Culinary Heritage Holds Clues

Spaetzle, A Culinary Heritage Clue

Not long ago I had lunch at Karl's Sausage Kitchen, a small German specialty store and eatery. Karl's makes their own sausages, sauerbraten and schnitzel, and imports all kinds of German foods, from noodles to mustard to marzipan. I went for the spaetzle, a small, buttery egg pasta that is part of my culinary heritage.

My great grandmother, Frieda, made her own spaetzle from scratch and served them almost every Sunday.  She taught my grandmother how to make them, and my grandmother taught my mother.  My father's second cousin from Germany brought a spaetzle maker as a gift when she visited my family years ago.

A plate of spaetzle with mushrooms (1)

Family food traditions can be more than savory memories, or treats to look forward to on special occasions.  They can hold clues to where your ancestors lived.  Spaetzle are a Swabian specialty.  My great grandfather, Karl, was born and raised in a Swabian village in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, and my great grandmother, Frieda, worked in the Swabian city of Stuttgart before her marriage.  Karl and Frieda lived together in Stuttgart for eleven years, from their marriage until their departure for America in 1923. Both their children were born in Stuttgart.  If I knew nothing about their past, the place that spaetzle occupied on their Sunday dinner menu could have served as a culinary clue to their heritage.

Photo of Karl and Frieda
Karl and Frieda on a return visit to Germany.

Many small regions of the world have their own special dishes.  If you are stumped about your ancestors' origins, consider what you may know about their cherished family recipes.  Chances are those special foods may point you to the place they grew up, or at least to a place where they lived for a time.

(1) Photo of spaetzle and mushrooms.

A Name Reclaimed

More than one hundred years ago, my husband’s great grandmother left Russia for Palestine.  She was a widow, and she was carrying out her husband’s will.  Yehoshua Tseitlin (or Zeitlin) had been a tzadik, a righteous Jewish man and spiritual leader. (He bore the same name as and possibly was descended from the famous eighteenth century Rabbi Yehoshua Tseitlin of Shklov, Belarus, who was a brilliant scholar, a Jewish community leader, and also a councilor to Empress Catherine the Great.)  Before great grandfather Yehoshua died, he instructed his wife to go to the Holy Land after his death.  He wanted her to live out her days there and be buried there.  She arrived in Palestine and some time later sent a parcel to her son, Yakov, in Russia.  Some time after that a letter arrived stating that she had been robbed by Bedouins and was on the verge of starvation.  The family hurried to send her food and other necessities.  Despite their efforts, the next letter informed them that she had died.

Her sad story was remembered by her descendants, but her name was forgotten.  No one knew when she had died or where she was buried.  Searching for clues about great grandfather Yehoshua’s ancestry, I stumbled across his unfortunate widow, more particularly a grave in the Old Tel Aviv cemetery for Esther Zeitlin, who was buried there 15 January 1912.  Here is why Esther is almost certainly my husband’s great grandmother:

  1. Her husband is listed as HaRav Yehoshua Zeitlin.  HaRav is a term meaning rabbi, which probably refers to Yehoshua’s status as tzadik.
  2. A note on the cemetery record reads, “Husband from Raslav (?)”   Yehoshua’s son Yakov lived in Roslavl, Russia, so it is quite possible that Yehoshua and his wife also lived there.
  3. Esther died in 1912.  This timing makes sense because my husband’s father, who was born in 1905, was already a young boy when his family received the parcel from his grandmother in the Holy Land.  He remembered what it contained: dried fruits, candles, and a small silver cup the family used for Passover.
  4. The cemetery record lists Esther’s father’s name as Yaakov Kohen.  In family tradition, it was common to name a grandchild after a grandfather.  It’s possible that Yehoshua named his son Yakov after his father-in-law.

My husband’s brother will be traveling to Tel Aviv soon, and may have a chance to gather more information about Esther and to visit her grave.