Comedian Tracy Klass’s Jewish home cooking, just the way Bubbe made it
In Yiddish, ‘fress’ means anything from snack to devour, to eat ravenously, and captures the essence of Jewish food in one word.
The author supports The Angel Network which provides support to thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.
In our current reality, food and meal deliveries have flourished. Just about anything you can think of can be brought to your door. Born of necessity – yet no longer strictly so because restaurants, bottle stores and supermarkets are now free to trade – many of us have found we rather like the convenience of ordering raw ingredients or ready made meals online or via Whatsapp. It’s that little step closer to the goal of being a hermit.
When this includes bouquets of cupcakes with icing that looks like real flowers, three- or more-course meals prepared by top chefs, cuisine from the farthest reaches of the world, and the best fresh produce you can lay your hands on, were there any gaps left in this market?
As it turns out, yes.
Good readers, I give you A Taste Of Klass: traditional Jewish food home cooked by a Jewish mother, for delivery or collection. The connection between Jewish moms and food is legitimate.
“All chefs are like Jewish mothers. They want to feed you and feed you and impress you. It’s an eagerness to please,” says Padma Lakshmi, author, activist, model, and television host of the Emmy-award winning cooking competition show Top Chef.
Recipes and their execution are passed down through generations: chicken soup renowned for its nourishing and healing powers, kneidlach, tzimmes, chopped herring and kichel, kugel, blintzes, latkes, and, of course, brisket.
The mother in this story is Tracy Klass, who is also a standup comedian, and who took voluntary retrenchment in 2020 from her position as marketing manager at Herzlia. The idea – and the name of the business – is just so perfect it makes you wonder why nobody thought of it sooner.
There haven’t been many live performance opportunities in the past 421 days, but Klass did a gig in November 2020, during which 45 minutes felt like three days, she said. “You’ve got to keep the rhythm and flow,” she said of keeping those stage muscles flexed. “I was working on new material about how I want the kids to leave home. Some mothers are crying because their child is leaving. Mine said ‘I’m thinking of leaving home’ and I said ‘can I get you an Uber?’
“It was relevant and then lockdown happened and I was on my own – and I loved it. For me I was like Cinder-bloody-ella, I did nothing but sweep.” Klass waves her arm to indicate the large lounge/dining room of her Sea Point flat in which she was born. “As you can see, this is my ‘yoga studio’, and you’re busy doing a down dog and you see there’s dust under the couch – but you’ve just swept!
“So it’s seeing the funny side of it, I think. It’s taken the size of everybody; most people – not everybody – came out a hunk a chunk or a drunk.”
One can only sweep so much, and with the help and encouragement of her book club friends, Klass developed the idea for her home business, which launched in February 2021. Terry Levin, a friend since Sub A (Grade 1), designed the logo, Klass’s daughter Aimee does all the admin, and yet another friend takes care of social media, while Klass is in her tiny kitchen juggling pots of soup and roasting pans.
“When you’re young and you do shit like this, you’ve got the energy and the drive. When you’re older like us, you’ve got the know-how. So you might not have the energy but you know how to get everybody else to do stuff,” she said.
Klass is not letting the performance side of things slide though. She’s very excited to have shot what she calls “a little” pilot called Come Fress With Me. “Jewish people, we don’t nibble, we graze,” she explained. Fress is Yiddish for, broadly, eating with gusto.
The pilot included guests Nik Rabinowitz and Kate Pinchuk. “I’m hosting comics – not Jewish ones except for Nik – and I’m feeding them Jewish food, but I’m also going to teach them about festivals, not mixing milk with meat, and so on.
“We opened with the bagel because everybody knows the bagel. It wasn’t the case of whose is the best bagel because here’s the conclusion: there is no best bagel. It’s what your taste is.
“Personally, I’m Spar with the crunchy outside; Aimee liked Kleinsky’s rye bagel, and someone else liked Bentley’s,” said Klass.
A Taste Of Klass does a Deli Box, available Tuesdays to Fridays, which is pretty much a Jewish food All Stars selection: chopped liver, chopped herring and kichel (my Kryptonite), rye bread, chicken schnitzels or barbecue brisket, pickles, coleslaw, and bagels. If you don’t like them at all, you can swap out the herring and liver for vegetable, chicken or corn soup, and if you favour herring over liver or vice versa, you can have one large tub instead of two smaller ones.
That’s about as far as it goes with special requests. “My kitchen is not a nut-free zone,” says the printed letter tucked into the bag of food, with a detailed list of ingredients and dish descriptions. “While there are no nuts in this offering, I do have nuts in my home (and I am not talking about my extended family). My food is also not gluten free except for the chicken soup, chopped liver, tzimmes, and sweet and sour cabbage rolls. If you do have a problem with wheat, there is enough of a selection to accommodate you.”
This is true, but shame, poor gluten-intolerant folks. You won’t get to eat the bagels or the challah – both provided by Bentley’s Bread Co in Sea Point.
“There’s nothing like a chicken schnitzel bagel with home made mayo and homemade pickles. I make everything – even the vegetable schmaltz in the kneidlach,” said Klass. “We discussed this, Nik and I; you don’t spoil a sandwich with a bought mayo.
“But the most important thing with any sandwich is the even cut of all the garnishes. You don’t have a huge doorstep of cucumber,” she warned. “I had a discussion with Sheryl Ozinsky and she said my pickles are not sour enough and I said ‘no dear, I don’t do those because I don’t want the pickle taking over from the liver or the brisket or the schnitzel’. They are an accompaniment and mustn’t overwhelm.”
