By Alison Negrin
My sister and I swooped into our parents’ home in Palo Alto when we learned that our father’s health was rapidly declining. David Negrin had suffered a fall a month earlier and was willing himself to stay alive to see my sister, Lenore Arnberg, who would be arriving from far away Sweden.
I drove from the East Bay to meet Lenore at the apartment we had rented in our parents’ complex, and then we set to work in our parents’ kitchen. Our father watched intently as we did our familiar sisters kitchen dance, and he agreed to let us invite people for dinner so he could share in more good company. Over the next several days, we invited the visiting chaplain, hosted a dinner party for our parents’ best friend, and celebrated around the table with my niece and her wife as our father blessed their relationship. It was only five days as I remember, but that time was almost festive and oh-so bittersweet.
My father was small in stature but larger than life and demanding of attention as the Greek-Jewish patriarch of our family. He was charismatic, loved telling a good joke, and dished out stories and wisdom to his children at the dinner table.
His parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s to escape the Greco-Turkish War and find a better life. They arrived first in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then moved to Harlem before settling in the Bronx. My father was one of three siblings and was the only one who left the Bronx as a young adult. He, too, was searching for a better life with his young wife (my mother, Shirley) and his newly earned engineering degree from NYU, which was paid for by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the G.I. Bill).
Our family gradually spread out, settling in cities on the East Coast, but at holiday times—or whenever we could make it—everyone traveled to the Bronx to be with our grandparents.
My grandmother, Stella Negrin, cooked for days in preparation for these visits. She was a remarkable baker who spoiled us all with her handmade phyllo pastries, both savory and sweet. Her cooking was different from my mother’s and friends’ mothers. I enjoyed the strong flavors of Kalamata olives, feta cheese, and stewed vegetable and meat dishes. Plus, going to New York meant even more food adventures with hot pretzels and chestnuts from street vendors, egg creams at the corner markets, and pickles, bagels, and roast beef sandwiches on good rye. My family loves to eat!
In 1970, my parents and I moved to California as my sister moved even farther away to settle with her Swedish husband. Peter Arnberg has since passed, but Lenore has remained in Sweden and calls it her home.
Lenore and I enjoy cooking together and are extremely compatible travelers, with food often as the focus of our explorations. We have noticed that we tend to research the same cooking projects simultaneously and often unknowingly. Whether it’s vegan recipes, probiotic smoothies, sourdough bread, or an obsession with sustainable meat and fish, we are almost always in sync. She did not become a professional chef as I did, but she’s passionate about discovering and replicating recipes that pique her curiosity.
Our cooking synchronicity brought our family comfort and healing during our father’s difficult passage. We both brought our sourdough starters to our parents’ home and fed them each night before we went to bed. We took turns making toothsome loaves, comparing our processes and outcomes. We had both discovered the no-knead method, a departure from the quicker bread recipes we favored in the past using packaged yeast.
We each felt the need to cook our favorite Greek-Jewish recipes for our father and for each other. He wasn’t talking or eating much in those last days, but he wanted to stay engaged with all that was happening around him. We watched him take small careful bites of the beautiful spanakopita my sister prepared. He took a corner piece of bread to scoop into the oil in my kapema*, which is essentially caramelized tomatoes and eggplant. While he ate, we witnessed the pleasure he took in his favorite foods. It was how his daughters showed him love, and he understood that. We understood that, too.
These dishes were the ones we ate a half century ago in the Bronx apartments of our grandmother and aunt, who have long since passed away. In our childhood, the adults crammed into my aunt’s tiny kitchen and sat around the Formica-topped table. None of them were what one would call small people. They scooped up the caramelized eggplant, oil, and tomato with thick chunks of rye bread. My grandmother’s scuviya*, a version of tzatziki with the addition of garlic and walnuts, was always present. We cousins and siblings tried modern dance moves across the living room floor. We watched ourselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covered one of the walls or played hide-and-seek in the cavernous apartment hallways as the adults ate and talked for hours.
Years ago, I felt compelled to make kapema in a restaurant where I was in charge of menu development. One of my cooks renamed it Eggplant Meltdown, which is apt, since the layers of ripe tomatoes and eggplant cook for hours until they meld into a caramelized umami-rich conglomeration.
Eggplants come into season in late summer, so now is the time to make this hearty Greek-Jewish recipe passed down from my grandma, Stella Negrin. May she and my father, David Negrin, rest in peace, and may my sister Lenore and I always be in sync. ♦
*Editors’ note: Our fact-checking department enjoyed researching unfamiliar names in this story and would like to refer you back to our Editor’s Mixing Bowl for our thoughts on the findings.
Alison Negrin served as chef at such noted Bay Area restaurants as Chez Panisse, Bridges, and Ginger Island. She later developed dishes and menus for the John Muir Health System; catered for their various upscale events; and consulted to help restaurants, hospitals, and other institutions increase purchases from local, sustainable food sources and train staff in healthy, seasonal cooking techniques. She is passionate about the power of nutrition and healthy eating in menu development and training.Print