Literary Eats: All-of-a-Kind-Family

The All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor was probably among the most beloved of my childhood books.   I took them out repeatedly from the Croton Free Library, those wonderful books about the five little girls growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 1910.  As well as telling the engaging tales of the close-knit sisters, their extended family and community, the books also serve to educate on Jewish traditions and culture, and food figures very very prominently.

One day Mama takes her girls along as she shops for the Sabbath on Rivington Street.  Each daughter has a daily allowance of one penny, and there are no ends of goodies on which to spend it.  Observe, though, that these girls gravitate toward the savory snacks, as well as the sweets:

At the next corner, Henny bought a fat, juicy sour pickle with her after-lunch penny.  She ate it greedily, with noise and gusto, while her sisters watched, their mouths watering.  “Selfish!  How about giving us a taste, huh?”  Henny pretended she didn’t hear them, but before the pickle was half gone, she stopped teasing and gave each a bite.

The sweet potato man did not mind the cold.  Why should he when he had his nice hot street oven to push before him?  When Ella caught sight of him, she said at once, “Just the thing for a cold day.”  The sweet potato man stopped before her and pulled open one of the drawers of his oven.  There arose on the air such a delicious smell that Ella smacked her lips expectantly.  Inside she saw the plump sweet potatoes in their gray jackets.  Some were cut open in halves and their rich golden color gave promise of great sweetnetss.  For her penny, Ella got a large half and as she bit into it, she wondered why sweet potatoes baked at home never tasted half so good.  When she rejoined the family, four other mouths helped make short work of that potato.

Gertie turned to Charlotte.  “What’ll we buy with our pennies?”  The answer to that question was just then coming along the street.  Candied slices of tangerine and candied grapes mounted on sticks lay in rows on white trays.  The peddler stopped when he heard Gertie’s delighted cry.  “Penny a stick, little darlings,” he said.  Charlotte chose grape and Gertie took tangerine.  Thus two more pennies were spent.

“Arbis!  Shaynicke, guttinke arbislach!  Keuf meine heise arbis!”

The hot chick pea peddler was singing the words over and over in a funny Yiddish chant as he rolled a small white oven along the streets…Sarah decided to give her penny up to him.  Everyone watched as he fished out the peas.  First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven.  He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart.  He lifted the wagon cover on one side revealing a large white enamel pot.  The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon.  The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handed over to Sarah.  The peas were spicy with pepper and salt and how good they were!  They warmed up the children’s tummies and made them very thirsty.

The next day’s Sabbath dinner is, as always, a feast:  “Gefullte fish, chicken soup with homemade noodles, roast chicken, carrots prepared in a sweet way, and applesauce.”  Food and meals from other religious feasts and holidays are lovingly detailed, as are the occasional snacks the girls are treated to by their neighborhood grocer, Mr. Basch, such as  flavored soda crackers and bits of smoked lox.  At the local candy store owned by Mrs. Blumberg, sweets are sold by the half-penny, and nobody is better at pulling more fun out of a red cent than the two youngest daughters, Charlotte and Gertie.  In one of the book’s most delightful chapters (“Who Cares if It’s Bedtime?”) they buy a penny’s worth of chocolate babies from Mrs. Blumberg, another penny’s worth of soda crackers from Mr. Basch, and they hide all the loot beneath their bedcovers until lights out that evening, when Charlotte conducts a fabulous game.

…Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said goodnight to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her.

The fun could begin at last!  Charlotte directed because the game was hers.

“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.”  They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.

“Now the feet.”  That was hard.  The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.

“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.”  That was a good order.  They gobbled away.

Charlotte continued.  “A cracker now.”  They fished about in the dark.  “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”

They each took a small bite.  “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said.  “What’s yours?”

“Mine’s a ginger.  We have to nibble along the side of this piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I stay stop.”  So they nibbled and nibbled and pretty soon Gertie exclaimed, “My piece is all gone.”

“So’s mine,” Charlotte told her.  She had enjoyed nibbling so much she had forgotten to change the order.

Charlotte had lots of ideas.  With the next cracker they had to make a circling movement ten times around in front of their open mouths and then pop the cracker in.  But they were not to bite into it.  Oh no, that cracker had to be taken out of their mouths again and the circle repeated ten times.  After that they could eat the cracker as they pleased.

And so the game was played till there wasn’t a single thing left.

Illustration by Helen John, from All-of-a-Kind Family, Random House

And so through the year we follow the family through good times and bad:  holidays and birthdays; lost library books (the expense to replace it is unthinkable to this poor family, and the girls work together to find the money); a bout of scarlet fever smack in the middle of the Passover holidays (Mama has her hands full but manages beautifully); a scorching heat wave which results in a trip to Coney Island, with a picnic lunch of  “…bread-and-butter sandwiches, Mama’s kind, a slice of sour rye bread placed against a slice of pumpernickle; hard-boiled eggs and whole tomatoes sprinkled liberally with salt.”  And a surprise treat, “Store-bought cakes!  Not just plain cakes like the ones Mama baked at home for the Sabbath, but fancy ones with icing – chocolate and vanilla!”  The methods Mama uses to deal with reluctance to do chores and refusal to eat vegetable soup are both creative and strict (how many of us faced at dinner the same warmed-over bowl of soup rejected at lunch?)  At the end of the book, the family is blessed with the birth of Mama’s sixth child, a long-awaited son, Charlie.

“No matter what it’s going to be like, it’ll be all right with me,” said Ella.  “But we aren’t an all-of-a-kind family any more.”

“In a way we are,” Mama said, smiling.  “I think that means more than our having five daughters.  It means we’re all close and loving and loyal – and our family will always be that.”

Everyone agreed.  Even little Charlie opened his mouth as if he were about to speak.  But it was only a yawn.

–Excerpts from All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, Wilcox & Follett, New York, 1951


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