Losing My Religion
(by Allie Denison)
Food plays such an important role in my family that my mother used to joke I could bring home anyone I wanted, so long as they loved to eat. Our family had lost touch with religion, but not with the importance of food.
My great-great-grandfather was an engineer for a German railway station when Hitler rose to power. Since he was Jewish, he refused to do the “Heil Hitler” salute. One night, several SS officers came to the station and threatened him. In those days, each cabin of the train was connected to the other cabins by magnets. The officers tied him to one cabin and let the magnets do the rest. One of his friends ran to my great-grandmother, who had just given birth to my grandmother, telling her that he had witnessed her husband's murder by SS officers, who would claim it was an accident. That’s exactly what happened.
My great-grandmother packed the essentials and fled in the night with my grandmother. She knew that she had to wait for the officials to come and tell her about the “accident,” but that very shortly after, she and her daughter would be targeted as well. For the rest of the war, they went from family member to family member, and to friends, never staying any place longer than a few months. After a few years of running, they secretly converted in an evangelist church. The family name had been Ostheim and was changed to Winter.
All this happened before I was born. But my family never went to church, and to this day, my grandmother has an Israeli passport, which she received after the war. I did not know about this family history until we had a school assignment to interview our grandparents about the war. When my great-grandmother was still alive, she would not allow any talk about it. After she passed, I made sure we discussed it at home because I was always a curious child.
My grandmother always yearned for a community where she felt like she belonged. She searched for it in different ways, and went on to study medicine, graduating as a psychiatrist and neurologist. She was the head of a well-known German psychiatric ward and one of the first women to run it. Later she had her own practice and has always cared for others more than herself.
My mother never had to make a decision between heritage and survival. She is a petite woman, with beautiful green eyes, thick, dark curls, and, as she always says, her “Ostheim nose.” She is very matriculate in the kitchen, a genius at creating meals from nothing. She loves old German comedians and listens to music when she is cooking, but as our kitchen is open to the dining room, she prefers that people are having a drink or playing games there while she cooks. We play a lot of games in our family, board games mainly, and she has this competitive streak that comes out when she plays. She is also a puzzle fanatic and will sit late into the night to complete a puzzle. Tea. She loves tea, any type or flavor. She has an entire drawer in her kitchen dedicated to tea. Any time that I was sick when I was young, she would make chicken soup from scratch, run a hot bath, change the bedding while I was soaking, heat up my pajamas, and have soup plus a hot cup of tea waiting. As I live in the United Kingdom now, she regularly sends me care packages with food and tea.
Every event, whether a holiday, a birthday, or even just passing an exam, my mother would create the most decadent spread of food, and there is one dish that makes me feel like I am home more than any other. It is called powidltascherl —little half-moon envelopes of potato dough filled with plum jam. They’re warm and sweet, and the nature of their preparation forces you to slow down and take your time. My mother learned to make them from her grandmother, and she from hers, and then it became my turn to learn the recipe.
I had just traveled back to Germany from the U.K. where I was studying, as my grandpa had passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Sadness had taken over, as he was the one person I went to with any worries. My older sister picked me up at the airport, and the drive to my mother’s home was a silent one. Neither of us knew how to speak the language of grief that the other person was using, and the quiet that surrounded us felt suffocating. When we finally arrived at my mother’s house, relieved to have escaped the confines of the car, the first thing that stopped me in my tracks was the aroma. The second was the nostalgia I felt.
The room was filled with the scent of cinnamon, butter, and boiled potatoes. That smell settled around me like a hug, whispering promises of safety, love, and family. I dropped my bags and ran to my mum crying. She stood in the kitchen, her most treasured room in the house, in an apron, covered in flour, her hair in a messy bun and her glasses half falling off her face. She just embraced me, knowing that talking would be futile. Without having to be asked, my sister and I joined in, put on aprons, and filled the dough with jam. When my mother grabbed her big pot, we all had to laugh. She loves this pot, but we felt it was ridiculous. It was a large white pot painted with an Italian flag and a caricature of an Italian chef with a wooden spoon saying “Bella, Ciao.” The release of laughter allowed for conversations to flow. We boiled the powidltascherl and melted the butter. Calling all remaining family members to the dinner table, Mum served up these small parcels of joy.
As we ate, we reminisced about Grandpa, telling funny stories and anecdotes, laughing about the times we made him angry, crying at the times we had made him smile. The evening went on, candles were lit, wine was opened, and the last of the plum jam was studiously scraped from the plate to prolong the flavor.
That evening, we stayed up late into the night, keeping Grandpa alive for a few more hours. Looking around my family, feeling full and warm, I was reminded of what my grandmother would always say: “Food brings everyone together. There is no occasion where food does not make it better.” In that moment, I could not have agreed more.
Allie Denison is an actor who lives in London but grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. She can be found on Instagram.
3 1/4 lb. potatoes, peeled
4 eggs, beaten
pinch of salt
approximately 1 lb. or more flour, potato starch, or gluten-free flour
8 – 10 oz. plum jam
8 oz. butter
16 oz. bread crumbs
8 oz. sugar
2 – 5 t. cinnamon
The day before serving, boil potatoes until soft, and set aside.
Next day, add eggs, salt, and enough flour to form a dough you can roll out.
(It should not be too dry or the dough will crack and the jam will leak.)
(If using potato starch or gluten-free flour, you will use less.)
Roll out on a lightly floured surface or parchment paper to a thickness of 1/8 – 1/4 in.
(The thinner, the better, but don’t go too thin or the dough will crack.)
Cut into squares.
Place 1 heaping t. plum jam in the center of each square.
Brush water around the edges of each square, and fold dough to make a triangle. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and boil until the parcels rise to the top.
Meanwhile, melt butter and add bread crumbs to brown.
Drain powidtatschkerl with a slotted spoon, and top with buttered bread crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon.