Read between the lines of an old family recipe and you’re liable to read the story of the family itself. The scrawled marginalia and cooking stains, the collective memory of shared feasts—they might as well be alleles in the genome. Maybe it’s the chicken soup your aunt makes by the gallon during flu season, or the roast your mother overcooks every Easter. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your dad has taught you the secret to a perfect Old Fashioned, which he learned from his uncle, who learned it from his bookie. For my family, the recipe that defines us as a tribe, and whose origins best reflect our idiosyncrasies, is my grandfather’s babka.
If my grandfather didn’t exist, Philip Roth would have had to invent him. Seymour Byock grew up in Newark, between the wars, during the Depression and the golden age of stickball. He left school at 13 to man his father’s soda fountain, and a few years later he married pretty Ruthie Grubstein, literally the girl next door. He was Sy to his intimates, a constituency that comprised half of Northern Jersey. He was garrulous and funny, a humanistic Jewish patriot with an irrepressible passion for food. After he was conscripted into the Second World War, a clerk at the local draft office asked if, by any chance, he had experience as a baker. “As a matter of fact, sir, I do!” Sy said. This was not, strictly speaking, the truth. But he could grill a hamburger and pour a root beer float; how hard could baking be? Uncle Sam had tossed him a life preserver and Sy intended to seize it.