Household Management

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz

A few weeks ago, the JewishGen digest had an inquiry from Karen Jo Rippens. She wanted to know the name for the soured milk which her 93 year old uncle remembered from his youth in Denver, Colorado.

This reminded me of the many items which our ancestors knew by heart and made regularly, but which are now purchased in the grocery store or which have been totally forgotten.

According to my mother, my grandfather, who was originally from Drohobycz, Ukraine, and who lived in Manchester, England, used to make smetana or thick rich sour cream not like our thin sour cream of today. He would add it generously to hot borsht, not taken from a bottle as we are used to, but homemade in his own kitchen.

Some years ago, I had the luxury of having such a tasty meal when I was in Vilnius, Lithuania. There, I had homemade borsht with bits of carrots accompanied with boiled potatoes along with fresh-made crusty thick slices of bread, and it was truly outstanding. One could certainly live on such a hearty and delicious meal.

My grandfather also used to make kalye kez or "rotten cheese" as well which was concocted with a hanging cloth bag and approximated modern day cottage cheese when finished, but with none of the 2% or 4% fat free designations that we see in the stores where we shop. He also made mead which was honey wine that was used at the holidays. His daughters also made honey cake, taiglach, and ingber for the holidays.

As was often the case, our ancestors made everything they ate from scratch including such things as challah, of course, cheese blintzes and beet borsht. It was not until the 20th Century, when many women went into the workforce and had little time to make things from scratch that eating habits changed. These well-known Jewish culinary items either fell out of vogue or were purchased at the local neighbor grocery store.

Modern conveniences for the household as well as a proliferation of grocery stores and bakeries allowed the transition from home-based cookery to one which depended on the production of many basic items of sustenance to others outside the household.

Usually, women shopped daily, at first, as they did not have the requisite refrigeration needed to keep perishables for any length of time. Many had what was called an ice box which was serviced daily by the ubiquitous ice delivery man. The wooden boxes, often made of oak, were lined with tin or zinc to help hold in the cold of the ice.

Antique Ice Box

When a safe refrigerant called Freon was discovered in 1928, it enabled the mass production of the electric refrigerator. As its use spread, women were able to shop once a week or less and no longer needed the iceman and his deliveries.

It was the neighborhood grocery stores which were the mainstay of the housewife’s management regimen. There she could get certain household items and her purchases would be put on a tab to be paid on a monthly basis. In the early years, she would shop at separate stores for her butchery, greengrocer, and other needs. Each store owner would know her and her family well, greet her personally when she arrived, and understand her requirements.

However, as time passed, from the basic corner stores which were everywhere in the larger cities and also held sway in the smaller places as well, there also grew the magnificent mega-grocery palaces of today with bright lights, wide isles, gourmet food and healthy alternatives to standard Jewish cooking.

One of these grocery chains I remember from my childhood was Food Fair and its discount child Pantry Pride which became one of the top five chains in the United States until it was dissolved in bankruptcy in the 1990’s. The chain was started by Samuel Nathan Friedland, a Russian immigrant who settled in Harrisburg, PA. Another chain started by a Russian immigrant was the Sam Seelig Stores, based in California, which later became Safeway. Started in 1912, it could claim 71 stores by 1922 and 322 by 1926 after Seelig had left the company.

An early grocery store was the Economy Grocery Stores Company founded in 1914 by Joseph Rabinovitz in Somerville, MA. This was later developed into the Stop & Shop stores by son Sydney and is now the largest food retailer in New England with 360 stores. Another regional chain, Giant, was founded in Washington, DC, in 1936 by Nehemiah Cohen and Samuel Lehrman.

Wakefern Foods, which is known as ShopRite, has become the largest retailer-owned food cooperative in the America which was founded in 1946 by Louis Weiss, Al and Sam Aidekman, Abe Kesselman and Dave Fern.

Other grocery chains started by Jews were to be found everywhere including in neighboring Canada such as the popular Steinberg’s in Quebec, Canada. Their first store was opened in 1910 by matriarch Ida Steinberg and grew exponentially thereafter, although the company name was no longer a force by 1992. Further a field, the United Kingdom’s Tesco stores were founded by Jack Cohen in 1919 and as of 2009 have 2,309 stores countrywide.

