Your Babka's Babka
Our favorite Jewish cookbook extraordinaire, Joan Nathan, has invited an old friend to the Hanukkah table. In an article in today's NY Times, she shares with us the colorful -- and flavorful -- memories of babka in its original and contemporary varieties.
As the article suggests, the first association many of us have with babka is the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine tragically settle for a cinnamon babka to bring to a dinner party when the bakery customer in line before them buys the last chocolate one. Chocolate babka, according to Elaine, is far superior to cinnamon.
But for many people of the pre-Seinfeld generation, babka evokes a rich and varied history in smell, flavor, dough consistency, ingredients (more exotic than chocolate or cinnamon!), and even in its name. Originating in Eastern Europe, the word "babka" in both Polish and Yiddish, is a diminutive of "baba," meaning old woman or grandmother. As writer Arthur Schwartz notes in the article: "Babka, in its original form, was stout and round, just like grandmothers used to be before they went to aerobics classes and practiced yoga." Now, I have trouble believing that all grandmothers were stout and round before they caught on to aerobics and yoga (certainly those who were living in poverty weren't) but it's interesting how food and drink has, for so many, become intimately coupled with women's cultural history, women's identities, and has almost come to tell their stories for them. There are countless examples of this in every-day dining. Few of us probably know that the Margarita was named after the Dallas socialite, Margarita Samas, who invented a concoction of tequila, lime, and orange liquor for one of her Acapulco parties in 1948. Pizza Margherita was named for Queen Margherita of Savoy (1851-1926) after she was presented with a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag. Hubbard Squash? That's thanks to Elizabeth Hubbard who discovered the deliciousness of an unnamed squash in Marblehead, MA in 1842-43. And, of course, we can't forget the Shirley Temple cocktail -- my favorite Bar/Bat Mitzvah beverage -- named after the curly, round-faced child actress of the 1930s.
While all of these names have held their own throughout history, the delights themselves have experienced some permutations. Babka is no exception. In different parts of the world and among different cultural populations and age-groups, babka is no longer as round or plump in its granny-mimicking intention, and the debate over fruit-filled, jam-glazed, doughy vs. flakey certainly persists. Regardless, babka has become part of a rich Jewish social history, stirring up nostalgia and shaping stories. What better time to share them than Hanukkah?!