The discussion with Ozinsky was about doing a popup stall at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market in Granger Bay, which since the time of the interview, has been made a permanent fixture. Early birds can expect things like latkes with cinnamon sugar, apple and mascarpone, or salmon and cream cheese, and cheese blintzes for breakfast. Mid-morning the brisket comes out, along with chicken schnitzel, soup and kneidlach, herring, liver and kichel.
Side bar: my childhood was mixed religion (and I use that word very loosely). A Jewish stepfather meant we observed high days and holidays, occasionally went to shul, and our closest friends – Mom’s and mine – were Jewish. I attended a Jewish nursery school next door to the Wynberg synagogue. Opposite this was Roman Catholicism, with a few catechism classes which never lead anywhere and Mass now and then with my granny, once notably at midnight on Christmas Eve. It was the best of both worlds – Easter eggs and hot cross buns, matzah spread with butter and sprinkled with salt, and in my teenage years the rolls I learned to make with matzah meal (still love them); mince pies and a sparkly tree and piles of presents, milk and cookies for Father Christmas (okay not religious but definitely a gentile thing), and herring and kichel at every function or gathering on the Jewish side.
Kichel is a type of cracker, light and crispy – and sweet. Dollop on the tangy chopped (more blended really) herring which had been topped with crumbled hard boiled eggs. It’s the ultimate sweet and savoury combination. Writing this paragraph has me chalishing for it. Interesting how many Yiddish words I’ve retained.
Along with my Deli Box, I picked up a Friday Night Supper Box. It contained challah, the iconic staple of Shabbat dinner made with enriched dough (so no, it’s not any old normal bread), golden chicken soup with kneidlach, roast stuffed chicken, potato kugel (a baked potato pudding, an Ashkenazi classic), green beans and honeyed Brussels sprouts, and apple blitzes for dessert. In case you missed the whole Jewish mother feeding thing, portions were extremely generous. Plus Klass added some meatballs because she was making them for her own dinner anyway, and stewed pears.
“Because they’re parev, you see?,” she said. “Making parev takes a bit of thought. I don’t mix milk or dairy with meat.” As a shiksa, if I decided to add a bit of custard or whipped cream, that was on me. (I didn’t.)
Klass, who did Home Economics on the higher grade as a matric subject, reminisced about recipe books like The Singing Kettle, for which ordinary women would submit their finest recipes. “Those are my best books. Ever. I have all of them still, and I use them all the time,” she said. “In The International you’ll find the award winning recipe from the Rand Easter Show for the chiffon cake and that’s the one I make for Yom Kippur because it’s five eggs and not eight.”
Out came the photographs of Aunty Sarah and Aunty Polly (who escaped the bolsheviks on horseback in 1916 or ’17) from Abel, Lithuania, who taught Klass to cook, continuing the lineage of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking.
“They were born in Lithuania and my father and four brothers were born here,” said Klass. “When my mom married my dad – 13 years younger than him – she said she got three mothers-in-law. When my mom cooked, they would say ‘Hmmm, we don’t know, it’s missing something’. And after three months, my mother said to my father ‘you know what? Knock yourself out, you do it’. So my father cooked and my mother baked.
“I’d say to aunty Sarah ‘please give me the recipe’ and she’d say ‘eggs’. How many? How big are they? I used to follow her and write the stuff as she did it. It was the techniques you got from them. I visited a friend in Australia and she said let’s make tzimmes and got out a recipe and I said ‘no, this is not right, my aunts used to roast it to get that beautiful glaze – you use potato flour’.
“Kichel I was taught by a friend who was taught by her bubbe. There are things you need to be taught how to do. I love food. And I love cooking. I was making some soup last night and isn’t it amazing how you take water and you just add and you add and then you’ve got this gorgeous cloud of gold beautiful liquid?
“I’m not an artist and I can’t paint and draw. I can knit and crochet, but when you’re making food you’re being creative. When I was premenstrual I never went in the kitchen for 48 hours; I burnt myself, I dropped dishes, something I’d always made perfectly would flop…the love and how you are feeling is communicated in the food you make.”
Sharing Jewish food across cultures is Klass’s goal. If you’ve never had it before, you’re in the target market. And so too are Jewish folks who are perhaps too busy to do a full on Shabbat, or elderly folk who aren’t able to anymore.
“When you’ve been cooking for 45 years, enough!” said Klass. “It’s not laziness, it’s gatvolness. And making the same thing again and again. It’s Shabbat – again – but it was Shabbat yesterday!”
Not only is this food comforting for the body and soul, but it’s steeped in history, as Jews fled from Spain to Eastern Europe during the Inquisition. “Our family continued on to Germany and a lot of the stuff came out of there – bagel is from the German word ‘bougal’ for bracelet,” said Klass. “Then you can see the food is influenced by the climate. It was cold and miserable and they were poor. They. Were. Poor,” she repeated for emphasis. “What they ate was whatever was cheapest. Herring. Potatoes. Beetroot, carrots, root vegetables. Brisket was the cheapest cut of meat but you cook it for four to six hours.
“My mother said my aunts could make a banquet out of a herring and a potato – potato kugel, latke, mashed potato, roast potato, potato in tzimmes…” DM/TGIFood