A note from curator Rozanne Gold: Anna Freiman, native of Lithuania, speaker of nine languages, and devotee of Russian literature, herself sounds like an elegant character in a Dostoevsky novel. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, she joined her older brothers in South Africa, and later emigrated to Israel. Her grandson Jonathan, a writer (and creator of a Jewish historical cooking blog), found Annushka’s recipe for pumpkin fritters in a red binder his mother has kept for thirty years. With great affection he says, “As a teacher, my grandmother’s handwriting in both Latin and Hebrew scripts was crisp and exact; the fluidity of the cursive was unmistakably correct and undoubtedly all her own.” Jonathan, whose roots spread from South Africa, Israel, Chicago and New York, expresses his cooking “as deeply Jewish and totally unboxed” — just like his exceptional grandmother. You can enjoy more of his writing and extensive research at www.flavorsofdiaspora.com
BY JONATHAN PAUL KATZ
Every fall and winter, I see advertisements and signboards for pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice lattés, pumpkin doughnuts — but none for the pumpkin dessert of my childhood: Pumpkin fritters — a popular dish from my native South Africa. This recipe, lovingly written by my late grandmother Anna “Annushka” Freiman (née Smit), is at the heart of this story.
Annushka died in 1999, but her legacy lives on in the tales about her and in the recipes she left behind. In the 1980s, she typed out a cookbook for the family — including her famous dill soup, fish curry, and the meat stews she learned to make in South Africa. In addition, she blessed everyone dear to her with dozens of handwritten recipes. Those given to my mother on her visits to Annushka in Israel, were gathered in a treasured red binder — one that would forever sit alongside the typed recipe book. These tastes of my childhood became a priceless link to the life of an extraordinary woman.
My grandmother was born in Panevezys, Lithuania in 1917, in the famous yeshiva town known in Yiddish as Ponevezh. She was one of nine children in a well-off family who made their living as bottlers of Pilsner beer. Like many well-educated Lithuanian Jews, she grew up in a multilingual environment — High German, Hebrew, Lithuanian, and Russian were spoken at school, while Yiddish was spoken at home. And she learned English and Polish at some point along the way. Annushka survived the Holocaust in the Kaunas Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen, but tragically lost her first daughter, her first husband, and most of her siblings. After the war, she moved to South Africa, remarried and had three children, including my mother. In the mid-1960s, she moved to Israel and taught Hebrew.
Soon enough, Annushka became well-known for her prowess in the kitchen. The dishes she made were hardly traditional — she had a love for Middle Eastern cuisine and the Afrikaner and Indian specialties she learned in South Africa. Other recipes harkened back to her roots: Gefilte fish — peppery, in the Lithuanian tradition — or her aromatic dill soup.
She brought many recipes from Lithuania, but mostly enjoyed the black rye bread and farmer’s cheese that were the mainstays of the Lithuanian Jewish diet for centuries. I am certain that the tastes of her childhood carried over into her cooking — hence her pumpkin fritters are less sweet than many of their counterparts among other South African communities. They are also far more elegant — befitting a literary woman who could read, write, and speak nine languages and was known for her elegant demeanor. (As a young woman, she was also known as “Annushka di Sheine,” Annushka the Beautiful, for her elegance and beauty.).
My grandmother spoke in allusions with frequent references to Dostoyevsky. Ten hours of her mellifluous words are available at the Yale University Library as proof. Her descriptions of the detritus of everyday life recalled the great works of Yiddish and Russian literature, imbued with a folk wisdom all her own. But her recipes begged for a bit of wisdom of one’s own — be it the dollop of sour cream to add to the dill soup, or ingredients, or measurements, which had been omitted or simply “forgotten.”
My grandmother died when I was a child, but I distinctly remember making her pumpkin fritters with my mother in our family’s cramped New York City kitchen. (I “helped” by putting things into the bowl). My mother was always looking at the recipe on the counter as she mixed the batter, and the smoke from the cooking oil filled the apartment with a sweetly burnished smell that I still associate with autumn. On one very rainy day, I remember how the smoke looked like an extension of the cloud outside the window.
When I was 20, I spent a few months in South Africa doing archival research in winter which, in South Africa, takes place June through August. While there, I had the chance to eat pampoenkoekies – Afrikaner-style pumpkin fritters — at a coffee shop in the Cape Town neighborhood of Rondebosch. And though they did not taste exactly the same as the dish of my youth — they were a good deal sweeter, with a touch of clove — the bite pulled me into a Proustian reverie.
Poignantly, I, too, have just discovered that Annushka had “forgotten” an ingredient — and I struggled to make the recipe as written, watching the fritters disintegrate before my eyes. My mother advised that my grandmother always included flour in the mixture, but alas, there was none in the recipe. I marveled to find this omission and Annushka immediately came to life. (Handwriting is so often indicative of what is not written.) And as I slowly stirred the flour into the bowl, I felt a small nudge, and heard her whisper “Enjoy in good health.”
The recipe, as written in Annushka’s teacher’s hand, with my additions in parentheses.
Pumpkin Fritters • Your loving “Sheine”
2 pounds raw pumpkin
[1-1/2 cups sifted flour]
1 heaped tablespoon sugar
½ level teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla essence [author note: vanilla extract]
1 level teaspoon cinnamon
2 [level teaspoons] baking powder
Peel and slice pumpkin. Cook slowly in very little water till soft (about 20 minutes). Strain off water and mash up very well into a pulp. Cool it completely.
When cool, add slightly beaten eggs (just with a fork) and then add the balance of the ingredients, but the baking powder is added last.
Drop tablespoonful[s] into shallow oil (not too hot, as they burn quickly). Fry till golden brown on both sides. Makes 40-50 fritters.
Note: The fritters make a delicious dessert and can be served with cinnamon and sugar. They keep well in the fridge for quite a few days – if not eaten up immediately.
Bete’avon ulabri’ut! [Bon appétit and to your health!]