Interesting resources for information on grocery stores can be found on the following sites:

In addition to shopping for necessities like groceries, many of the household tasks that our ancestors performed such as cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing clothes and keeping the household in order, were done on a regular schedule based on shabbat and the holidays and required a good deal of organization and management. My mother remembered that on certain days the yeast would be proofed, bread would be prepared and left to rise and finally baked in the fireplace oven along with the yeast-based bobka.

On other certain specified days, the local cleaning woman would come in to help with the laundry for the eight people in the family. The smells of steaming boiling water, soap suds, starch and dripping sheets and clothing would be the order of the day in the basement and in the back yard. Laundry was the most important chore of the household and the most time-consuming and physically demanding.

The girls in the family would help to stretch out the sheets to dry and then, when dry, they would be starched and ironed wrinkle-free with the heavy iron and put on the beds fresh and clean.

Heavy iron used in the United Kingdom

On laundry day(s), the local woman would come in early and, by lunchtime, she would make herself some hot tea and pull out a big onion which had been grown in her own garden. Thereupon, she would nosh on the onion like it was the most wonderful delectable gourmet item. To finish off, she would be given a big chunk of bread with butter or gribbenes, if they were available, and that would sustain her until she left just before dinner.

As the children in the family began working, it was inconvenient to have someone come to the house, as in the past, as no one was at home. It became a trend for the sons in the family to start taking their laundry to a neighborhood Chinese laundry. The laundry provided a bag and whatever the customer could stuff into it was washed and ironed for a relatively inexpensive set price. Therefore, the family no longer depended on someone coming into the household to do these tasks.

However, when everyone married, the laundry was again done at home. With the passing of time, modernity or technological change came and wives purchased washing machines which had a mangle or metal piece with rollers which one pulled the washed wet items through to squeeze out the water from them. Later, washing machines became fully electrified and dryers came into use as well. This too cut down on the amount of work required for this most time-consuming part of the housewife’s week.

Washing Machine with Mangle, 1927

Other tasks, such as scrubbing and waxing the floors, was done on a weekly basis. Candlesticks and cutlery had to be cleaned and shined in time for Shabbat and the entire house dusted regularly. The fireplace had to be cleaned and wooden logs or coal had to be stacked and ready to use. Also, the wrought iron railings and stone steps in front of the house were also scoured weekly in time for shabbat with special cleaning stones which were known by various colors such as as white, yellow or black. The perinas (comforters) and pillows had to be fluffed and hung out to air as well. Everyone in the family had their own particular chores which were expected to be done and done promptly.

For the mother of the family, all of these tasks had to be accomplished in between preparing three meals from scratch with no microwave, frozen meals or takeout and feeding and caring for the children. Most people came home for lunch in the early days as they usually worked nearby. When people started working further away, they had to either take their food with them or purchase it on-site.

The commercial development of the vacuum flask or thermos in 1904 helped as the workers could bring hot liquids to drink or soup with them for their meal. My mother told me that she used to take a thermos to work with either hot tea or hot chocolate and have it on her break accompanied with a cheese butty (buttered cheese sandwich).

As people began to earn more, they found that they could eat out occasionally. In addition, restaurants also began to develop delivery services or take-out for their customers. This was particularly prevalent with Chinese or Italian food where it found its way first in the big cities where there were many people who were too busy to cook or might have lived alone or without the requisite family to cook for them.

All of these conveniences helped bring about modern life as we know it today, a life that has taken us far from the congenial kitchen and the many Jewish traditions which we enjoyed and were so nurturing. Perhaps that is why we look back with such nostalgia for these things that were in our youth or those of our parents, despite the hardships of those long ago days.

NOTE: If you were wondering what the soured milk was that Karen Jo Rippen asked about which I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it is unpasteurized milk left to sit unattended at room temperature and where fermentation takes place giving it a tart flavor. Sour milk which is used in cooking can also be made by adding vinegar or other such additives. As to whether it had a Yiddish name, I have yet to find it.

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