The recipe that keeps our family together

My grandfather's babka holds the secrets to our past and gives us a way to connect, even in troubled times

Published August 16, 2011 5:32PM (EDT)

The author's grandfather, Sy
The author's grandfather, Sy

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.

A cheerful autodidact, he hastily read every baking guide he could find. Before long he was the "company baker" for an amphibious Army engineer unit in the Pacific. In 1945, when he'd been overseas for two years, the Newark Evening News announced that Sergeant Byock had been awarded a Bronze Star on account of his actions at the Battle of Cape Gloucester:

He set up a kitchen under fire on the landing beach within 24 hours after he went ashore. Served hot foods not only to his own company but also to "hundreds of other troops in the vicinity in spite of continuous heavy fire and enemy action." He also prepared and served "baked foods at a time when only the most ordinary rations were expected." And on many occasions "he left his kitchen and waded out to a landing barge to carry casualties ashore through the high surf."

Sy returned home intact and with a love of baking, one rivaled only by his love for his family. His daughter was born nine months after he and Ruthie were reunited, and a son -- my father -- followed a few years later. The Byocks moved to a split-level in the suburbs. Sy launched a small business and ran it almost single-handedly, supplying cigarettes and candy to vending machines up and down the Jersey Shore, but in his rare off hours he donned a white butcher's apron and rolled out dough. His favorite confection, and the one most beloved by those for whom he prepared it, was babka.

There are as many varieties of babka as there are bakers who bake it, but essentially the term refers to a type of yeasty cake from Eastern Europe. The name, a diminutive for the Yiddish and Polish word baba (grandmother), apparently derives from the cake's traditional plump, round shape. There are those who would glaze a babka with chocolate. In the spirit of my grandfather, who lived by the creed "It's nice to be nice," I won't mention my feelings about this practice. Some other misguided souls employ an excess of yolk, corrupting their babka into something resembling a brioche. A true specimen is bready and dry, neither dense nor overwhelmingly sweet. Cinnamon streusel clings to the top and runs throughout in a modest center vein. Babka begs to be dunked in coffee or a glass of milk. In its highest form it is roughly Bundt-shaped, though use of a loaf pan is acceptable. Raisins are encouraged.

This, anyway, is Sy's version, which he learned either from his Russian immigrant mother-in-law or from the back of a Pillsbury box, depending on which elderly relation you consult. During the war he multiplied the recipe many times over to feed his troops, and once he was home he found he couldn't bake fewer than half-a-dozen at a time. Sy possessed limited religious faith but boundless community spirit, and his babkas became a constant presence at Temple Beth El. (Surely it's no coincidence that he was elected president of the congregation.) He baked them at high holidays and low ones, for customers, neighbors, and family. Sy's babka was almost as well-known -- and well-loved -- as Sy himself.

In the late '60s, my father and Sy had a falling out. Sy didn't like my father's hair (Jewfro) or his draft status (aspiring conscientious objector). For a few years they didn't speak much. But relations thawed when my father became a doctor, and more so when he married my mother, a freckled Californian from his medical school class.

My mother is the sixth of nine children from a bustling Catholic household in La Jolla. Her parents, a pediatrician and a surgeon, were erudite and worldly and utterly indifferent to food. Meals were prepared by Mexican maids, under the supervision of my mother's stern Costa Rican grandmother, and dinners followed the midcentury fashion of utilitarian blandness: spaghetti with Durkee sauce, pre-packaged Salisbury steak. A dish of canned peas graced the table every evening and every evening it remained undisturbed. (My mother did not taste a fresh vegetable until college.) Certainly there were no baked goods in the house, unless you counted the plastic sleeves of rock-hard biscotti to which the Costa Rican grandmother was devoted. As an adult, my mother taught herself some basic cooking skills and entered an herbivore-curious phase. She once celebrated a visit from her in-laws with a supper of cucumber soup and bread, much to Sy's nonplus. She was a shiksa hippie with no meat on her bones, but Sy was bonkers about her. Here was this warm, clever Katharine Ross lookalike, and of all the men in the world she loved his son. Their marriage afforded Sy a new, more generous set of eyes through which to view my father, and an ideal proxy on whom to bestow his pent-up affection.

At the time of the cucumber soup my parents were living in Fresno. In a couple of years I would be born in that house and Sy would die there. But first he had something important to do: He had to teach his daughter-in-law the babka. This was the best way he knew to induct her into the Byock fold, and, by extension, to reinforce the tender bond with his son. He'd traveled from New Jersey with a gift for my mother, a special round babka pan with a removable base and a tall central chimney. When he arrived in Fresno he discovered that she owned neither a pastry brush nor a rolling pin, so he bought those for her too. She felt honored and bewildered in equal measure. Sy had never taught anyone the recipe, and she couldn't imagine why he'd started with her. He must've been bewildered as well. What to make of this meshuggeneh girl who, for all her brains, couldn't even roll out dough? And why was she so stingy with the sugar? If he had second thoughts about anointing her, though, he didn't let on. As a teacher, Sy was unflappably patient and good-humored, and the babka (whew!) was a success.

