Last weekend in Los Angeles, Carolyn and I helped our son with a project for his summer anthropology class at Pasadena Community College. It involved a beloved family recipe and offers a lesson that should be familiar to Americans but too often isn’t.

Yosi had to make a short video and write up a report on an ethnic food. He chose potato kugel, an Ashkenazi Jewish potato pudding. He used the recipe passed down from his great-great-grandmother Chifre Horowitz to great-grandma Minnie Horowitz Finkle to my mother Blanche Finkle Perlstein to Carolyn. 

Note: In 1969, my mother flew to San Antonio to meet Carolyn. This well-dressed, opera-loving New Yorker brought her future daughter-in-law a potato grater (it’s in Yosi’s video) and a jar of schmaltz (chicken fat). My mother and Carolyn developed an instant bond.

Carolyn told the above story when Yosi interviewed us on video. I explained the family roots of the recipe and the different Ashkenazi-Jewish dishes my mother cooked. Then I videoed Yosi preparing the ingredients—potatoes, eggs, white bread to help bind the kugel, onion, salt and pepper. The kugel went into the oven.

Yosi mentioned that he had to read at least one article on the subject. He commented that other Ashkenazi Jews had the same memories of potato kugel (noodle kugel also is a great dish). I responded that our family was hardly unique. Ashkenazi Jews share many common memories and experiences. So do Sephardi (descendants of Spanish Jews), Mizrachi (Jews who never left the greater middle east) and all other Jews.

Importantly, all people cherish such memories. 

The love of cooking and eating spans every race, ethnicity and culture. The foods may be different, whether this involves at-home meals or holiday celebrations. A Passover brisket is not an Easter Ham, Eid kebab or mud carp for Chinese New Year. But food universally triggers both joy and memories. Eating Yosi’s kugel—delicious, like grandma/mom used to make—along with chicken and vegetables from an Israeli vegetarian restaurant, Mazal, I felt transported back to Rego Park in the 1950s.

Of course, we’re not bound to only our own culture’s food. Most Americans demonstrate a cross-ethnic palate even when they don’t realize the source of their meals. Burritos, bagels, pizza, dim sum and Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches represent common fare. And while differences exist, barbecue in the styles of Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Texas, California and elsewhere help us cross internal boundaries.

Debating which ethnic/regional foods are better proves pointless. Different doesn’t represent a moral judgment. Dishes we enjoyed as kids—from lutefisk (Nordic) to ribollita (Italian) and kimchee (Korean) to chopped liver (Ashkenazi—maintain a special place in our hearts. 

Yosi’s kugel ties him to past generations of Finkles (my mother’s side of the family) and Perlsteins, and all Ashkenazi Jews. His anthropology project also serves as a reminder of the diversity of Jewish cooking influenced by our living among Russians, Germans, Persians, Arabs, Indians and others. 

But always, the bigger picture comes into play.

Food, whatever the recipe, offers a taste of both of our specific heritage and also our common humanity. We’re all different just the same. Acknowledging what we share rather than our differences can widen our world and narrow barriers that too often—and needlessly—separate us. 

Order my new novel Lola Flores in softcover or e-book from Amazonbarnesandnoble.com or your favorite bookstore.

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  1. Susan E Shapiro on May 27, 2022 at 10:42 am

    What a lovely piece. Thanks for the memories, David

    • David Perlstein on May 27, 2022 at 10:55 am

      You’re welcome, Susan. Eating the kugel, Carolyn and I both were flooded with memories.

  2. David Sperber on May 27, 2022 at 11:52 am

    Great story. These memories are shared by so many of our generation.

    • David Perlstein on May 27, 2022 at 12:08 pm

      David: I’m sure that your kugel—or Mary’s—is a masterpiece. Always loved eating at Town’s End. And definitely, shared memories.

  3. Claudia Long on May 27, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    My noodle kugel comes from my friend Johanna, who used to make it for our “confused Christmas Eve.” Mostly Jews, some not, gathered for traditional Polish Christmas Eve fare: barszcz w uszkami (borscht with little ears–dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and onions), eggs, fish, fruit compote. But we needed a starch, so kugel was added, and a green salad to lighten the meal. My mother, a rare Sephardic Polish Jew, didn’t make kugel. My father’s mother, though Ashkenazi, didn’t either. But my friend Johanna did. And so it became part of our dinner at the oddest time of the year–the night before the Chinese Food Feast!

    • David Perlstein on May 27, 2022 at 2:44 pm

      So many great stories, Claudia.

  4. RONALD EATON on May 27, 2022 at 3:57 pm


    You’ve left out a whole chunk of Americana: Gentile cookery from flyover country: mashed potatoes and gravy; biscuits with butter and homemade jam; string beans with ham chunks; jello salad; macaroni and cheese; new potatoes and
    peas in a white sauce;
    and the two ever present Anglo-German staples, fried chicken and hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. America is more than the Coasts.


    • David Perlstein on May 27, 2022 at 4:15 pm

      America IS more than the coasts, Ron. I mentioned barbecue. Also lutefisk, which hails—in America—from the Upper Midwest. A guy I knew at Fort Sam Houston missed it. Your comment has been duly noted, and I will state flatly that I love fried chicken and biscuits… and my mother always had Jello among her desserts. Beyond that, sorry to have overlooked you.

      A brief follow-up (written 10 minutes after the above): You may be conflating “flyover” America with small-town America. Ethnic foods are entirely common in big inland cities from Salt Lake to Dallas to Cleveland to Atlanta. And Mexican food, including Tex-Mex and all the other variants, are staples in the smallest of towns. The majority of the nation’s citizens have some idea of ethnic/regional foods and delight in indulging. Interesting how “German” fried chicken and biscuits are integral to many African American diets, as well as mine. Urban or rural folks, makes no difference. As I wrote, “We’re all different just the same.”

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