In her interfaith family — part Italian Catholic, part Ashkenazi Jewish — Mindy Martorana serves recipes from her husband’s family like meatballs and “gravy” that she learned from her mother-in-law Josephine. From her side of the family, she makes her grandmother Alice’s rich dairy noodle kugel on Easter, the fourth of July, and says it may have even graced the family’s Christmas table in years past. “I use food to remind my children about their culture and what my roots were like,” she says.
Her family’s history can be traced through the layers of that kugel. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Mindy’s great grandmother Celia became ill with tuberculosis, forcing her to leave her family on the East Coast to seek treatment in a sanatorium in California. Her children went to live with their aunt, known affectionately in the family as Tonta Sonny, on a farm in Chesterfield, Connecticut. Tonta Sonny was part of the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, an agrarian community for Jewish immigrants, many of whom escaped religious persecution in Europe and were living in crowded urban centers.
Alice, Mindy’s grandmother was just four years old when she arrived on the farm. “[Sonny] would have been who taught her to cook,” Mindy explains, including the kugel. By the late 1950s, when Mindy was little, the kugel was a family staple. Living just two floors downstairs from her grandparents in a Brooklyn apartment building, Mindy fondly remembers Alice making kugel and her signature pot roast upstairs.
When Mindy and her parents moved to Long Island in 1964, the kugel traveled. Her grandparents would take the Long Island Railroad to visit and “everytime they came, she brought her kugel, baked in a disposable pie plate,” says Mindy. “We couldn't wait for her to come.” The kugel followed her to college, when her grandmother made it for friends who lived in the dorms away from home.
And, when Mindy married and started a family, the kugel recipe was passed down. It arrived, written by hand on a thin piece of paper wishing Mindy: “Happy eating and a happy and healthy New Year. With love, Grandma.”