One of the amazing things about creating the menu for The Lost Family was reconnecting with my own. I knew I wanted the book’s restaurant, Masha’s, to be a fusion of Jewish and German food—Peter and his first wife Masha’s culinary heritages, respectively—and, since we’re introduced to Masha’s in 1965, the menu items would also be saturated in whiskey, as was de rigeuer then. I consulted dozens of cookbooks—The Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook, cookbooks by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin—which I started every morning by reading while I had my coffee. I ordered a compilation of all the Gourmet magazines published in 1965 (you can get just about anything on eBay, and this collection arrived, to my happy surprise, beautifully bound). For the German recipes, I hit up my dear friend Christiane, who grew up in Germany—and asked what were her favorite childhood foods? In answer she sent me photos from her mother’s cookbooks, well-loved, as evidenced (as all cooks know) by the generous Rorschachs of oils and spices on each page.
It was while I was making a batch of plum chutney for Masha’s—which also serves in-house pickles and jams—that I had a sudden vision of the same chutney in small quilted Mason jars identical to the ones I was using, with my grandmother Ray’s tiny spiky handwriting on labels on the tops. Plum Chutney, I saw in my mind’s eye, clear as anything. That wasn’t the recipe I was currently using, but the vision persisted. Then I could see Sweet Pickles and Watermelon Pickles and Beach Plum Jam and Pickled Tomatoes—same handwriting. I didn’t remember ever seeing my grandmother use a cookbook, although she was a dedicated gardener and cook (Peter’s mother-in-law Ruth’s secret garden in Larchmont is based on my grandmother’s). I called my aunt Judy, the only surviving member of my dad’s side of the family. “Did Grandma ever make plum chutney?” I asked.
“You bet your life she did,” my aunt said. “Don’t you remember—every summer, as soon her garden was ripe, the kitchen became a cannery?”
I hadn’t remembered. I remembered only eating the delicious results. I had thought my love of preserving food came from my mom’s side of the family, who unlike my dad’s New York Jewish predecessors were all Minnesota farmers.
“You wouldn’t by any chance have the plum chutney recipe, would you?” I asked my aunt.
A few days later all of my grandmother Ray’s recipes arrived, on index cards—her tiny spiky handwriting, the paper splotched with spices and sauce.
Peter Rashkin’s Latkes with Beet Dip and Horseradish Crème Fraîche are based on my grandmother Ray’s latkes, her recipe rediscovered in the treasure trove my aunt sent me. The latkes are my grandmother’s. She would have eaten them with applesauce and sour cream; the beet dip and horseradish crème fraîche are Peter’s invention. But his last name, too, belongs to my grandmother Ray, who before she became a Blum was a Rashkin.