Here's the story I wrote about our last famiy reunion over 20 years ago. It was written for the LA Times Syndicate.
When I was growing up, family get-togethers, organized by Great Aunt Bertha, the bossy, loving, self appointed and usually much appreciated matriarch of the family, were a frequent occurrence. But one year she put her foot down, proclaiming that she was tired of being the only one to make the effort which everyone seemed to take for granted and to all of our amazement, she stopped just like that. The various families and generations orbited into their smaller nuclear and more manageably sized groups and Aunt Bert continued to function as family hot line gossip hub via the telephone. We all knew that without her we risked losing track of each other’s accomplishments and tragedies, probably forever.
No one wanted to organize a party but no one wanted to lose total touch either. So when Aunt Bert approached her 90th year, the next generation (my mother’s) decided to organize a major reunion birthday bash. We all knew that it would be the last time that we would all gather together and that within a mere few years, given the age and health conditions of certain family members, there would be several who would no longer be with us. An all-out effort was launched, the main responsibility assumed by my mother’s generation, who had fewer career and family demands, but my generation, or at least those of us who cook, volunteered to provide some of the food.
Although the plans proceeded with a certain inevitability, working together brought out a few personality conflicts between the female cousins in the late 60’s and 70’s category and my mother relayed them all to me with great amusement (mostly). One possible exception was when she reported mild dissension from the next generation of cousins in my group, resenting that I always get to do the cake! But I roared when she reported the comment of a cousin, known for her sharp mind, tongue and irreverent ability to expose the darker side of reality: “It’s going to be a wonderful party. Too bad Bertha has to come!” Then there was an argument about the beverages to be served. The general consensus was soda for the kids (as family dentist I was surprised that my mother didn’t push milk but I think she was lying low this time) and white wine for the grownups, until an older cousin gently suggested that perhaps the men would prefer beer. “What do you know about men?” scolded her older sister (demonstrating from whence her daughter got her sharp tongue).
The day of the event arrived and each time the door opened there were new exclamations of delight and surprise as cousins recognized cousins they hadn’t seen sometimes for more than 2 decades. I remember crying out “YOU are Stevie? LITTLE Stevie?” to a younger cousin who, I had been sure, was destined to be a midget and was now towering over me by a good foot, and to his sister Lois who used to express her mad passion for Elvis in a squeaky teenage voice: “where did you get that sexy, husky voice.” The unexpected answer: “from screaming at my 3rd graders for 25 years.” There were so many cousins with whom to become reacquainted and their spouses of varied ethnic backgrounds. To my delight I discovered that my family now encompassed every race.
I don’t remember if cousin Wanda ever won her point about the beer. I do remember the cake I made. It was a large golden génoise, soaked with a syrup of Frangelico, frosted with praline buttercream, encrusted with hazelnuts-all golden except for the red chocolate roses and dark chocolate inscription. But what I remember best is that it was hardly touched. Neither was any of the other food. None of us remembered to eat or drink because we were satiated with the incredible, unquestioning love and unexpected intensity of connection. Nothing was equal to that. For once the food didn’t matter worth a damn.
Everyone deserves a family reunion like the one we had, at least once in their lives. But just in case it doesn’t work out quite as smoothly, better have some good food on hand to ease the way. Here’s a recipe from my dear friend Lora Brody who understands well the importance of family love and connection of the generations. It is perfectly suited for a crowd, fine for making ahead and, what is perhaps most important of all, easy to eat standing up. Have lots of doggy bags on hand though, just in case your family loses its appetite too.
Luchshon Kugel (Noodle Pudding)
Makes: 12 to 16 servings
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 pound 1/4-inch egg noodles
6 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1-3/4 cups cottage cheese
1 cup whole milk ricotta
4 ounces (1-1/3) packages cream cheese, softened
2 cups milk
1 cup golden raisins (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup sliced almonds, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup apricot preserves
Equipment: A large rectangular baking dish, about 13 by 11-inches (at least 6 quarts)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. at least 20 minutes before baking time. Have the oven shelf in the middle position of the oven.
Use a small piece of plastic wrap to dip into the melted butter. Lightly coat the inside of the baking dish with a little of the melted butter.
In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add 4 teaspoons of salt, stir in the noodles and boil until just barely tender but still firm (al dente), about 4 minutes. Drain and place in the prepared dish.
Whisk together all the remaining ingredients except for the topping and pour them evenly over the noodles. It will be very soupy at this point. Bake for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the topping: In a small saucepan, combine all the topping ingredients. Just before the 30 minute baking period is up, cook the topping over medium heat, stirring constantly, until bubbling and well combined. Drop the topping by spoonfuls over the noodles and spread it evenly.
Return the kugel to the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until the top is browned and bubbly. Serve warm.
To make half the recipe: Use a 9-inch square baking dish and divide the ingredients in half except for the topping use 1/3 cup almonds, 1 tablespoon of butter, 1-1/2 tablespoons of light brown sugar, and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of apricot preserves. Bake only about 50 minutes more or until bubbly and done.