At the end of this first year of exploring the history of my mother’s family, I’ve been looking into its geographical origins. My mother was proud of her sophisticated Viennese heritage, so I was surprised to learn that her roots were in Tarnow, Poland, considered a shtetl. I was also confused about how our family eluded the linguistic and religious preferences that might have been predicted by Tarnow’s location in Galicia, a Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic-leaning province in the Austro-Hungarian empire.
But I learned from a comment on this most recent post by avid family historian Jill Leibman Kornmehl that at least one member of my mother’s clan did conform to regional religious expectations: Jill’s mother-in-law, Frances Leder Kornmehl, was brought up Hasidic in Tarnow. Frances’ husband Nathan Kornmehl — aka The Last of the Kornmehl Butchers (Maybe) — was also from Tarnow, but he was more modern when it came to religion.
This was a mixed marriage that, according to Jill, was very successful.
Still, given the culinary divide I have discovered in the ancestral land of my people, the so-called “gefilte fish line,” I have to wonder whose tastes ruled that Kornmehl kitchen.
Not Just a Big Fish Story
According to the Forward:
In his 1965 doctoral dissertation, “The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History,” based on interviews with Jews from pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, Marvin Herzog presented what is now known as the “gefilte fish line.” The line runs north to south, about 40 miles east of Warsaw; west of it, the preferred gefilte fish preparation was sweet, while to the east the fish was peppery.
Once again, our family was in an anomalous position. Even though Tarnow was on the Galician side of the line, we ate savory — as opposed to sweet, not in its alternate meaning of “tasty”– gefilte fish.
Beyond Gefilte Fish
But when it came to other Jewish foods, we were Galitzianer all the way.
The HG Family was totally Litvak and this was expressed in its cuisine. It was based on chicken fat, garlic, onions and plentiful salt and pepper. Here’s an example — lukshen kugel (noodle pudding), an HG favorite. As HG’s Mom prepared it, the kugel had something in common with Italian baked ziti. Mom’s kugel was simple. Wide noodles prepared al dente and piled into a casserole with abundant chicken fat and grated garlic. When removed from the oven it had a crisp, golden top and a soft, lush, fatty interior. The perfect accompaniment to braised beef. HG once had a lukshen kugel at the home of a Galitzianer friend. It was suffused with sugar, honey and cinnamon. This was a travesty of a kugel, more like an inferior dessert than a decent companion to robust meat.
Explaining the Disparities
Remember that Austria is the land of viennoiserie, breads which are sweetened, and of course Sachertortes, Linzertortes, and other other sweet goodies consumed with that famous Viennese beverage, coffee. (They drink it with whipped cream on top, I hear.)
My mother would never have questioned that the source of her/our sweet tooth was Austria, not Galicia. Indeed, there’s a particularly strong sugary tradition in the Viennese branch of the Kornmehl family: a chocolate-blessing rabbi, the owner of a cafe and — here’s a sneak preview of next year — a man responsible for popularizing an iconic candy.