But the decades of gustatory indulgence had taken their toll on Sy's health. As a concession to his increasingly alarmed cardiologist, and more importantly to his wife, he swapped out half the butter in the babka recipe and replaced it with margarine. He cut back on eggs. In the end, though, his pancreas betrayed him. He became jaundiced and fatigued. He was too tired to bake and took no pleasure in eating, the once-burly man deflated, still smiling but with haunted eyes. He took a turn for the worse on a visit to Fresno. I was nine months old. With my parents' help, Ruthie nursed Sy through his final days. At the funeral, the Temple Beth El rabbi reminded the assembled mourners (as if they needed a reminder) of the babka that was "renowned from Newark to Manila, from Asbury Park to Oakhurst."

Ruthie was a widow, not yet 60 years old. She was 16 when they met, just out of high school when they married. He waited until they'd boarded the train to Florida for their honeymoon to show her his draft notice. During basic training, when he wasn't permitted to contact her, he placed some coins in an envelope along with a note: "Whoever finds this money, please call Mrs. Ruth Byock in Newark, NJ and tell her that her husband is O.K." And then he dropped the weighted envelope from the window of an Army bus as he was being transferred between bases. (Someone called!)

Since Sy's discharge from the Army, they hardly spent a day apart. The tenderness and indulgence of their courtship never really flagged, though Ruthie's capacity for carping would surely have tested a less besotted spouse. Baking was the currency of their affection. Her specialties were apple streudel and cinnamon rugelach ("ruggies" in the Byock vernacular). Never babka, though. She must've watched him do it hundreds of times but she didn't ask to learn and he never offered. To bake a babka would have been as unthinkable for her as driving Sy's step van to the Monmouth Racetrack to service a cigarette machine. He had his jobs and she had hers, and each enjoyed the fruits of the other's labors.

And now he was gone. And how humbling to have to ask your daughter-in-law to teach you your own husband's recipe. That's exactly what she did, though, about a year later, on another visit to my parents. By then she was just beginning to emerge from the chrysalis of her grief. To hear my mother tell it, there wasn't much to teach; Ruthie had seen it made so many times she practically had a muscle memory of the steps. She didn't need a lesson, she just needed permission, someone to tag her into the cosmic babka relay. Your husband is O.K.

From then on, there was no question but that it was Ruthie's babka. With her children grown and no career to distract her she became even more prolific than Sy. She toted babka to every social call, no matter how tenuous the acquaintance, and every medical appointment. Babka became the currency with which she repaid people and kept them in her debt. When I was growing up, she never came to visit without at least half a foil-wrapped loaf packed in her carry-on, and she would typically bake another during her stay. Having made it her own, she began to futz with Sy's version. The result, reproduced here, is a palimpsest of changing tastes and customs, of illnesses and deaths and love. Embracing both modern efficiency and Depression-era frugality, she favors a loaf pan over Sy's Bundt-like mold, "because it is easier to slice, and there is no waste." (Google was no help in my quest to visualize a "gugglehaupt pan.") Golden raisins are specified in deference to a certain picky granddaughter who refused to eat the brown ones. And the margarine represents a kind of magical thinking, a false talisman of longevity.

Ruthie died in 2003, of a heart attack. My mother is the last surviving babka maker. "Sy saw me as the best bet to pass it on to future generations," she told me recently. "I guess I've kind of let him down in that regard." Neither my sister nor I have ever made a babka. My sister doesn't relish kitchen work; as for me, I suppose I blame the inertia of family dynamics. For now, at least, babka baking is still my mother's job. It's my job to clean my plate and ask for seconds. Sometimes a recipe will skip a generation, like a cleft chin. But maybe my children will inherit it from their grandmother. And maybe you'll make it for your family. If you do, though, feel free to forgo some of Ruthie's embellishments. Use real butter and whatever color raisins you prefer, and for God's sake don't stint on the streusel. "I learned from the master that a real babka cannot coexist with notions of dietary prudence," says my mother. She still makes it Sy's way every Christmas, when our whole eccentric clan -- my long-divorced parents, my French-Canadian stepmother, my sister, my father's sister, my WASP husband, an old family friend from Bogota, and me -- convenes around a Douglas fir with a bagel on top.

Lila Byock has written for The New Yorker, and Mother Jones, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Please tweet photos or descriptions of gugglehaupt pans to her @LByock.

By Lila Byock

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