"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Lost. So what if I have long-lost relatives with histories I’ll never know? Lost forever are the deepest roots of my father’s side of the family tree. How careless we were with stories never told, photographs never taken, holidays never shared, recipes for life never tasted. Hard as it is to imagine, I have first cousins in California I’ve never met. (Hazel, Rozelyn, Sandra, where are you?)
This is not a lament. Growing up, I had all the privileges of a tight-knit family. My sister and parents, my grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins all lived in close proximity in Cleveland. That’s just it. Like so many assimilated Jewish families — orphans of history — we had no family history to speak of beyond our grandparents’ generation.
This little I know: My ethnic origin is Russian. There were pogroms. There was revolution. There was a great-aunt imprisoned in Siberia, and no doubt there was high drama in my grandparents coming to America at the turn of the 20th century. After all these years, all I’ve gathered is that my maternal grandfather was around 14 years old when he emigrated to this country with his older brothers. He was a tailor, a union organizer, a leader in the Cleveland community. But I never knew him. The only grandparent I had was my grandmother who came to America at an undisclosed age, a baby in her mother’s arms. (The family was from Riga. Latvia? Or Russia? Who knows what their ethnic origin was.) In the kitchen? My grandmother broke every kosher rule in the book. With delicious results.
So. You want roots? You plant yourself firmly where you want to grow. You want tradition? You start one yourself. You want memories? You improvise, you explore, you celebrate and create memories of your own. Really, isn’t this what all generations must do?
And so I made my own magic this week: rattling in the kitchen at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 15. Taking out baking pans. Preheating the oven. Rolling pastry dough. Chopping nuts and raisins. Slathering jam. Making Russian tea biscuits. In memory of my grandmother. In celebration of a birthday. The birthday of my first grandchild.
So! Now that I’m a brand-new grandma, Russian tea biscuits are the most natural “grandmotherly cookies” I know. Not to be mistaken for the more familiar powder-sugared Russian tea cakes, also known as Mexican wedding cakes, Russian tea biscuits look like giant rugelach. Rolled like a strudel, not as rich, nor as sweet and flaky as the cream cheese pastry of classic rugelach, the dough is cookie crumbly, almost like a scone. Truly a “hybread.”
Searching for Russian tea biscuits, you won’t find them just anywhere. While their origin may be Eastern European, I’ve found no place that makes Russian tea biscuits better than Lax & Mandel Kosher Bakery in Cleveland, Ohio. Lax & Mandel opens after sundown every Saturday, to bake through the night for the Sunday morning rush. If you go there around 11:30 p.m. — you’re in for all manners of treats hot out of the oven. But the best of all, and worth every bite, are the tea biscuits, either fruit-filled or the chocolate nut variety. I’m sure my grandmother made her own version of this scrumptious pastry, but I can’t recall it, so wistful and vivid is my memory of Lax & Mandel and the wonders of their Russian tea biscuits fresh out of their yeasty night kitchen.
Is your mouth watering? Based on a recipe I discovered in “Five Star Sensations: Compiled and Edited by the Auxillary of University Hospitals of Cleveland” — here’s the best I can do for you:
Russian tea biscuits
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)