tiny rugelach were overshadowed by an impressive cake-bread, looking like the prow of a ship: a towering babka, the reward for giving up sweets for Lent. It was dry enough to need butter, but with a touch of sweetness from the occasional raisin. (Having suffered through the Depression, my grandmother economized even on her own creations, since there were at most five raisins in her 9-inch-high babka.)

This, then, was the type of menu my mother, Mary, was prepared to cook when she married my Irish-American father, William Tobin. Alas, he would have none of it. ‘Twas beef and boiled potatoes for him, and the occasional pasta dish out of respect for his favorite restaurant, Russo’s, on 14th street and Avenue B, the kind of Mom and Pop place that has largely disappeared from the American dining scene. My mother’s patience with the new cuisine was sorely tried on Fridays when, as all good Catholics before 1966, we had to practice abstinence from meat. It wasn’t that she was not inventive: she figured out that pasta, eggs, and fish were acceptable substitutes. (Pizza was a lunch dish only.)

Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, I never thought I would become a ‘foodie,’ not even an academic one. But accidents shaped me, both personal
and professional.

Having been educated in Eastern European cooking, what she did with the meat substitutes, or rather to them, would have been cause for arrest by the Julia Child Culinary Constabulary. The pasta, always of the thinnest spaghetti, suffered a horrible death by drowning in a bitter tomato sauce. Although I cannot now tell how she prepared scrambled eggs, I do recall that even a half-bottle of Heinz’s best ketchup could not disguise the awful texture: the eggs seemed to come alive, with slivers seeking escape from my mouth. I won’t attempt a description of what flounder (forever flounder) became in my mother’s hands. Let’s simply say that the First-Avenue fishmonger should have banned her from the premises, for the greater benefit of society.

When we didn’t get to have Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s, we had it at home. The memory still chills. It was either tasteless chicken soup, followed by boiled chicken; or it was roast beef — not the kind Dickens celebrated, but a large slab of meat, wallowing in juice, that had apparently been attacked by wild animals since it had not visibly been carved but rather torn apart.

This was my family gastronomical inheritance until I went to France as a Fulbright Scholar in 1959. Since starting the study of French at Regis high school in New York City, I had been excited by the stories of French culture, especially of the Age of Louis XIV. They were told to me by my aunt Anne Jadoff, who had graduated from Hunter College at the age of nineteen with a French major. I heard that she did not attend graduation because the family could not afford the $5 for the rental of the academic cap and gown. Around 1995 she talked about traveling and even applied for and received a passport, but she never got to set foot in her beloved France. Her last word, when near death in 2005, was “bonjour.”

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