The Marriage Test
(by Malka Margolies)
My parents never argued in front of their children, with one exception. Over time, both became increasingly entrenched in their version of one story: My mom insisted that my father proposed to her on their second date. “That’s nonsense, Ruthie,” my father would say as he waved one hand in the air to dismiss the charge. “It was the third date.” But they both admitted that they were engaged within two weeks of meeting. And their stories about their whirlwind courtship did match up when each told me independently about the one condition that predicated their marriage: My mother had to learn how to make my father’s mother’s kugel.
It is not the standard sweet noodle pudding that graces many Jewish holiday tables; it’s peppery, devoid of the traditional raisins or cinnamon (in Israel, it’s known as a Yerushalmi kugel, a Jerusalem kugel). It’s really my great-grandmother’s kugel. The Bubbe Mushke was born in the port city of Jaffa, Israel, where her daughter Malka (my namesake) also was born. Malka moved to Jerusalem when she married; my father was born there, and the family came to America when he was eight years old. Wherever they lived, from the Holy Land to the Bronx, one constant was the kugel for Sabbath dinner. Every. Single. Week. But Malka died young, two years before my parents met. It was her daughter, my Aunt Bella, who taught my mother how to make the kugel as she prepared to enter the family.
I grew up in Kansas City on the Kansas side (in a house filled with 7,000 books), where my parents moved in 1961—my father was a rabbi who took a pulpit there. As a child, I watched my mother prepare the kugel every Thursday, transfixed by her ability to flip the pan on the stovetop and cook the noodles on both sides without anything ever spilling out. My father’s sister also taught the kugel recipe to her daughter and daughter-in-law, and I once compared recipes with my cousins. There were a couple of variations. In the early 1900s in Palestine, it probably would have been impossible to find the almond flavoring in my mom’s version, and when I confronted my mother about it, she admitted that it may very well have been her own scandalous addition.
When I was married and on my own in New York, my parents came to visit for a week. I prepared all sorts of fancy dishes for the Sabbath meal, from a Persian rice dish with pomegranates and pistachios to a spicy Moroccan vegetable stew. But as my father saw me cooking away in the kitchen, he said, “Where's the kugel?”
I had never made the kugel and looked at him in a state of panic. My mother took charge, of course. I watched her and wrote down every single step. It came out perfectly, of course. I’ve made it countless times since then—I can’t imagine a Sabbath meal without it. And I’m certain that this family tradition will continue through new generations, from Israel to New York to Kansas City to wherever they may be.
Malka Margolies is a former publishing executive at Random House and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also worked at CBS News as the press representative for “CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood” and “48 Hours.” She was the communications director at The Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale and is currently a freelance publicist and book consultant.
The Bubbe Mushke’s Kugel
12 oz. medium-sized plain noodles
salt and pepper to taste
1 t. almond extract
3 T. vegetable oil
3 T. sugar
Cook noodles in boiling water according to package directions.
Drain and set aside.
Beat eggs with salt and pepper.
Add almond extract.
In a skillet, warm the oil.
Add sugar, and stir until it browns but does not stick together.
Toss the noodles and egg mixture with sugared oil, stirring well.
Wipe out the pan with paper towel, and spray with cooking oil.
Over medium heat, add the noodle mixture.
When the noodles are brown on the bottom, take the pan off the stove, put a plate on top, and flip the pan.
Put the noodles back in the pan with the brown side on top and brown on the other side.